What rankings really reveal

Plus a bold new vision for post-school education

Iced in Adelaide

First Education Minister and South Australian MP Chris Pyne took the ice bucket challenge (CMM yesterday) and now University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington is stepping up for a sluicing this afternoon – but who will he challenge to carry on? Fellow VCs David Lloyd (UniSA) and Michael Barber (Flinders) have got to be obvious candidates.

Devils in data, angels in analysis

Policy analyst Andrew Flitman has dug deep into the big three university rankings and come up with a comparison of the seven Australian universities (the Group of Eight, except Adelaide) among 192 around the world for which there is complete and comparable data from the three main ranking providers. This is wizard wonkery of complex data from the Academic Ranking of World Universities, The Times Higher and QS. Dr Flitman’s work certainly provides a sense of how measuring university output depends on the inputs. According to Dr Flitman, he and his colleagues at consultants PhillipsKPA, “used simulation techniques to provide range of rankings for the 192 institutions. Each simulated ranking took a random subset of the input factors … and applied random weightings. The results were then graphed and tabulated. This provides key information regarding confidence intervals for rankings and the relative standing of institutions.”

But for all the warnings in the world about rankings, people at the University of A will always wonder how they are going against those bounders at University B and Dr Flitman does provide information for the seven to dissect, both on their international standing and domestic comparisons.

Thus he states that at 95 per cent confidence level the seven rank as follows among the world wide 195, ANU between 18-63, Monash 33-130, Melbourne 16-48, UNSW 30-130, Queensland 26-82, Sydney 22-91 and UWA 35-124.

As for the continental derbys, there are enough pair rankings for most institutions to find good news. although there are standouts. The stats state that there is a very good to definite chance that the University of Melbourne outranks all others with ANU following. At the other end, all outrank the University of Western Australia, with Monash just ahead.

Does any of this matter? Quite a lot – granted the analysis depends on the raters’ data, which is always in debate. The patterns Dr Flitman has found reflect the general sense of who rates where. “There is good useful information contained within the rankings, we just need to see it,” he says.

What a week

Talk about an abundance of delights. It’s Skills and Training Week, as well as National Literacy and Numeracy Week! Ye gods, these confected occasions are too much ignored without their competing against each other. That the former is the creation of Ian Macfarlane’s Department of Industry and the latter is brought to us by Christopher Pyne’s Department of Education might have something to do with the clash. Perhaps the government needs to create a national Worthy Week Accreditation Authority to allocate which causes get what days. Or maybe Mr Pyne could take over and appoint a committee of the usual suspects to recommend leaving it to the market. Agencies could bid for the rights to have a week of their own. As for these two, surely literacy week needs to go the seven day skill celebration.

Debating on the barricades

Students protested outside the University of Sydney meeting on deregulation last night chanting, according to student newspaper Honi Soit, “this is not a consultation.” Perhaps not the most inspiring slogan. They were surely happier by the end-just about all the speakers opposed deregulation.

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Big and blue sky

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research has published the outcomes of a roundtable of unnamed higher education, training and industry experts, which sets out an alternative vision of higher education. The timing could not be worse, what with the Pyne package in parliament this week – one reform at a time people. However the report puts issues on the table that transcends deregulation and merit a decade of debate.

This is big picture, blue-sky stuff – the biggest and bluest, contemplating a complete transformation of post school education. The paper proposes a further two years of education after Year 12 in which students would variously undertake occupational training, prepare for further professional education or undertake the preliminaries for study in research universities.

It is an extraordinary ambition, but as the report points out it addresses the same credentialism that undermined the status of “applied advanced learning,” that the Martin Report, the canonical source of Australian higher education governance, identified in 1964.

“The Martin Report aimed at lifting the standing of more applied advanced learning. Its implementation was stymied not only by the hierarchy of prestige within tertiary education but also by entrenched occupational status. Today, the push coming from occupations to increase entry-level credentials and the emphasis being placed on diploma-level qualifications as pathways to degrees rather than reputable qualifications in themselves reduces the attraction of the paraprofessional jobs.”

But research matters most

Not if there was parity of esteem between research and teaching. The NCVER report proposes funding, “the research infrastructure of designated research units across the tertiary sector” but also providing “explicit funding for quality tertiary teaching that supports the scholarly practice in which all teachers should engage and includes a focus on new ways of delivery, be these MOOCs, software applications or simulations.” The report acknowledges that this could deepen the research-teaching divide but ignores the inevitable and almighty blue over which institutions would get the elite research units.

More is better

Charles Sturt University has signed an MOU with Sri Lanka’s General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University covering teaching “customs and border management”. According to Universities Australia figures it adds to the 8300 other MOUs in place.

Anyone remember competencies?

Twenty years ago the idea of codified competencies in vocational, and some hoped, professional education was briefly the go – until VCs from universities in what is now the Group of Eight knocked it off, suggesting ordinary Australians were trained, gentlepersons were educated. But the NCVER report suggests that it is time to encourage competencies. “That industry and the professions have a role to play in shaping tertiary education is a given. The problem seems to lie in the over-prescription of standards, which quickly ossify with the changing nature of work and the economy. That should not, however, cast doubt on the underlying principle of competency-based education, which has, for example, underpinned much of the work of the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition … that principle, infused with a commitment to adding an element of liberal education to skills instruction, could serve the system well. However, to engender trust across existing tertiary institutions, it must urgently adopt a more rigorous — and graded ― assessment process, one based on external moderation and validation.”

Release by stealth

There are a bunch of equally big other ideas in the document, enough for a decade of debate. Which might mean releasing it now is not such bad timing. If the university lobbies were not so focused on Canberra today they would want to kill it immediately.

Wrong word

Management at the University of Western Sydney is irritated indeed at an unauthorised edit in a direct mail shot for Open Day. Apparently an external provider inserted “an incorrect word” in an approved proof. “This is very disappointing and has had a negative impact on the university’s reputation and we are working with the supplier to come to a solution to address the issue,” DVC Rhonda Hawkins told staff. I have no idea what “the word” is but I’m guessing it is not a spelling error.

 

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au