How the Tail Now Wags the Dog

One would have to be a marketing executive, or just extremely sanguine, to see much that is good in the current system for funding teaching and research in our universities. This is not to claim that the Dawkins reforms replaced something wonderful or fair. But we now have a system that is actively promoting mediocrity ona a national, even international scale. Let me explain, for the uninitiated how it works.

One would have to be a marketing executive, or just extremely sanguine, to see much that is good in the current system for funding teaching and research in our universities. This is not to claim that the Dawkins reforms replaced something wonderful or fair. But we now have a system that is actively promoting mediocrity on a national, even international scale. Let me explain, for the uninitiated, how it works.

Firstly, each university's operational funding cake is divided roughly between teaching and research, with each assigned a (often grossly varying) dollar value on the basis of 'product' or 'output'. The product of teaching are those to be processed, the bums on seats represented by our annual student intake, and each year through an elaborate sleight of hand Canberra somehow provides us with a slightly lower dollar figure per student (in 'real terms') to work with (between $3000 and $5000 per full-time student per year) – a factor which has doubled class sizes and reduced staff substantially in many of our universities over the last few years. As always, organizational changes and technological panaceas are expected to provide ways of accommodating this decline in income, with much talk of 'virtual class-rooms', and much na├»ve money spent on 'proving' their successful replacement of the more human tutor-student contact.

The situation is similar in the research area. The product of research is 'output' – another key phrase in the new doublespeak of DETYA – and this is measured in 'points' each academic must accumulate alongside their allotted teaching activities. While creative works – including exhibitions and novels - earn between 0.2 for 'representation of original art' work, or at most 1 point for a 'major written or recorded work, or individual exhibition', the main staple of this regime is modelled on the 'output' of traditional research in science and technology. DETYA rewards a researcher 5 points for a book published by an outside commercial publisher, 2 points earned for an article in a 'refereed' journal or chapter in an edited book, and 1 point earned for a 'refereed conference paper'. Each point is worth, very approximately, $3000 to the university's research support income, which is very loosely defined, and can easily be spent on administration costs.

Since Amanda Vanstone's time as Minister in charge of education, universities have been forced to calculate their 'research output' purely in terms of these three main categories of book (5 points), refereed article or chapter in a book (2 points) and conference paper (1 point), although to please the artists, designers, dancers, review writers and journal editors amongst their academic staff, many institutions also record the other categories of points earned for internal monitoring purposes and, one suspects, to make the non-scientists amongst us feel better. Academics can also earn substantial additional sums for their universities (and more directly for the purposes of their research) through a system of national competitive research grants administered by the again applied science and technology-dominated Australian Research Council (ARC).

This system of grants and its categorization, together with the descriptive documentation attached to recorded annual research output, defines what are the kinds of research seen to be in the socio-economic 'interest' of the nation. In effect this means that topics in 17th century philosophy, English literature, medieval history or classical Greek society are starved of grant support, since they are all lumped together as being in the same narrow (and by implication, almost useless) category of 'humanities', but a drug to make sheep drop their wool all at once, to save money on shearing, categorized in one of the dozens of sub-categories in the 'more useful' science and technology areas, could be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite the project's possibly dubious human and ethical value, and ultimate commercial failure.
To further discipline its academic servants caught up in this pavlovian system, created to ensure and control the mass-production of 'useful research', DETYA employs each year a large multinational accountancy firm to audit each university's research output record to gauge its accuracy and conformity to the published criteria. Like the Tax Office's audits, this is an increasingly serious business. Universities that are found to have exaggerated their claimed output, even by a small margin, can be 'fined' for their errors, and an equivalent sum to that 'falsely' claimed (even in innocence) can be taken away from them in the following funding year. The accountancy firm employed by the government is also empowered to decide – without any academic interference or appeal – what is a genuine 'peer reviewed' piece of writing, and what is not.

Control over academic work, and now the work of the artists and teachers in the nation's new university-based art schools, is carefully manipulated within the minutiae of this funding framework. This means in effect that most universities are now only notionally dominated by boards of academic teachers and researchers. Instead, the new universities are run by men and women trained to juggle and milk this crude system of accounting for all its worth. They dress and talk like business managers and MBAs, and have compensatory larger salaries and expense accounts than their academic servants, their main game being educational 'management', not education itself, with which most have an increasingly tenuous relationship. Issues of quality, when they eventually surface – as inevitably they do in a system so inappropriately modelled and managed – are dealt with in the same brutal and unreflective instrumentalist fashion. After all, what is most valued is not excellence in research and teaching (despite the claims of the administrators and new marketing departments that have sprung up in each institution), but a forced and unthinking consensus of approach, of woolly commitments to 'equal opportunity' and 'social justice', to the minutiae of mountains of bureaucratically defined 'policy', and of course to the cardinal principle of minimization of costs.

