24/06/2013 - 06:48

Why won’t they ever learn?

24/06/2013 - 06:48

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The Gonski reforms threaten to further bureaucratise schools.

The Gonski reforms threaten to further bureaucratise schools.

Of all the politicians who ply their trade in Canberra, none owes more to the billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on the tertiary education sector during the past 30 years than Julia Gillard.

Even before she became education minister in 2007, Ms Gillard was already heavily indebted to the outlays on this sector, since she’d launched her political career in the early 1980s as an operative of the Australian Union of Students.

Little wonder she chose the education portfolio and is now moving to implement a new spending spree via the Gonski report (named after its chair, David Gonski), which wants to boost school funding by $5 billion a year across all school sectors, with a third of that increase to come from Canberra.

What’s rarely asked is whether this obsession with centralised spending actually improves learning, or instead leads to undesirable consequences.

Thankfully some have begun questioning Canberra’s massive spending and interference in this area.

One is Peter Murphy, James Cook University’s professor of Creative Arts and Social Aesthetics, who says Australia’s centralist bureaucratic university funding model, which Ms Gillard now wishes to further impose upon schools, “is broken”.

His case is outlined in the May’s issue of Quadrant magazine, in an article titled ‘The Rise and Fall of our Bureaucratic Universities’.

Here’s some findings he’s highlighted that Canberra bureaucrats and their spending-obsessed political masters won’t be highlighting.

Firstly, “a quarter or more of Australian undergraduates drop out of university”.

But that’s only the beginning of the bad news in this sector.

“Students who drop out, or who get a degree they never use, exit with debts that many find difficult to pay off,” he said.

“Australian student debt totals $23 billion. The annual interest on the debt is $600 million.

“Some ex-students have become akin to debt slaves.”

A prime reason for the emergence of these ‘debt slaves’ is the fact that public funding of universities doubled, in real 2011 dollar terms, between 1995 and 2011.

Canberra has been a catalyst for young Australians attending universities, despite 30 to 40 per cent of undergraduates from 1999 to 2009 claiming “they were unhappy or ambivalent at university”.

Professor Murphy says the unthinkable, that “universities today are filled with unhappy students”.

“These are not their salad days,” he added.

“Each year, 18 per cent [nearly one in five] of commencing students drop out, with some returning later.

“Many nominal students at university have no aptitude for higher education.

“Yet governments and universities pressure them to enrol.”

To make matters worse large numbers “are disengaged from classes and study”.

And universities, which are so dependent upon our highly bureaucratised capital, Canberra, are themselves now highly bureaucratised.

Academics are really the second rankers at campuses.

The real bosses are the academic bureaucrats, who perennially survey academics and students – something they relish, since it helps to justify their existence and whopping salaries.

On this Professor Murphy is scathing: “What the surveys cannot tell us is that those (the dissatisfied and disengaged) students should not be at university.”

Where therefore should many more young Australians be?

Instead, he says, they should be undertaking technical certificates, traineeships, cadetships and apprenticeships.

I agree.

Whatever happened to satisfying career-launching paths like traineeships and cadetships? Why can’t these be brought back?

Probably because people like Ms Gillard believe there are no votes in promoting something so sensible.

It seems another case of ignorant politics dominating reality and what was once viewed as a sensible path to a productive life.

“Signs of the debilitation of universities are everywhere,” Professor Murphy continued.

“It has reached a point where bureaucracies think they can teach students better than academic staff can.

“The larger part of resources in a university today, both in Australia and across the OECD, is commanded by administrations.

“The engorged scale of university administration is staggering.”

He reveals that today’s Canberra-dominated universities now average employing 1.3 non-academic staffers to every academic. One Victorian campus, he says, has a ratio of 1.9 to every academic.

“Any company or NGO would be drummed out of business operating on such a bloated ratio,” Professor Murphy said.

“In terms of efficiency, centralisation has been a complete failure.”

What we therefore have is a huge segment of each year’s university student intake being, or about to be, unhappy clients while Parkinson’s Law marches on to becoming ever more supreme.

“Bureaucracies are lobbies. They agitate to expand. They will agitate furiously against shrinking,” Professor Murphy warns.

It is, therefore, not difficult to conclude that the Gonski reforms promise to become the launching pad for a re-run of our dismal tertiary sector record right across the nations schooling sector.

Keep your fingers crossed that Western Australia isn’t seduced by Ms Gillard’s smooth talk and dollar waving ploys to help Canberra’s bureaucrats envelope our schools.


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