Tuesday, September 19, 2017

We've turned Australian universities into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students (?)

As an economist, Ross Gittins often has substantial things to say.  But as a Leftist he is also a compulsive moaner.  So the points he makes below are cogent but most of them are disputable.

The one area wherein I agree wholeheartedly with him is his condemnation of relaxed assessment standards for overseas fee-paying students.  This practice is, I think, still a minority one but will surely be a big negative eventually when our universities send home to Asia students whose knowledge and skills don't match what is on the pieces of paper we give them.  It devalues our degrees.

Gittins may also have half a point in saying that Lecturers are poorly paid.  In my day we were paid well above average and there does seem to be some slippage from that.  But with salaries closing in on $100,000 pa it's still a long way from  poverty.  Many junior software engineers get about that and they are undoubtedly bright sparks.

And Gittins again has half a point in saying that tenure is now harder to get.  I was appointed with tenure, a rare thing nowadays. But there has to be a balance.  Tenure protects divergent thinking but it also promotes laziness. Once you can't be fired, why work?  I suspect that the delayed granting of tenure that we now see is not a bad balance.  It ensures that for at least a large part of one's academic life we do some work.

But his other points are contentious.  Recorded Lectures are bad?  I would think they are wholly good.  They relieve students of the pressure to take notes, though they can still take notes if they want or need to.  There was only one course I did in my undergraduate days in which I took notes.  Otherwise I concentrated on listening instead. And I am sure I learnt far more that way.  My grades certainly did not suffer from it.

"Overcrowded" lecture halls?  I don't know what he is talking about.  A lecture hall is not a high school classroom.  In my academic career I often fronted up to a lecture in an auditorium with 1,000 or more students in front of me.  And I was able to allow students to interrupt with questions.  So I would think it was a poor lecturer who couldn't handle that.

He says that universities put too much pressure on academics to do research.  I would say that they do too little.  There are now whole tertiary institutions which devalue research.  And many lecturers in all institutions do little of it. But it is only by doing research that you get a real hold on knowledge in your selected field.  You cannot be at the cutting edge without doing your own research.  Otherwise you are just reading the conclusions of others.

But in the end, Gittins's big beef is that the present system of running our universities amounts to a sort of "privatization", which is of course anathema to Leftists.  I think he should throw off those ideological blinkers and look at what is actually happening.  He looks at that so far only "through a glass darkly"

Of the many stuff-ups during the now-finished era of economic reform, one of the worst is the unending backdoor privatisation of Australia's universities, which began under the Hawke-Keating government and continues in the Senate as we speak.

This is not so much "neoliberalism" as a folly of the smaller-government brigade, since the ultimate goal for the past 30 years has been no more profound than to push university funding off the federal budget.

The first of the budget-relieving measures was the least objectionable: introducing the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, requiring students – who gain significant private benefits from their degrees – to bear just some of the cost of those degrees, under a deferred loan-repayment scheme carefully designed to ensure it did nothing to deter students from poor families.

Likewise, allowing unis to admit suitably qualified overseas students provided they paid full freight was unobjectionable in principle.

The Howard government's scheme allowing less qualified local students to be admitted provided they paid a premium was "problematic", as the academics say, and soon abandoned.

The problem is that continuing cuts in government grants to unis have kept a protracted squeeze on uni finances, prompting vice-chancellors to become obsessed with money-raising.

They pressure teaching staff to go easy on fee-paying overseas students who don't reach accepted standards of learning, form unhealthy relationships with business interests, and accept "soft power" grants from foreign governments and their nationals without asking awkward questions.

They pressure academics not so much to do more research as to win more research funding from the government. Interesting to compare the hours spent preparing grant applications with the hours actually doing research.

To motivate the researchers, those who bring in the big bucks are rewarded by being allowed to pay casuals to do their teaching for them. (This after the vice-chancellors have argued straight-faced what a crime it would be for students to be taught by someone who wasn't at the forefront of their sub-sub research speciality.)

The unis' second greatest crime is the appalling way they treat those of their brightest students foolish enough to aspire to an academic career. Those who aren't part-timers are kept on serial short-term contracts, leaving them open to exploitation by ambitious professors.

