Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why universities are failing: 3. Inequality

Stephen Parker, outgoing Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra has just published an insightful two part article in The Conversation. Stephen is impressive in his systemic insights; he took a principled rather than self-seeking stance to proposed Higher Education reforms when Tony Abbot was PM and Christopher Pyne the Minister.  In his own account of his lone stance he has said:

"Christopher Pyne and I were on diametrically opposite sides over the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill and its associated Senate Committee inquiries, so the reader needs to interpret my comments in this light. 

Minister Pyne repeatedly said I was the only one of 41 “vice-chancellors” who did not support his reforms.  In the House of Representatives he was critical of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, implying that its findings were biased because I was in charge of the university in which it was housed.  Even Tony Abbott acknowledged subsequently that NATSEM was one of the best-regarded modelling organisations in the country. So I guess I do have a starting point in this analysis!

I believe Christopher Pyne’s failed attempts at higher education reform is almost a textbook example of how not to get complex and controversial reforms through the Australian parliament. The Coalition did not control the Senate and did not spend time getting to know the people who held the balance of power.

The proposal to cut 20% funding to universities, partly to save money and partly to extend Commonwealth Supported Places to private higher education providers and sub-bachelor places, came out of the blue and flagrantly breached pre-election promises that there would be no cuts to education and no change to university funding arrangements."

In this instance the sites of failure were government policy, the way policy was enacted and pursued  as well as a failure of principled solidarity amongst Australia's VC cadre, or as Stephen Parker described it, loss of moral compass.

Now Parker has mounted the argument that Australian universities exacerbate inequality. His ideas were first presented as a paper at the TJ Ryan Foundation, Brisbane on the 16th February. The mechanism he identifies is this:

"The better your parents are educated, the more likely you are to graduate from university. Simon Marginson, in line with other studies, estimates that a young person in Australia is 4.3 times more likely to participate in tertiary education if one of their parents was tertiary-educated than a young person whose parents had less than upper secondary education.

If the economy increasingly rewards graduates, and only 30% to 40% of young people go to university, then over time they will tend to move ahead of the other 60% to 70%.

Thus, income inequality increases, with the affluent accumulating more property and superannuation, which they pass onto their children, so that wealth inequality increases."

His argument rests on the contention that Universities are failing to help "distribute more evenly the spoils of higher education and disrupt the patterns of inherited advantage, which increasingly divide society."

In his subsequent article he elucidates 10 ways that Universities could redress rising inequality. Together they constitute a systemic response.
  1. Can the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank): "To expect a single index to capture a person’s achievement to date and their potential for a particular course of study is simplistic and reductionist."
  2. Re-cap the undergraduate domestic system [i.e., HECS places] and divert the savings to effective access measures to redress disadvantage and raise aspirations and confidence.
  3. Experiment with alternative routes to material success by loosening 'the tight grip that a bachelor degree has as the route to success and instead encourage alternative kinds of institutions and a fresh focus on new pathways such as higher apprenticeships.'
  4. Reward “learning gain” or “distance travelled” i.e., there is no attempt to reward the value added to the student; no exit assessment that allows comparison with entrance assessment. So to offer universities an incentive to do so, funding should be partly based on “learning gain”.
  5. Have a massive program to encourage mature age (25+) students to go to university; "There is plenty of evidence that it works and changes lives, giving people a second chance at overcoming disadvantage."
  6. Take a holistic approach to the education system; "we need to develop a more integrated sense of the education system, from kindergarten to doctorate"
  7. Urge employers to change their recruiting practices;
  8. Require particular professional degrees to be graduate entry only "we need to consider requiring all elite, high-demand professional degrees to become postgraduate."
  9. Urge professional bodies to justify current educational requirements;
  10. Have a serious chat with philanthropists 
Are there more criteria and actions? I feel sure there are, and fostering inequality is, as my recent Blogs begin to illustrate, only one of the ways universities are failing. I find it particularly pleasing that Parker points to the evidence of the social gains that can be made from policies and arrangements that support life-long learning.  Also that he draws on the German experience of an interconnected, viable and effective yet differentiated HE and VE sector.

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