I recall very clearly when a fellow pupil in year seven at my school asked our maths teacher,  “are we too competitive?”

It was a philosophical comment about our school – which was highly competitive, with maths streams, in particular, finely graded.

We all stopped learning maths and took time to discuss the question.

I feel that education has become more competitive, as has academic life, and research funding.

But even back then, when school children never thought about being tutored or coached, when university students weren’t assessed along the way but only faced the (very great) pressure of exams at “finals,” when universities had full tenure cultures, and when at least some research was stably funded by the institution through non-competitive processes, it felt pretty competitive.

Now, I think things are more competitive. In part, this arises from an attempt to provide and allocate opportunities and resources more broadly. To move towards a meritocracy. No one would argue that we have arrived at a meritocratic nirvana but the absolute number of opportunities to finish school, to go to university, or to do research, have increased. At the same time the number of applicants has increased even more – so it is more competitive.

Way back at school my maths teacher had the final word in the discussion – “yes, we are competitive”, he said, “…because life is competitive.”

But is that the final word? I have thought about it ever since.

Can’t we be more collaborative? Can’t everyone share? Do we have to have winners and others who miss out?

Sometimes there does have to be a winner and a loser.

Two people can’t win an election!

Many of the competitive processes – that allocate finite resources – are essential. Even though they cause some stresses and anxiety. All are imperfect but at least some are impartial and thus difficult to corrupt.

I think there will always be some aspects of competition in life. And some competitions can be fun and can bring out excellence (like the Olympics). But we should try to limit the frequency of competitions. I don’t think that we need the stresses of the Olympics too often – once every four years is enough. Having butterflies in our stomachs every day cannot be good for mental health.

We could also limit situations where performance is finely graded. If one needs a skill – like changing a bicycle tire – then test that, and test again if it’s not right the first time, but don’t grade it out of ten and add it to some indelible ledger of life.

The other option – and it is really just a way of thinking – is to judge as much as possible by the best aspects rather than by the worst. Ideally, this can result in a sort of “relative to opportunity” assessment. Though I concede this approach would render “one hit wonder” bands – like the Knack – equivalent to the Beatles.

I was taught – when judging a CV, or even a research grant – to look at the best things and the greatest outcomes that might be achieved, rather than fixating on minor errors or occasional lapses in the direction one passes the port. I keep wondering at the wisdom of publishing F grades on student transcripts.

Taking a more positive approach ultimately supports experimentation and risk taking and also reduces pressure. We know that some Australian students decide not to study advanced maths or Mandarin at HSC because it might drag down their overall ATAR score. Systems that only count the best few subjects, rather than every subject, support intellectual exploration.

Judging the best three achievements rather than aggregate totals, can be also more inclusive. When assessing research grants the top five papers can be more important than total publications and this mindset also works against temptations to publish many, minor papers.

Personally, I was schooled in a sea of competition. The competition did drive excellence – of a sort. It also sent an important message that opportunities were there to be won. It suited me and I guess the system was built and perpetuated by others who fitted into that world. But looking back it is clear it was not the only way of doing things and it is not a way that suits everyone.

Every now and then I wonder if I should rebel and strive to be the least competitive person in the world.



Prof. Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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