This being the ‘silly season’ here in the Southern Hemisphere, the national broadcaster, with most of its talent taking long vacations, is filling the airwaves with replays of old shows.
One of which, a documentary about how the universities’ need for the money provided by foreign students has compromised assessments and caused falling academic standards in the nation’s universities, I happened to catch last weekend.
And I’m glad that I did. For although the programme suffered all of the usual problems attending the visual medium – exclusive focus on anecdotes and selective, argument-supporting evidence rather than data selected from a broad group with the intention to minimise bias, focus on ‘colour’ and drama rather than the usual stodge which passes for life in a university – it allowed me to crystallise an insight in my mind.
And the insight was:
All parties in the transactions – the students, the pre-admission training institutions, and the universities themselves -are pretending.
The overseas students are pretending to be sufficiently fluent in English to qualify for university admission are pretending to the universities.
The organisations which claim to have trained these students adequately for university admission are pretending to the universities.
The universities are pretending to the students that they are educating them.
The universities are pretending to employers that they have educated the students to a level commensurate with the qualifications that they have awarded to the students.
The students are pretending to employers that they have received an education commensurate with the qualifications given them by the universities.
The consequences for the universities, for the students, for employers and for the employers’ clients are predictable and terrifying. Just as the bloke who’s accredited nurse fed him washing liquid, because, despite having ‘passed’ a university nursing course taught and assessed in English, he couldn’t read the product label on the detergent.
Now, think more widely: would you like these ‘graduates’ to be providing maintenance on the aeroplane that you’ll be boarding next time you fly? Or maintaining water quality at your region’s dam?
The cause of the problem is, as is often the case, a principal-agent problem created by misaligned incentives and asymmetric information.
- The universities have an interest in maximising their revenue. In a perfect system, revenue would be positively correlated with the prestige of the university – the quality of the research and teaching provided by the academic staff, the quality of graduates. For example, the ivy league institutions in the US, and of Oxbridge in the UK, are able to convert their prestige into income through being able to charge a premium for their courses, and through benefactions from alumni who have grown wealthy partly because of having received accreditation from a prestigious institution. However, in the current Australian system, where universities’ need for income is dire, the administrators are willing to sacrifice the long-term prestige of their institutions for cash provided by foreign students, whose most attractive quality for the universities is not their academic ability (which in many cases is negligible), but their willingness to pay.
- Employers have been for the most part willing to trust the universities’ ability to provide honest assessment and accreditation of the graduates who come looking to them for work. The universities’ lowering of academic standards, and willingness to compromise their reputational capital in return for cash, is causing problems for employers, who are discovering that a qualification from Chemical University is no longer an indicator of achievement and knowledge – but only after problems of quality and safety have arisen in their workplaces. In this way, the universities’ prioritising cash over academic standards is creating problems for others, which is rebounding on them in a rapid erosion of the reputational capital which had been built so painstakingly and at great cost over hundreds of years.
This can only end badly. Universities with poor reputations, employers not trusting the qualifications awarded to prospective employees, thus increasing their costs of doing business, and graduates wondering why, after having paid so much, they have received a sub-standard education and employers are sceptical of hiring them.
On the other hand, this misaligned incentive structure, and the cash poverty of the universities, are a result of vested interests – most especially the academic and student unions – preventing reforms which would benefit the universities and students, but which are anathema to the collectivist and cultural=marxist ethos that they carry. I wouldn’t mind if the costs of this stubbornness and mindset-blindness could be confined to the universities, but because of the role of universities in providing society with trained experts, it cannot help but impose costs on the rest of us.
Sydney philosopher David Stove’s observations about his university’s Arts faculty, made thirty years ago, can also apply here:
The Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.
To those interested in clear thinking and good decision-making, the situation indicates the need for decision-makers to create incentive structures which encourage behaviour conducive to desirable outcomes, and the pernicious influence of vested interests, which, in a democracy, can only be overcome through reasoning and coalition-building, or else bucketloads of money.
Update, 28 January, 2015: I thought this comment summed it up perfectly: