Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Central Queensland University in Central Melbourne is a Capital Fuck-up

As I’ve recently suggested, one of the Xercidal prongs of the mid-late 80s higher education deforms in Australia was the upgrading of, at the stroke of a pen, twenty-odd colleges of advanced education (CAEs) and institutes of technology into fully-fledged universities. While I’m not particularly fussed about the actual u-word (it has, in more recent years, become debased by internet degree mills, in any event), a one-size-fits-half-the-(young adult)-population model of higher education is surely as self-evidently stupid as half the young adult population having places in “elite” sporting academies. That is, whatever they’re called, higher ed institutions need to be qualitatively differentiated.

The instant upgrading of former CAEs (et al) did not merely give boomer academics a windfall career boost, at the same time as instantly diluting the value of Xer’s freshly-obtained degrees from pre-1989 universities. The real damage was done through the gradual, but inexorable de-funding of all universities from that date. For former CAEs in particular, the “university” moniker soon became a gilded cage – thanks to Wran and Dawkins, they were heavily overhead-burdened with tenured (= unsackable) hack-ademics and new multi-levels of management flunkeys, all the while as incoming revenue was going backwards.

Enter the overseas student industry, in a nick of time (early-mid 90s). The most common way of fiscally characterising this industry has been as an effective net subsidiser of local students – i.e. as an unarguably good thing. In practice though, it is far from clear that such a subsidy does meaningfully trickle down to local students, as opposed to getting subsumed by increased overheads, capital works, etc.

Indeed, here the universities seem to have taken inspiration from the profit-making model used by large law/accounting firms; aka charge-out arbitrage. Under this model, a junior lawyer is paid, say, $15 an hour (once unpaid overtime is taken into account), while his/her services are billed to the client at, say, $300 an hour. Obviously, there are overheads – office rent, admin staff, and salary on-costs, primarily – to account for some of the difference between these rates, but the bulk of it is pure profit from trafficking in human labour.

It is no accident then, that there are very high rates of sessional/casual (= paid by the hour) academics working in the overseas student industry. Under charge-out arbitrage, a university business faculty with a 90% full-fee paying base will gross about $2,000 per contact hour, while paying a casual academic between $40-120 per hour to conduct this class (here, some overheads of law firms – especially office space and salary on-costs – are minimal or non-existent for universities, while teaching spaces are as hardly ritzy as law firm space (Teaching at Deakin University (in the late 80s, known as Victoria College) in 2004-5, about a third of my classes were in a 1960s-built wing that was neither heated nor air-conditioned)).

In a nutshell, charge-out arbitrage explains the squirming that (the Melbourne campus of) Central Queensland University - (16/03/06) formerly Capricornia** Institute of Advanced Education - heavies have lately been engaging in. The background here is simple enough, and hardly novel – overseas business students have failed a law subject en masse, and now demand a remedy. For whatever reason, the usual remedy in this situation – a *quiet* re-marking/up-grading – has not been possible, apparently. My guess as to why this might have been so is the presence of some intransigent (which is to say moral) sessional academics.

Anyway, throw in a student “hunger-strike” and CQU has quite a PR crisis on its hands. Fortunately though, in the person of Australian higher ed journo Lisa Macnamara, they do have a handy ally/patsy:

“[D]ean Gus Geursen confirmed that five of the eight people casually employed by CQU to mark the exam were accounting graduates who had not completed their masters qualification.

It is unusual for people with only an undergraduate degree to mark the work of postgraduate students.

Professor Geursen told the HES that the markers were practising accountants but that their role was an error that would not be repeated.

‘[The failed papers] will be re-marked by independent people from outside the university because if we take them from outside, they are neutral,’ he said.”*

Macnamara’s take on “people with only an undergraduate degree mark[ing] the work of postgraduate students” is bollocks. An undergraduate accounting degree obtained by a local student will almost certainly be of a more rigorous standard than a “postgraduate” accounting degree from CQU. (This may sound perverse to an outsider, but it is an open secret within higher ed that most overseas-student heavy “postgraduate” degrees, are deliberately mis-labelled as such to smooth admission, and then (possibly) later, the immigration process.)

In any case, Macnamara misses the glaring contradiction within Gus Geursen’s spin: the re-marking is to be done by “independent people from outside the university”, as opposed to practising accountants who are also casual employees of CQU.

Is Geursen therefore suggesting that the re-markers will not therefore – by definition – be paid for their labour, because even a paltry hourly rate would compromise their “independence”? Mmnn, (presumably) compliant re-markers, doing it all for nix, it would seem. I love the smell of boomer (I’m guessing) fraud and hypocrisy in the morning.

* Lisa Macnamara, “Failures offered a repeat for free” Australian 15 March 2006 (no URL)

** (16/03/2006) One wonders whether the namers of this regional Qld institution had in mind Xavier Herbert’s 1938 novel, set in a racist northern Australia, of the same name. Presumably not, but it now seems apt for CQU to consider re-naming itself after Herbert’s other literary masterpiece – Poor Fellow My Country University.

Got to agree with you there. As a teacher in one of these organisations I am really appalled at the quality of work some times. I agree with you that a good Undergraduate degree can sometimes be better than the postgrad.
I am also of the understanding that some postgrad accounting courses are merely a rebadged version of the undergrad. ie. same subject just different name and course code
Having had the pleasure of teaching both local and international students I am unable to find any difference in their application and ability to put forward quality work. I also have been unable to detect the difference between the unis you have cited and the so called traditional unis.
To be totally fair, I think your comments should not be so narrow but also include all universities.
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