However much the unis save by making themselves case studies in precarious employment, it's surely not worth it. If they're not driving away the most able of their future star performers it's a tribute to the "treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen" school of management.

But the greatest crime of our funding-obsessed unis is the way they've descended to short-changing their students, so as to cross-subsidise their research. At first they did this mainly by herding students into overcrowded lecture theatres and tutorials.

An oddball minority of academics takes a pride in lecturing well.

Lately they're exploiting new technology to achieve the introverted academic's greatest dream: minimal "face time" with those annoying pimply students who keep asking questions.

PowerPoint is just about compulsory. Lectures are recorded and put on the website – or, failing that, those barely comprehensible "presentation" slides – together with other material sufficient to discourage many students – most of whom have part-time jobs – from bothering to attend lectures. Good thinking.

To be fair, an oddball minority of academics takes a pride in lecturing well. They get a lot of love back from their students, but little respect or gratitude from their peers. Vice-chancellors make a great show of awarding them tin medals, but it counts zilch towards their next promotion.

The one great exception to the 30-year quest to drive uni funding off the budget was Julia Gillard's ill-considered introduction of "demand-driven" funding of undergraduate places, part of a crazy plan to get almost all school-leavers going on to uni, when many would be better served going to TAFE.

The uni money-grubbers slashed their entrance standards, thinking of every excuse to let older people in, admitting as many students as possible so as to exploit the feds' fiscal loophole.

The result's been a marked lowering of the quality of uni degrees, and unis being quite unconscionable in their willingness to offer occupational degrees to far more people than could conceivably be employed in those occupations.

I suspect those vice-chancellors who've suggested that winding back the demand-determined system would be preferable to the proposed across-the-board cuts (and all those to follow) are right.

The consequent saving should be used to reduce the funding pressure on the unis, but only in return for measures to force them back to doing what the nation's taxpayers rightly believe is their first and immutable responsibility: providing the brighter of the rising generation with a decent education.


British schools break law on religious education, research suggests

More than a quarter of England's secondary schools do not offer religious education, despite the law saying they must, suggests research given to BBC local radio.

The National Association for RE teachers obtained unpublished official data under Freedom of Information law.

It says that missing the subject leaves pupils unprepared for modern life.

But the main union for secondary head teachers said many schools covered religious issues in other lessons.

"They might be teaching through conferences, they might be using citizenship lessons, they might be using assemblies," said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

By law, RE must be taught by all state-funded schools in England, with detailed syllabuses agreed locally.

NATRE says the FOI data, gathered by the Department for Education in 2015 but not published until now, showed that, overall, 26% of secondaries were not offering RE lessons.

Among academies, which make up the majority of secondary schools, more than a third (34%) were not offering RE to 11 to 13-year-olds and almost half (44%) were not offering it to 14 to 16-year-olds.

The Coopers Company and Coborn School in Upminster, Essex, is an academy which bucks the trend. As part of a GCSE in RE, students have been studying religious festivals and teacher Joe Kinnaird believes the subject is vital. "RE in schools provides the best and the perfect opportunity to explore those issues which students see in in the wider world," he said.

"RE and philosophy provide students the chance to explore fundamental questions such as what happens after we die, does God exist, how do we cope with the problem of evil? "These questions are both philosophical and ethical and the RE classroom is where we can explore these issues."

His pupils agree, with one, Lisa, saying: "Not being religious myself, I think it's really interesting to learn about other religions, other cultures, I feel like it can be vital in life to understand other religions."

Her classmate, Benjamin, said that not being taught about religion could result in people being "heavily influenced by what they find on social media".

Fellow pupil Luke added: "Once you're educated about a certain religion you actually know the true meanings of it.

While for Nicole, better religious education could help cut the number of racially and culturally motivated crimes.

"Religion affects politics, so you have to think of it that way. It's really important to know the diverse cultural traditions of other people because it's really relevant today," she said.
Not religious

Fiona Moss of NATRE said too many schools were "breaking the law", resulting in pupils "missing out on religious education".  "It means they are not religiously literate," she said.

