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Unis up against the odds on a heavy track

By John Harrison - posted Monday, 29 April 2013

When Peter Coaldrake was deputy vice chancellor at Queensland University of Technology he visited every school once or twice a year to meet with staff. He would come in, talk briefly to 10 minutes about "how the joint was going", and then say: "I'm here to take your questions on anything except parking". In the real world, where I was employed before coming to higher education over a decade ago, we called that "management by walking around".

Coaldrake has also been one of the key drivers of QUT's creative industries precinct in the inner-city Brisbane suburb of Kelvin Grove. While the jury may still be out on 'creative industries', and there are those who regard it as an ideology, rather than a sound academic platform for post-disciplinarity, Peter Coaldrake deserves full credit for being a risk taking innovator, and modelling the behaviour we all say is needed in academic leadership.

So it is encouraging to see Coaldrake as an Australian vice chancellor, not bowed down by random budget cuts, brawls with staff, and battling increasingly intrusive bureaucracies, and producing a book length reflection on the state of universities in Australia, co-authoring with his long time academic sidekick Lawrence Stedman. The book, published by UQP and launched this week is called Raising the Stakes.


The key to solving the many and varied problems within our universities according to Coaldrake and Steadman lies within the institutions themselves. As it has always been for much of the seven centuries universities have existed. Arguably, it was only with the advent of what is called the "new public sector management" that bureaucrats and bureaucracies, and more importantly their political masters, began to exert influence on universities.

Take, for example, the recent argument in The Australian (23 April) newspaper that four science ministers in the last 16 months is stultifying scientific research in this country. Absolute rubbish, of course, from an organ of the press that holds academics and the Academy in great esteem, and is basically clueless about what really happens in universities. However, in the good old days, the golden age of universities that never existed, scientists would have simply carried on with their work irregardless of who sat around the cabinet table wearing a hat labelled Minister for Science.

Coaldrake and Stedman start out by looking at a number of myths about higher education. These myths, according to the authors, include:

· University vice chancellor are spineless and complicit in the destruction of public universities;

· Research and teaching are inextricably linked;

· Universities can regain the golden age by resisting neoliberalism and managerialism;


· The advent of new massive online courses from prestigious universities are about to hollow out the traditional university model.

Some of the most useful discussion in the book is about the rise of performance metrics in higher education - global ranking systems, the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) exercise, and the development of instruments to evaluate graduate outcomes.

Given we now live in the world of "big data", there is an inevitability about the use of performance metrics, not just in higher education, but across government, business and the not-for-profit sector. This is to be welcomed when it leads to evidence-based practice, and moreover when it leads to the exposure of the myths that Coaldrake and Stedman have identified. Anyone interested in how clever universities are in using the existing available data to enhance teaching and learning should read the article on "Penetrating the fog: Analytics in learning and education", in Educause Review, 46(5), 30-32 by George Siemens and Phil Long.

Coaldrake and Stedman's other useful discussion is about the changing nature of university teaching, and rise of MOOCs, massive open online course. There is a meme in my university that "if you are afraid of being replaced by a video, then perhaps you should be." Implicit in this aphorism is the principle that genuine and transformative value is added in higher education through face to face interaction with students (whether in person or mediated). In this context, one of the most interesting observations (p. 243) is about the blurring of distinctions between academic and professional staff.

This book is not a clarion call to arms to rescue universities from the four horsemen of MOOCS, budget cuts, government interference and dodgy systems of rankings. It is a sober, accurate and thoughtful reflection on the current situation in higher education. And while the writing is not scintillating, the authors at least unpack the issues without hyperbole. Given this, I hope we are smart enough to figure out the answers for ourselves.

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About the Author

Dr John Harrison teaches journalism and communication at The University of Queensland. An award winning journalist and higher education teacher, he is at the forefront of the development of new ways of learning using digital mobile media.

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