“Golden child and forgotten progeny”: Productivity Commission on university research and teaching

The Productivity Commission questions the culture of Australian higher education in a scathing analysis of universities emphases on research in a new discussion paper.

“Notwithstanding the critical role of their teaching function, universities tend to give pre-eminence and prestige to their research functions. Most academics are hired for their research capabilities and have less intrinsic interest in teaching,” the PC claims.

Students paying for research that is of little benefit to them more closely resembles rent extraction by universities,” the Commission adds.

And the Commission slams university teaching cultures and outcomes, independent of yet to emerge results from demand driven enrolments, pointing to employment outcomes and attrition.

The PC also anticipates responses that surveys show undergraduates are happy, arguing; “Australian student surveys suggest while most students are satisfied with overall teaching quality, a more forensic examination of student attitudes makes this overall finding somewhat inexplicable.”

The Productivity Commission also proposes performance measures for universities, including the use of consumer law by students who can make a case they received a substandard education. And it calls for reward and punishment metrics, not unlike the ideas raised by Education Minister Simon Birmingham;

“one model of ‘skin in the game’ is to impose a penalty on (or provide a bonus for) a university that achieves poor (good) outcomes for its students as a group. This could be targeted at the extent to which a university added value to the labour market outcomes of students or achieved broader, non-labour market social objectives. Sophisticated statistical analysis across universities could, in principle, identify the extent to which universities’ actions affect outcomes, which could be the basis for rewards for good (or penalties on poor) performers.”

And just to ensure that its proposal is uniformly unpopular,  the PC suggests that funding lost by one university for poor performance not go to ones with superior outcomes, as the government suggests. Instead, it be used to compensate students who received poor services.

Other observations that will infuriate the orthodox include:

*  “there is not a persuasive case for requiring high-quality institutions to conduct research alongside teaching in order to use the title of ‘university’.”

* “with cross-subsidisation, universities have strong incentives to churn out domestic and international students undertaking high-margin courses to maximise the revenue available for research. This is exacerbated by the cost structure of university teaching, as many courses have high fixed costs, whose impact on average costs can be minimised by increasing student numbers.”

There is more, much more, but perhaps the suggestion that will sting for elite universities who market on the way they prepare students for global leadership is the suggestion that they merely work with what they are given;

“Given the lack of any direct link between teaching ability and research output, the research-based prestige of a university is largely irrelevant to whether the student was taught well. Instead, much of the enhanced social-standing and improved employment outcomes more probably reflect the academic preparation of the students attending.”


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