"They don't have the opportunity to learn about religions and beliefs, to learn what's important to people or to have the chance to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values.

"It's going to be important for them to understand what people believe they think and what encourages them to behave in the particular ways that they do.

"We're not teaching people to be religious. We're teaching children about religions and beliefs that exist in this country.

Ms Moss said the data showed a shortage of specialist RE teachers throughout the state system.

"If you are an academy, there's a freedom about how you can teach RE and I think some schools struggle with that freedom and think they don't have to be as committed to RE. "They're under financial pressures and maybe this is an easy loss."

Different faiths

But Mr Barton called the idea that schools were deliberately breaking the law "a real oversimplification".

"It might result from the report trying to find a very traditional delivery model of RE. Or it could that they find it hard to recruit an RE teacher, for example, and most head teachers would agree they'd prefer to have provision which is better quality, taught by other people in different ways, if they can't get specialist staff."

A Department for Education spokesman said the government firmly believed in the subject's importance.

"Good quality RE can develop children's knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries, and foster understanding among different faiths and cultures.

"Religious education remains compulsory for all state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, at all key stages and we expect all schools to fulfil their statutory duties," said the spokesman.


Increasingly, foreign students are choosing Canada over US

Melanie Backal grew up in the bustling capital city of Bogota, Colombia, but for college she wanted to try something new. Her parents told her she would have a chance at a better future if she went to school abroad, and she agreed. She wanted to apply to Harvard.

Then Donald Trump got elected president. Suddenly the United States didn’t seem so appealing.

“All the things he said about Latinos, and everything that’s going on there, I decided to not take a risk,” said Backal, a first-year student at the University of Toronto.

The United States has long been the top destination for foreign students who go abroad for college, but a record number are now choosing Canada instead.

Some reasons are longstanding — fear of gun crime in the United States and cheaper tuition up north. But the 2016 election, and with it Trump’s travel ban and what many see as the demonization of foreigners and immigrants and a new wave of racism, has created a post-Trump surge at Canadian colleges.

At the University of Toronto, the number of foreign students who accepted admissions offers rose 21 percent over last year, especially from the United States, India, the Middle East, and Turkey. Other universities across the country also saw record increases in the last year.

“If you look at the trajectory, clearly Brexit, Trump, things that have been happening in the last year or two — that sense of instability — it’s contributed,” said Richard Levin, the registrar at the University of Toronto, Canada’s most elite university.

The increase is not all because of Trump. Canada has made international student recruitment a national goal to spur economic growth. It now has 353,000 international students and wants 450,000 by 2022. But the political uncertainty in the United States — as well as in the United Kingdom — has given Canada’s effort an unexpected boost.

Overall, the number of international students in Canada has grown 92 percent since 2008. They now make up 1 percent of the country’s population.

By comparison, the United States has about 1 million foreign students and a population ten times that of Canada.

The number of foreign students in the United States has been growing for years, but last year it grew at the slowest rate since 2009.

It is not necessarily the idea of Trump as president that dissuades foreign students from studying in the United States, but the tumultuous climate his election ushered in. High school students in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Iran, and beyond are reading articles about the country and it concerns them.

“I didn’t feel like it was a welcoming atmosphere anymore for an international student,” said Christian Philips, a first-year Toronto student from Egypt. “I wasn’t thinking about Trump or other politicians — I was thinking about people’s perception of me.”

Even before foreign students arrive in Canada, many find it more welcoming than the United States. The paperwork to obtain a study permit is simpler, they said, and unlike in the United States, they can stay and work in Canada for three years after graduation. They also have access to the country’s national health care system.

Once the students arrive, they tend to feel at home in diverse Toronto, a city of 2.8 million where half the population was born outside Canada.

It’s normal to see people in head coverings or hear people speak with an accent. Real estate prices in Toronto are skyrocketing, but neighborhoods of all socioeconomic levels are ethnically diverse.

Located in the geographic heart of the lakeside city, the University of Toronto campus mirrors that diversity.

“My English isn’t the best,” said Backal, the Colombian student, standing in a group of Canadian first-years at a hamburger truck on a recent Friday. “People don’t laugh at me; they help me, they correct me in a friendly way.”