This system, that purports to be 'business-like' (departments are now 'cost centres', and students are their 'customers'), 'accountable' (to the accountants), 'open' (to government manipulation, to review by accountants), 'competitive' (artificially competitive with each other), in practice works to smother academic democracy and independence, intellectual freedom and creativity in research and teaching, and perhaps most significantly, to cheat its 'customers', the students, of what they have paid for, a quality education.
Just as a universal rise in staff-student ratios in the country's institutions confirms what most students and teachers suspect, a real decline in quality, the system for monitoring research reinforces a corresponding acceptance of mediocrity as a measure of achievement. For if as an academic you can earn a point easily in an annual academic society's conference (vetted, but officially 'peer reviewed', usually by colleagues you know) or two points for an article in a locally produced academic journal (again something of a local shop), why bother engaging in the even traditional academic activities that go unrewarded, such as editing academic journals and helping administer or run academic societies (no points, since this hard work is so hard to quantify), running seminars, or putting in that extra effort to submit articles to international journals with two- or three-year waiting lists? (I am not even going to mention the pointlessness of mounting a solo exhibition that is not recorded by DETYA, and only earns the equivalent point value of a conference paper). After all, every journal and type of book is the same, according to this system.

Shortcuts to getting a book published can also be arranged: it is no secret that a number of people have been made professors on the strength of their acumen on committees, and of course a few recycled articles and essays published in book-form, or a couple of annotated bibliographies published as monographs ('books' worth 5 points to DETYA). When quantity alone is so crucial to maintaining university funding, and to your own personal career as an academic, why bother with quality, or with extra-DETYA pursuits?
The new creative art schools (and I include dance, drama, design and architecture in this category) suffer particularly in this draconian accountant-run system. To start with, few journals in these more expressive areas are 'refereed' or formally 'peer reviewed' in the terms supplied by DETYA, and the 'research' undertaken by practising artists, dancers and designers is hard to understand or quantify in the terms of traditional academic scholarship. Although lip-service to the doctrine of 'equivalence' between traditional scholarly 'output' and the exhibited art, design work or performance produced by the creative artist or designer, is now widespread in Australian universities, this 'equivalence' is not accepted in Canberra by our funding bodies, and it is very doubtful it ever will be – after all, how can you quantify it? Even a prestigious Australia Council grant is not recognized yet as equivalent to an Australian Research Council grant, and even if it were, how do we compare and make 'equivalent' such different paradigms, aims and methods of working, given this now entrenched and crude numerical basis to calculating academic or creative achievement in our universities?

Also teaching art, dance, or design of all kinds is time-consuming, and expensive in terms of materials and facilities. Since most of the schools (perhaps excluding architecture schools) are able to earn very little in terms of DETYA-rewarded research 'points', their staff are often bullied into undertaking potentially lucrative commercial activities ('consultancies'), doing rather eccentric masters degrees supervised often by colleagues, and hastily cobbling together 'research' initiatives, often commenced on the basis of inadequate expertise and no prior experience, especially in the still 'glowing' (and thus convincing) area of the new electronic media.
But even when trying to bend to the wind in this way, these schools are still relatively starved of funds by their new managers. This is because they simply cannot compete in a system designed principally for monitoring, funding and controlling research and teaching in the applied science and technology areas. The regime of rewarding numbers, of 'bums on seats', and of only certain, very limited and traditional categories of research 'output', has led to the severe cuts to staffing and resources we have all heard of, especially in the arts, and on occasion, to extremely foolish and clumsy attempts at wholesale 'downsizing' – even when this means liquidating costly purpose-built facilities.

Under this regime the old priorities of academic life have been turned upside down. More and more academic hours are expended on answering administrative queries, filling out forms and internal 'competitive' applications, and responding to the almost continuous flow of requests for 'monitoring' various aspects of the main business of university life: teaching and research. Failure to keep in step with processing this mostly useless information is blamed severely, whereas failure in teaching or research-related activities is often generously overlooked. Many academics must work long hours simply to get through this paperwork jungle so that they can cope with what they still naively regard as their main business: teaching and research.

Administrators are now their masters, and this is reflected in the conditions applying to academic and administrative employment. Administrators are now usually offered secure positions with salaries as high as their academic colleagues, even when they have minimal or TAFE business qualifications. For most academics now there is a long period of initiatory short-term sessional and contract teaching before any security can be attained, and 'tenure' – giving the security to plan long-term goals and projects – has become more and more rare. At present a starting full time contract lecturer earns less than state bus-drivers and starting primary school teachers, and a professor a bit less than high school principals. The leading administrators now earn at least twice as much as the 'ordinary' professors, and are often given cars and other additional benefits. They also ensure that there is always sufficient administrative and support staff for themselves, even in a supposedly 'cash-strapped' institution. This is done by a sleight of hand, no doubt copied from Canberra, that allows them to divert funds earmarked for academic purposes to 'strategically' support those purposes.

The whip hand in this system is clearly in the hands of the senior administrators who have the power of 'managing' and manipulating this instrumentalist 'enterprise-focused' and 'process-focused' monster. In the new mega-universities they command there has also been a phenomenal growth in dubious academic support services, promoted by the same leading administrators, often associated with frequent organizational 'restructuring', mostly destined not to benefit teaching or research, but the careers of the senior administrators themselves. Money is thrown at poorly evaluated pet projects and services associated with these changes, and at the new technology they invariably involve, while traditional teaching and research activities suffer often serious funding shortages. As a colleague once remarked, after listening to one more senior management diatribe on cost-cutting: 'yes, and the tail must be made now to wag the dog'. This is the environment now governing the nation's art schools. Heaven help them.

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