Quick Post: It never rains but it pours in research policy

I’ve been very busy, Internet.  I’m sorry.  But check out my other project: re-Constituted.  It’s all about constitutional law and legal theory.


Many people assume that because they work at a university or study at a university, they have some pretty cool ideas about higher education policy and research policy.  Whenever we sit in a hospital waiting room, trying to work out what might have caused all this bleeding, we start to think that there must be a better way to organise a hospital.  Of course, we know that hospitals are fantastically complex, that medicine is beyond our understanding, and the intersection of health and economics so baffling that we could never really be sure if our crash hot, pain relief-induced policy ideas are actually worth hearing.  Nobody thinks the same way about a university.  Universities would be so much better if Blah happened, or Bleh happened, or if rolling grants came in or if rolling grants went out, or if teaching was all done by monkeys with organ grinders, or if…

It’s rare that there are so many entrants to the field of university policy at once, but this last fortnight has been absolutely lousy with people having a red hot go at being a policy wonk.

It started with Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute.  He released a report, The cash nexus:how teaching funds research in Australian universities.  The report argues that less is spent on teaching than is raised in teaching revenue and, therefore, the surplus is spent on research, and that less is raised for conducting research than is spent on conducting research and, therefore, teaching subsidises research because there is no other pot of funds available to account for the gap.

Do the assumptions actually stack up?  Data from eight universities was used to establish one of the pillars of the argument; there are 43 universities in Australia.  I’m not sure that there are many people who honestly think that universities are sufficiently similar to make grand generalisations.  I couldn’t quite follow how much Norton thought was spent on the business of being a university (lights, buildings, admin, &c., &c.).  At one point, the report attributes ‘the value of staff time and overhead expenses to research’.

But, ultimately, nobody really cared about the assumptions.  This was the amazing bit and revealed so much about higher education policy.  When the report came out, Universities Australia said: ‘See?!  This is why we need more funding for research!’  If the report had found the opposite, Universities Australia would have said: ‘See?!  This is why we need more per-student funding!’  No matter what the report said, it would have been used to argue that universities need more funding.

There were two real problems with the report.  The first was the suggestion that universities should do more to account for their revenue and expenditure.  Universities should be able to trace each dollar that comes in from source to final expenditure.  Nobody needs to micromanage universities to that level.  The second problem, linked to the first, was that funding raised by students should be spent only on students.  The attitude is that universities are service providers who need to efficiently deploy their outputs with low margins.  Which is nonsense.  If I’m in a low cost course paying high fees, what do I care if I’m subsidising students who cost more to educate?  This is the closest you’ll ever get to hearing me say ‘I don’t mind paying for STEM’.  I shouldn’t have the attitude that the money I spend on my education should benefit me and only me.  We shouldn’t encourage this sort of narcissism.

ARC results came out! Woot woot wooooot!  The Australian Research Council is a terrible organisation that should be shut down and I also hope that it funds my very good project on economics and law.  Let’s run through why it’s a terrible organisation: it externalises the cost of the government’s research policy to universities.  For every dollar that a university receives in research funding, there’s an expense that the university invested in obtaining it.  When the success rate for a scheme is too low, that means the net cost to universities to get the research income was higher.  But then why are we spending taxpayer money to tell the government how to allocate more taxpayer money?  That’s absurd.  Better to dissolve the ARC and just hand the cash over to the university sector to allocate it to worthy projects as it sees fit.  The ARC is basically a government vanity project to quantify how much the government really does love research.

So sledging the ARC is pretty much the easiest thing you can do in research policy.  It’s so bad.  It’s almost impossible to be wrong when you say it’s crap and needs to be abolished.

And yet our finest STEM minds found a way to be wrong while criticising the ARC.  The Conversation has been pretty much unreadable for a number of years now, but it went full emeritus last week when it published the bellyfeel intuitions of three scientists about what was wrong with the ARC.  Their complaint is difficult to follow, but it rolls like this:

  1. If you include all Chief Investigators (and not just the lead Chief Investigator), old men are over represented.
  2. This is because the selection criteria is skewed towards old men… or something.
  3. ???
  4. Therefore, the ARC is risk-averse and isn’t funding innovation.

The first statistic is probably wrong.  I would wager my back teeth that old men are over represented in the unsuccessful applications as well.  That’s because old men are over represented in everything to do with the university sector.

In many ways, universities are extremely superstitious.  If Professor Xavier wrote an application in purple font and was successful last year, you can be sure that a lot of young Dr McCoys will be writing their applications in purple font this year.  Applicants are trying to predict what sort of applications are ‘fundable’: what are the hallmarks of a good application?  Does the ARC want to see applied research, or are they okay with theory?  What about Australian studies?  Vanishingly small sample sizes are used to make sweeping comments about what the ARC will fund.

So applicants will put what they think the ARC wants to see: old men.

It’s not completely crazy because the applicants are also from the same pool of people who assess the applications as external reviewers.  Are the external reviewers more likely to rate old men higher than other categories?  Does it depend on the identity of the external reviewers?  Are old men more likely to rate other old men more highly?  Do they want to see younger researchers be more successful?  Unfortunately, the ARC is so stingy with its data that we’ll never know if there are systemic biases involved with the process.  We can’t even know how many old men are involved with the process to know if old men really are more likely to be successful in applications.

And then we’ve had a return to the conversation about the value of the lecture.  I am actively looking forward to my first day of lecturing in legal theory.  I just can’t wait.  So it’s sad to read the ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) arguing that the end of the lecture is upon us.  Her argument is that two-thirds of students aren’t rocking up to most of the lectures and aren’t even listening to the audio recording.

When discussing this post, I mused on how thoroughly difficult it is to be a student today.  You’re studying a full-time load but the government doesn’t think it’s worth paying you enough in support to ensure that you don’t also have to work insanely long hours as well.  We have students who are weighing up whether it’s worth their time to attend a lecture or work another shift so they can afford rent.

At the same time, why do we still have lectures?  Why put students in the same room as an academic to have them listen to the academic for two hours straight?  In the humanities, the value for me has always been to see somebody put together an argument about the material: you’ve done the reading and now here’s how you can use it in creative, innovative new ways.

When leaving a lecture one day, I bumped into a classmate who had skipped the class.  His reasoning was that the material covered in that class wasn’t going to be on the exam next week, so his time was better spent studying for that exam instead.  Attending lectures is now about passing exams rather than getting exposure to the best and brightest minds using the latest and greatest research insights.

I wonder the extent to which the statistics in the blog post represent the way we, as a society, don’t really value education.  Rather than sounding the death knell for the lecture, why aren’t we discussing ways to make lectures more worthwhile?  Mind!  I don’t mean: ‘Let’s innovate and make lectures high tech through flipping the learning experience and multimedia and 3-D printers and shit.’  I mean: ‘How do we convince students that there’s more to education than just getting the degree?’


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “Quick Post: It never rains but it pours in research policy”

  1. How do we convince students that there’s more to education than just getting the degree?’

    I’m not sure you can. The bachelor degree is now a pre-requisite to so many jobs and career paths. Many students are just there so they can get qualified and get a job. You can of course argue about the role of the universities in vocational education, but I think the cat’s out of the bag now.

    The saying “Ps get degrees” didn’t come from nowhere.

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