Teaching teachers who don’t teach

Campus Morning Mail Summer Edition

Clive quits

Macquarie University is losing its executive dean of science, well-regarded medical physicist Clive Baldock. He announced his resignation on Monday in an email that is as polite as it is uninformative – and its courtesy is considerable. “As many of you are aware I have been on leave since the end of last year. After much consideration I am taking the opportunity during this period to extend my time overseas to attend to personal matters. To this end I have informed the vice chancellor that I will not be returning to Macquarie and will be leaving the university, effective from 31 January 2014. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support over the past 18 months and wish you the very best into the future.” So what is going on (and no, that is not rhetorical)? Well-placed people say the news was a surprise.

Christmas truce concludes

Now I know we are getting back to business. At the University of Western Australia a protected ballot is underway for National Tertiary Education Union members to vote on industrial action. The union wants a resounding yes. Management’s pay offer is less than those adopted at Curtin and Edith Cowan and the university will not talk about workloads, the union says. Even worse, the comrades allege; “senior management at UWA have indicated to the NTEU that our members will not take industrial action and due to this, management do not need to consider any implications.” Sounds like a blue the union needs, and expects, to win.

And the envelopes please

The Academy of Science announced its award winners yesterday, singling out geophysicist Professor Kurt Lambeck from the Australian National University, for the Matthew Flinders Award for physical science.
The other 21 mainly work at establishment institutions. ANU (three) the universities of Sydney and NSW (two each) and the U of Q (two) lead the field with Griffith the only campus outside the Go8 to have two winners. The only other universities with honoured staff are Swinburne and Murdoch. From the research institution sector scientists at Walter and Eliza Hall, Peter McCallum, CSIRO and the Melbourne Botanic Gardens got gongs.
One notable award went to Professor Chris Turney from UNSW who received the Frederick White Prize, “for scientific achievements contributing to the understanding of natural phenomena.” Professor Turney was last in the news for his Antarctic expedition, which was rescued earlier this month when it got stuck in ice.

Just like the old days

A veteran observer of the Molonglo mandarinate adds to yesterday’s note on the elevation of Robert Griew to oversight all things higher education. In fact Mr Griew is returning to an old (very old) stamping ground. Back in the ‘80s he worked for the Commonwealth on child care, aged care and indigenous health and with now department heads Jane Halton (Health) and his present boss Lisa Halton.

Welcome Mr and Ms Chips

Despite all the ire about ATARs, their use as a proxy for quality in teacher education will not go away. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli explained why in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, “Mr Piccoli said the main factor damaging the status of the profession was ‘the perception that anyone can get into teaching’.” The teacher education establishment can explain all they like why entry marks don’t matter, so can critics of the way universities game entry requirements. But the ATAR is like league tables, a measure the community easily understands and which is hard for universities who look like they accept “anyone” into teaching degrees to dismiss. It is why Charles Sturt University is so smart in proposing school principals assess prospective teacher education students with low ATARs. And it is why University of Sydney VC Michael Spence bought into the argument yesterday suggesting universities have a right to educate aspiring teachers as they see fit and education ministers are entitled to hire who they want. It was an argument that only a VC from an in-demand university could make, a point Dr Spence discretely alluded to, “the standard of teaching degrees is critical, and it is clear that teacher education courses do vary considerably, both in the way they are delivered and in the attributes of the graduates they produce.” It is also an argument from a VC who I suspect can see the potential in the existing argument for government to regulate both the content of teacher education degrees and who gets to study for them and who does not like either prospect. But what of teaching graduates who do not make the cut, well not to worry, education degrees cultivate the general skills all sorts of employers value! “Many employers are becoming more interested in a potential employee’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and adapt and solve complex problems, rather than his or her specific field of study. These are the generalist skills that good teacher education and other university programs develop,” Dr Spence suggests. Or, alternatively, an education degree means unemployed teachers know how to get people to sit up straight before ordering fries.

Degrees don’t deliver in tough times
And on the subject of graduates whose investment in education does not deliver consider recent research  from the New York Federal Reserve  by Jaison R Able, Richard Deitz and Yaqin Su on unemployment and underemployment among US graduates since 2001. Yes, they argue that over-time graduates do ok on both employment and type of work however, “it has become more common for underemployed college graduates to find themselves in low-wage jobs or to be working part-time”. The authors don’t know if this is due to structural change in the US economy or the compounding impact of a tough decade. And they argue that in the long term “many” graduates transition into better jobs. But, and it strikes me as a big but indeed,  “recent research suggests that those who begin their careers during such a weak labor market recovery may see permanent negative effects on their wages.” In the absence of a recession (almost) in the lifetime of many Australian university students this does not apply to us – yet. But as the per centage of graduates increases and when the economy finally stops growing we will face the same problem as exists in the US -where the sovereign power of higher education to improve lives is not trusted as it once was.  And then what will the boosters who suggest employers value graduates for generic skills say? They surely will not be quoting the US experience, where the US Census Bureau reports that over half of 2009-2011 business, liberal arts and hospitality graduates (among others) are working in jobs that do not require a bachelors degree.

No bonus benefits

As to bonus marks for ATARs perhaps it is time to accept they have not delivered on the original idea of compensating people for the impact of disadvantaged backgrounds and crook schools. The case is certainly made by Deakin academics Trevor Gale and Stephen Parker in a  report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the UK Office for Fair Access last October, which did not get the attention here it merited (unless of course I alone missed it and thanks to the reader who pointed me at it). They argue schools that aren’t disadvantaged demand coverage for their kids and schemes expand into incentives to study specific subjects for prescribed degrees (maths for engineering). “In fact, this practice tends to be in direct conflict with equity principles as the preferred subjects are those at the higher end of the curriculum hierarchy, which are mostly studied by high SES students. Adjustment to ATARs for multiple groups also tends to shift cut-off scores upwards, diluting the effect for target groups,” they write. Sure, we all have heard it before but it is especially stark when spelt out.

From Adelaide to the emerald city

The University of South Australia has leased commercial office space in flash North Sydney, but to do what? I doubt it’s to teach the men’s health courses that riled people last week. Perhaps somebody told them Sydney real estate always rises. Whatever, it’s a long way from the city of churches and the Sydney higher education market isn’t exactly empty.

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