Philips, from Egypt, said he hasn’t felt the subtle hostility in Canada that he has experienced in the United States or the United Kingdom, the kind he says is hard to describe but present nonetheless.

Students from abroad now make up about 20 percent of the University of Toronto’s 71,000 undergraduates. The school wants to keep that percentage steady but diversify the countries they come from. Right now, two-thirds are from China.

Cost is another reason students choose Canada over the United States. International student tuition is much higher than the bargain rates Canadians pay, but it’s often still cheaper than in the United States or the same price for a more prestigious program. Canada also allows some students with Canadian family members to pay local rates.

An engineering undergraduate program, for instance, costs about $11,707 (in US dollars) per year at the University of Toronto for Canadian students. A nursing degree is around $7,033. Political science is about $5,240. Those same degrees cost about $41,574, $38,446, and $36,842, respectively, for foreign students.

The costs do not include housing. A dorm plus a meal plan in Toronto costs $8,000 to $15,000. By comparison, a year of tuition plus room and board at Boston University costs about $67,000. BU is also ranked 11 spots below Toronto on the US News world rankings.

Admissions criteria can also make Canadian universities a more appealing option than US schools. Students are not required to submit essays or references or do interviews. The school admits them based only on high school grades and test scores. Most international students from outside the United States do not have to take the SAT.

Many international students also have parents with Canadian citizenship or an aunt or uncle in the country, making the international transition easier.

That was the case for Maryam Hosseini and Dorsa Fardaei, two first-year Toronto students from Shiraz, Iran. They know the stellar reputation of US colleges, but they have negative perceptions of the country.

“I feel like it’s really unsafe,” Hosseini said, sitting on the steps outside the campus’s main lecture hall with her friend, on a break before their linear algebra class. “This is pretty exaggerated, but I feel like if I go in the [US] streets, I feel like someone is going to take out a gun and shoot someone.”

Hosseini completed her last two years of high school in Canada, and in 11th grade she competed in an international math competition in Pennsylvania. She planned to compete again in 12th grade, but by then Trump had been elected and she heard on Canadian radio about hostility toward Muslims in the United States. She stayed home instead.

As Hosseini told that story, Fardaei piped up. She has her own US anecdote. Once she was in a New York City airport with her family and some friends. The friends told them to stop speaking Persian so no one would suspect them of being terrorists.

“That was really bad,” she said. In Toronto, meanwhile, she said her friends ask her to teach them Persian words.

The university has specific strategies to help students adjust. During the first week of school this month, the Centre for International Experience led campus tours for international students, to show them where to sign up for health insurance, where to get study help, and where to find a place of worship or a cheap restaurant. The center’s lobby was lined with students who came to sort out glitches that inevitably arise with visas, health insurance, or class registrations.

The day before fall classes started, students paraded through the city streets decked in school colors, then swarmed the campus’s central green for an activities fair with an ice cream truck, bouncy room, and dunk tank.

Students from afar were crowded in with those from Canada, all the subject of enthusiastic recruitment for the Mahjong Society, the Immunology Students’ Association, the Korean Outreach Volunteering Association, and other clubs.

The scene resembled something from a state school in Florida or Michigan, but at the same time blissfully removed from the tense atmosphere felt on some US campuses.

While the Canadian government has seized on recruitment of foreign students — and encouraged them to work in Canada after graduation — as a way to strengthen its economy, US universities have felt compelled to issue public statements assuring such students that they still have a place on their campuses.

“We respect people from all nations, cultures, background, and experience and welcome them to join our community,” the president of Bunker Hill Community College wrote in a letter signed by the leaders of all the state’s community colleges last month.

Higher education experts in the United States have noticed students avoiding the country, and they are worried.

“This has been one of our concerns,” said Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, an organization of educators and recruiters who work to bring international students to the United States.

Brimmer sees a direct connection between Trump’s rise and the loss of foreign students. When students go elsewhere, she said, the country loses not just financially but also culturally and intellectually.

“We cannot be complacent,” she said. “We have to push back against measures from the executive branch that would make the US less welcoming.”


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