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Our unis are failing the quality test

27 June 2015 166 views No Comment

The people who run universities bang on about excellence but the fact is university standards are plummeting. And it’s a national disgrace.

This is connected to the fact an increasing number of students, from Australia and overseas, are functionally illiterate in terms of their use and understanding of Eng­lish. This is exacerbated by the fact that, once they are accepted for tertiary study, students are no longer required to think for themselves and often have no passion for the subjects they are studying. Add to this the fact there are far too many universities with resources spread too thinly to do a proper job.

Recently there also have been complaints about soft marking by the army of casual staff, who often are poorly paid, professionally insecure part-timers. They are under increasing pressure to roll up the bottom end of the bell curve to pass students so university profit margins and their own slender chances of an academic career are not jeopardised.

Without a considered response from our legion of overpaid vice-chancellors, these complaints place at risk the credibility of Australian universities at home and overseas. It is simply not good enough for our gaggle of VCs, who rule their fiefdoms like corporations, to blame the government for not giving them more taxpayers’ money.

A “brand management approach to falling academic standards is one answer.

Such an approach begins by recognising Australia has been investing in universities since the University of Sydney was founded in 1850. After 165 years of investment, it is time more clearly to segment the Australian university brand in much the same way the car market is segmented into luxury brands such as BMW and utility brands such as Holden.

In particular, if they want to make their brand internationally competitive, the Group of Eight universities need to stop being coy and actively claim their status as luxury brands.

Brand marketers see Australia sitting on an export goldmine, but many of the people in charge, vice-chancellors on inflated salaries, have only the foggiest understanding of marketing and quality control. They could learn a lot from Barnaby Joyce and Australia’s food industry, which has done the hard yards to establish quality-control mechanisms that ensure worldwide recognition of Australia as a brand that is clean, green and safe.

Brand management needs some sort of reputable standardised quality assurance. A higher education ‘National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy’ with the Australian Council for Educational Research doing the technical groundwork may well fit the bill.

This would add credibility to the University Experience Survey and to the Good Universities Guide with which free marketers are already familiar.

A Uni-NAPLAN — top-rank marketers no doubt would find a better abbreviation — would need endorsement from some of the key professional bodies and from, say, Dr Karl, a couple of Nobel prize­winners and a bevy of hard-hitting academic leaders from big-gun universities in the US and Britain.

Adding some price segmentation to the product, with different price bands for online only, online and campus mix, and pure campus degrees, also might help the brand. The UES could assist, particularly by sorting out those rented CBD office mini-campuses from real, infrastructure-rich, student campuses.

A free market for university fees also would help. The bottom line is that everyone would know the best brands and punters would be willing to pay top dollar for a high-class tertiary education.

However, the brand management approach to quality control has some real downsides — most importantly for the sort of quality that interests me, namely scholarship and high academic standards.

The brand approach inevitably will focus universities on activities that teach students how to play the testing game rather than those that help students to think for themselves about what they are learning and, as important, to produce new ideas.

But there is an alternative.

It was used when I was an honours student at Monash University in the 1960s. At the end of each year there were examinations that undergraduates had to pass to qualify for entry to the next year. The final exams at the end of the last year, often coupled with a written thesis, were also key components in deciding not only whether students received an honours degree but also whether it was first class, a second, all the way down to a third — which was little more than a pass degree.

These were the days of supervised examination, and grades awarded were subject to independent external validation by highly qualified senior academics who confirmed that the marking was up to scratch.

During the past 40 or 50 years we have seen competitive end of year exams count for less as they have been swamped by group assessment and continuous assessment, which are easily susceptible to being bought or cribbed online.

Group assessment requires the marker to divine who did and did not do what. Online and offline continuous assessment tests, tasks and essays are typically completed without invigilation. There is thus no certainty about who is completing the assessment. This is because students can get or pay someone else to write the assignments or they can cut and paste from the web.

At minimum, this culture of continuous assessment not only provides very weak quality controls but also does not encourage students shouldering for themselves the risks and freedom of driving their own thinking and learning. The situation is exacerbated when the need to protect university profit margins becomes the overriding priority.

The declining academic standards of our universities are rightly in the spotlight of public concern. Yet there is no clear leadership from our vice-chancellors, most of whose attention appears to be concentrated on sourcing government and other funding.

It is time for these vice-chancellors to share with us their considered proposals about how to improve academic standards and to support Australian degrees with a much-needed quality guarantee.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, June 27-28, 2015, Inquirer p 24.

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