Managing teaching?

Michael Jackson, University of Sydney

With each new minister of higher education comes a new review and reform of higher education with no reference to previous reviews and reforms. After less than one year in office, Minister Brendan Nelson has launched Higher Education at the Crossroads. Crossroads rounds up the usual banalities about the importance of higher education, but makes clear that there will be no additional public funding for universities. Why? Because universities are inefficient. The evidence of inefficiency is the number of degrees with few enrolments. I will argue below that the real inefficiencies lie elsewhere. Silence from the Opposition suggests bipartisan agreement on higher education funding.

Crossroads comes after the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) last year launched the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA). In 2004, AUQA will audit the University of Sydney’s quality by focussing on management processes. Think of it this way: Every member of a firing squad may shoot the victim, but AUQA only looks at the processes of training, monitoring, and benchmarking that managed the firing squad, not the result. Only process counts, not performance.

What is the purpose of such an audit? It may be to assure those to whom Australia exports higher education that it is a good investment, despite decreased funding. The approach is all stick and no carrot, and the unintended consequences may undermine the terms of trade of Australian higher education, as I argue below.

Silence from the Opposition suggests bipartisan agreement.

The Minister will release discussion papers on aspects of higher education to stimulate debate. One of these is Striving for Quality: Learning, Teaching and Scholarship. I predicted at the 2000 Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Forum that higher education policy would enter the classroom. There is the knock at the door now!

Striving notes several times that Australian universities accredit themselves. That is, they are independent of government. As much as DEST might like to accredit (read control) Australian universities, it recognises that universities themselves are too hard a target, so Striving shifts its sights to teachers and concludes that they should be accredited. The PhD is not enough! The paper implies that all 30,000 teaching staff at Australian universities be subjected to mandatory teacher training. (One imagines enthusiasm for this proposition throughout Faculties of Education.) To test whether teachers get it right, Striving also proposes national skills testing of all university students on admission and graduation. The final ingredient in the mix is to make teaching-only appointments. It is too hard politically to wind back the clock to the binary system and to confine research to some universities, so the proposal is to confine it to some individuals by designating some staff at each university as teaching only, and others as teaching and research. ‘Doing so will raise the status of teaching’, says Striving. Hardly! For many scholars teaching is a necessary task to support research. Many who teach conscientiously would rather do less of that and more research. Moreover, those honoured with the designation of teaching-only would likely be loaded with ever more teaching. Readers, you and I know that such a distinction means a flight from teaching. This obvious reality is unknown on planet Canberra. The Law of Unintended Consequences will apply here with force.

The AUQA audit and the Crossroads review are currents in the river of reviews and reforms of Australian higher education. Reviews and reforms that are drowning the system. They are efforts to impose management on universities, but training teachers, writing objectives, developing teaching plans, merging departments, using web sites, and auditing each other will never be meaningful if the overall effect is to demean, dishearten, and devalue the teachers. Teachers must be well compensated, encouraged, supported, and most importantly, freed from bureaucratic harassment that meets the career needs of managers but not of students or teachers. We know in a thousand ways that good teachers identify with their teaching and their students and infuse themselves into both. We can easily make good teachers into bad teachers by driving wedges of reporting, monitoring, and training between themselves and their teaching. Managers can create bad teachers by distinguishing between teaching and teachers, as if the former exists to be managed without the latter, a distinction alive in many universities. This distinction is the thin end of the wedge between teachers and teaching.

Managers can create bad teachers by distinguishing between teaching and teachers.

It is political logic, Mr. Spock! If third year elective units of study enrol 250 students, the political solution is to train teachers to cope with 250 students, to police the teacher into doing that with skills testing of graduates, and to deprive the teacher of professional mobility by disallowing research. It is not political logic to increase funding to bring down class sizes. The national average staff student ratio has increased from one to twelve in 1988, to one to twenty in 2001 (Karmel 2001). The University of Sydney says its 2002 staff student ratio is one to fifteen. That is an average, and one suspects it an underestimate. Table 1 shows a selection of faculties. The Faculty of Economics and Business figure of 21.0 remains the highest in the University; Arts and Law are the next highest. While this figure is moving in the right direction, much damage has been done and it will take time to undo it. Those teaching in 1997–1999 in Economics and Business had a great deal of skin abraded and it will grow back only slowly, but Striving never looks back to context, only forward to dreams.

