Universities must be brought to book on funding

Universities must be brought to book on funding, by Adam Creighton.

For waste and perverse incentives it’s hard to go past [Australia’s] 39 universities, which, recent events notwithstanding, wallow in billions­ of taxpayer dollars.

As productivity growth and graduate starting salaries stagnate, it’s time to question whether reforms­ to higher education have worked in the interests of tax­payers and students.

They’ve certainly worked in the interests of universities, whose swol­len bureaucracies have be­come­ ground zero for highly paid BS jobs in “strategy, engagement, culture” et cetera. Almost 60 per cent of the 120,000 staff at our universities are administrators, rather than teachers or researchers. …

For all the deluge of public funds, little was done to ensure quality control. Many academics concede privately that standards have fallen — grade inflation is rife and there is pressure to pass stud­ents, especially from overseas.

That’s not surprising given more of the population is being pushed into university education, when the students and the economy might be ultimately better served by an alternative vocational career. …

The government should oversee a standard set of tests accessible to all that people could use to demonstrate their literac­y and numeracy to employers — and far more cheaply and quickly than slogging through a three-year arts degree.

University is mainly about signal­ling one’s ability to employers compared to others, and too often not about learning anything vocationally useful. Employers can’t simply ask job candidates how good they are.

Sure, students with degrees tend to earn more than those ­without them, but that has little to do with what they have actually been taught at university. Anyone can sit in university lectures, for free, and binge on knowledge for as long as they want. But without the piece of paper at the end, it’s all, vocationally speaking, a waste of time. …

Outside narrow disciplines such as medicine, it’s hard to see how much of what is taught at universi­ty today is useful for any occupation. The vast bulk of graduate jobs, which are typically white-collar, require skills that are learned on the job. …

Especially as the economy turns down, we can’t afford to keep mindless shovelling scarce resources — both money and people — at universities.

Health, education, research (e.g. the CSIRO), public broadcasting, etc — all eventually were overrun by bureaucrats, by administrators who don’t (and can’t) actually do the job of the organization. These administrators end up running these organizations, and are often paid far more than the people who do the actual work. But they generally foul up the organizations, making them less effective over time, because they don’t actually know how to do the job at hand. And maybe they are more interested in their personal rewards than the mission.

These bureaucrats have mastered the latest buzzwords, dress smartly, and are very good at spin and low level politics, so of course they must be in charge and get more rewards. How did these organizations ever once get by — for decades — without so many administrators? By sheer coincidence they were more effective organizations back then — due to unspecified mitigating factors, for sure. The administrators will be happy to bore you to tears buzzwords and vacuous explanations … just ask them.