Thursday, August 05, 2004

Graduate skills testing: Go on, AVCC – call their bluff

From the general – that in 2004, Australia’s cultural topsoil is Weimar Republic-thin – to the specific: Australian universities are, once again, getting rubbished.

As usual, the debate is couched as a crowd-pleaser. In one corner is the Ivory Tower, with its suspicious resistance to a government-proposed, $251 million Learning and Teaching Performance fund. This fund would require universities to meet goals/milestones on a range of bases, including drop-out rates, student progress in passing or failing courses, the number of graduates who secure employment and student surveys on teaching. Overlapping with the issue of such a tied fund (which the AVCC rejects as a “blunt instrument”) is the particular hot-button – and government-darling – of mass-uptake by universities of the ACER Graduate Skills Test.

As for the merits of the tied-find, I’m mystified as to why this free-market obsessed government shouldn’t just leave things as they are. The drop-out rates, et al, of particular institutions are easily available (as they should be) to would-be consumers of higher-education. As are also graduate employment figures; although these statistical veracity of these is dubious, if you ask me. Results of student surveys on teaching, OTOH, are never published (AFAIK), but such surveys have little, if any methodological probity – certainly as a basis for choosing a tens-of-thousand-dollars investment. All in all, then, the AVCC is clearly right. However, it has no need to be so defensive (“blunt instrument”) in its reasons here: all that surely it needs to say is that there is already a transparent market for university performance against all such goals/milestones as can be objectively measured.

Bunfights over nothing, then – so far, so relatively benign, and certainly par for the course in Australian public discourse. In a more sinister category, however, is the debate over a mass-use (= compulsory) Graduate Skills Test by universities.

Here, even the knowledge-challenged journo Samantha Maiden risks having her book-burning-esque zeal put to shame by her quoted sources:

"Basically, the standard of literacy and numeracy is really serious and that's why we're trying to lift the game," Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Steve Balzary said.

Basically then, Balzary is an ill-educated embarrassment, who should be getting laughed at all the way back to his own remedial English class.

Unfortunately though, it gets worse. In yesterday’s Oz, Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin was puppeting the AVCC line, calling the Howard Government's proposals a "blunt instrument". Today though, it's the polar-opposite “uni of life” message (although thankfully in fluent English), with Macklin saying that the skills test should be more widespread, because "We want to make sure that university graduates are, of course, able to go into the workforce and provide their skills where they're much needed" (same URL). Quite – but more about that soon.

But what’s a good lynching without a mob? Ever-eager to tub-thump the anti-intellectual drum, today’s Oz thus can’t help but editorially chime in:

If that's how the vice-chancellors communicate, no wonder the students themselves can't write.

These words were presumably written by former academic Imre Salusinszky. If Salusinszky’s former students left his tutelage in such a deplorably illiterate state – as logically he is admitting – then this says much more about the man than anything more general about Australia’s woefully under-funded public university system. Good riddance from academia, Imre – and I hope you enjoy the scintillating life of the mind to be found and enjoyed with people like Steve Balzary. Oh, and since you evidently got nothing, or less, out of it, could you please refund the taxpayers of Australia for your free (I’m assuming by your age) tertiary education.

It’s time that the AVCC stopped pussy-footing around on this issue (in any case, Jenny Macklin’s the clear master of that art). They should call the bluff of Salusinszky and Balzary. The latter says:

"Employers want graduates who can communicate, work as a team (and) solve problems, and we call on universities to get right behind this test. What we're looking for is that ability to think outside the square and, while the current test isn't perfect, we would like to work with universities to improve the test and even apply it to TAFE and Year 12 students."

I would have thought that universities want – and get – almost exactly the same thing out of their students as Balzary (echoing Macklin, above) asserts "employers want". But no matter such subtleties, they only confuse poor Balzary, I'm sure. In his call to extend the Graduate Skills Test (or presumably, a modification of it) to TAFE and Year 12, Balzary shows a crude indifference to any role for higher education other than as job training.

So be it, I say: This is What You Want, This is What You Get. Specifically, the AVCC should up the ante, and propose re-engineering Australia’s public university system into a dedicated network of cramming colleges for the ACER Graduate Skills Test. As well as shutting-up the cheap demagogue Salusinszky, the resultant farce would be a sweet tribute to Balzary’s concerns that the current standard of literacy and numeracy in Australia “is really serious”. It indeed wouldn’t be serious any more, Steve. And that’s irony (look it up).

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