Table 1
   1997   1998   1999   2000   2001 
Arts 16.0 16.9 18.3 19.3 19.9
Economics and Business  29.1 28.9 30.4 26.2 21.0
Engineering 14.2 13.2 13.8 12.0 10.1
Law 16.9 17.2 17.3 18.6 18.2
Science 13.6 14.5 15.9 15.9 15.1
Conservatorium of Music 6.6 6.8 6.9 7.6 6.3
Education 12.1 12.4 12.4 14.0 9.8
University 13.7 13.9 14.7 15.0 13.9

Nor does Striving stop to consider Australia’s capacity to recruit and retain teachers and researchers from overseas with the 57 cent dollar and these other constraints. Equally, it neglects the brain drain of teachers and researchers, though Canadian universities have been recruiting from Australian universities for some time. At a time when Canberra speaks of globalisation, Striving treats Australian universities as though they exist in a vacuum.

Striving is a bid by DEST to reassert control over higher education by regulating teaching and teachers. After the ritualistic acknowledgments of the variety and difference of Australian universities, institutional autonomy is ignored, leaving one size to fit all.

Australian higher education has been subject to repeated reviews and reforms since the late 1980s when John Dawkins let the genie out of the bottle (Wood & Meek 2002). The stated purpose of these reviews and reforms is to improve higher education. They have patently failed to do that; else we would have no need for further reviews. Since the average tenure of a minister in the higher education portfolio is two years, Australian higher education must be a contender for the most often reviewed and reformed system of education in the world. Yet nothing ever changes. By their own logic, reviews and reforms fail; yet they persist.

Michel Foucault (1977) argues that failed practices persist because they make interesting work, in this case, for the reviewers and reformers. The reviews and reforms are not means to ends, but rather they are ends in themselves. Reviews and reforms satisfy the needs of reviewers and reformers, starting with a minister who has to be seen to be doing things to be visible in the dappled political light of Canberra. Who says theory does not reveal practice?

Australia's export of higher education cannot last.

The real problems of Australian higher education are so sacred that they cannot be named. Australia has too many universities and is producing too few children to justify them all in the future. These are the real inefficiencies, but they are unmentionable. Why? Because the geographically isolated universities are the largest employers in the constituency of a backbencher and because the universities threatened by the declining birth rate are also major employers in constituencies. I am referring to such universities as the University of New England, defeated by rural demographics. I am referring to the oversupply of universities in Perth (University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, Edith Cowan University, and Curtin University of Technology, along with the private Notre Dame University of Australia). The University of Sydney, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of New South Wales are within a few kilometres of each other in Sydney. Melbourne has five universities. No minister will ever be hell bent on reform enough to allow such universities to fail in a deregulated market. The rhetoric of deregulation will remain coupled to the reality of regulation.

Internationally, Australia’s export of higher education cannot last. Universities in Japan, Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and China are more resource rich than, say, the University of Western Australia, often cited as the best endowed of Australian universities. Rich as they are, those Asian universities have little autonomy. They are creatures of governments. Table 2 compares three markets for higher education. Australian universities are attractive because though they are poor, they have the freedom to make the best use of their material and intellectual resources. That means many things, from pursuing research that government might not like, to teaching in innovative ways. It means, for example, unfettered access to the Internet and web for students without government censorship.

Table 2
   Resources   Autonomy   Cost 
Australia  Poor Free Low
Asia Rich Fettered Low
U.S.A. Rich Free High

That freedom together with low cost makes Australian higher education a good buy. That can change if regulation increases in Australia and decreases in Asia. There are signs of change in both places. A few Chinese universities are now recruiting worldwide and offering conditions of employment good enough to attract applicants from North America, and not just those of Chinese descent. DEST is willing to undermine our competitive advantage to satisfy its own needs. I fear that what DEST proposes will sound good to the Chancellery because it will provide much interesting work to its members, too.

In truth this DEST Crossroads is another Canberra detour around the real problem that Australia has too many universities, which largely repeat rather than complement each other. Do we really need thirty-nine chancelleries with thirty-nine vice chancellors, more than 100 deputy and pro vice Chancellors, and hundreds of deans? Well, it makes interesting work for a lot of people. While standing at this false crossroads, DEST ignores the changing mix of resources and freedom in its export market for higher education.

One thing, however, seems likely: there will be a new minister of higher education within two years, and that minister will launch another review and reform of higher education.


Foucault, M. 1977, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon Books, New York.

Karmel, P. 2001, ‘Public Policy and Higher Education’, Australian Journal of Management, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 124–143.

Wood, F. & Meek, L. 2002, ‘Over-reviewed and Underfunded? The evolving policy context of Australian higher education research and development’, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 7–25.

Dr. Michael Jackson is a professor of political science and Associate Dean (Undergraduate) in the Faculty of Economics and Business, The University of Sydney.

View other articles by Michael Jackson: