Educating Rita (and the rest of Australia)

Australia’s education sector was disrupted by a strike yesterday. The issues are arcane to the outsider, mostly to do with old fashioned industrial relations, be that as it may most academics went on strike. After all, there’s a ‘crisis’ on, you know…

The ‘crisis’ in Australia’s university system is actually real, a point that I didn’t realise until the other day when Michael Jennings made a point in the comments to this post

Just out of interest, at the (solid, mid ranking) Australian university I was an undergraduate in in the late 1980s and at which I did some lecturing in 1998, standards in engineering courses had clearly declined over that period. At least, they had in electrical engineering, which was the field I saw closely.

I was perturbed to hear this; I don’t give a fig for standards in the ‘humanities’ but electrical engineering is a serious business.
It is not often that I sympathise with the denizens of academia but I feel for them on the topic of standards. Australian universities are being pulled in two directions.
In the first place, academics by their nature seem to me to be keen to uphold and improve the standards in their discipline. This is especially the case in scientific disciplines, where standards are easy to measure. It is not so easy in humanities disciplines. How, exactly, is one to measure the standards of this year’s history students work, as compared to last years? Is this year’s leading work of history really as good as the work that was written ten years ago? These measurements must be subjective.
That is not to say that most of the people in the humanities are not devoted to higher standards of scholarship. I would suggest that they are.
These impulses towards ever higher standards are counteracted by two factors, which work in Australia’s university to pull standards ever lower, and which the academics are powerless to stop.
The first factor is the decline in standards in the High School system, which means that entrants to the universities are coming in with lower skills in crucial areas, like mathematics and literacy. I managed to leave High School in 1988 with a passing knowlege of reading and writing, but some of my contemporaries were barely literate. It would be terrifying to think that standards are any less in the last 15 years, but such would seem to be the case.
Even 15 years ago, I managed to get out of High School with no serious mathematical abilities beyond simple arithmetic. Serious mathematical ability, which is vital to those wishing to do anything in engineering or computers, eludes me.
So the incoming raw material that enters our universities are not as well equipped as they should be. This leads to the second factor- the political imperative to ensure as many students as possible are accepted in the university sector, and pass their exams.
So there is a political factor involved. This is understandable, as taxpayers do fork out a lot of money to Australian universities.
It would be a different matter if Australia had a network of privately funded universities. It is often alleged that private universities would be even more keen to degrade the value of their degrees, in order to attract more students. Such an approach makes no business sense, though, as such degrees would quickly become worthless. It is notable that private IT certification vendors, like Microsoft and Cisco Systems, are quite demanding of their students, and are keen to protect the status and value of the certifications that they offer.
The day might come where other industries start to offer their own private qualifications in their field, in response to the decline in standards. Already, demand from employers for employees with advanced degrees suggests that standards from Australian universities might have already dropped below ‘critical’.
It is often alleged that this is a ‘result’ of ‘lack of funding’. But it’s not. It’s a result of a decline in standards, and that is a political issue.
But you wouldn’t expect high standards from a government owned car company. So it’s surprising that people in Australia DO expect high standards from a government owned university system.



  1. Niall

    I don’t believe you can compare knowledge required in monitoring a robot in production line manufacture to that required to undertake a Computer Science degree.