Last week I was back in Melbourne and in between catching up with my home life (playing with my little boy!), taking a breather from a brutal April travel schedule and trying to reconquer a mountain of unfinished work that tends to accumulate during travel, I made a trip down to Monash University to listen to the Hon Christopher Pyne MP talk about the “coalition” government’s vision for education.
As many readers will be aware, I care deeply about education. I think it is the cornerstone of building a better a world. It can lead to improvements in child mortality and health. It links to environmental sustainability. It is the driving force behind innovation and economic productivity. I’m a big fan of HSBC bank’s “in the future” advertisement series (genius) – one of the best and truest captions goes something like “In the future, education will be the best investment.” Profound stuff… and utterly true.
…but I digress.
Australia is heading into an election cycle and so I have been trying to understand what rubbish our politicians are trying to serve up this time around. By the way, I’ll throw out there that Australia has the WORST politicians in the world. It’s not that they’re particularly corrupt (though, Craig Thomson’s fraud and sex scandal suggests otherwise), it’s not that they’re xenophobic (though, according to Cory Bernardi, gay marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality); it’s just that they are mostly underwhelming, white and a bit liver-lipped. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, deserves much kudos for being the first woman PM but I don’t have much positive to say about her or her party’s politics.
My mother always told me, if you can’t say anything nice – say nothing at all.
Sometimes lawyers tell me the same thing.
I will say one thing, however, and that is Tony Abbott is a buffoon. I can’t believe he’s Oxford-educated. His party seemingly has no policy other than to slander the Labour government. His budgetary ruminations don’t make sense (either in economic terms or basic accounting), his stance on climate change is irresponsible and he has no game plan for how to build a financial reserve to support Australia’s future infrastruture and economic diversification needs, other than “we can’t tax mining.”
I’d like to say, however, Mr. Pyne is a very polished guy. Charming. Gave a great speech, dammit I liked him… But to my dismay he reiterated a lot of opposition government mantras that I didn’t really want to hear (and don’t really believe) and he certainly upheld the party dogma of simply attacking existing policy, rather than formulating and proposing bold and clever new ideas. It’s also clear that an important facet of the party rubric is to wistfully hark back to the days of Howard government, obviously the last time that the country could have possibly been responsibly run…
But, what of education?
Well, the good news is that the coalition government acknowledges that education and R&D is important to the economy. They believe that there have been too many cuts to education and research and that this needs to be addressed. I’m not sure which money pot they were thinking of pulling it from, but this was a fairly consistent theme in the speech. It’s clear that their policy wonks have recognised some of the problems with the allocation mechanisms of research grants and that it’s not very “egalitarian.” There was some waffle and rubbish about the fact that with only a 20% chance of getting a grant funded, academics waste too much time writing grants … whatever. Let’s just hope that whatever the more “efficient” system is that they come up with that our stellar politicians at least still make it a competitive, peer-reviewed process.
However, there were two issues in the Minister’s speech that slightly concerned me.
The first is that Mr Pyne suggested that it was ok for universities to become “segregated” into institutions that excel at research, and institutions that excel at teaching. Now, to some extent, I agree this is true. Or rather, I do believe that there are many vocationally-directed courses that don’t need to be taught by people with strong research backgrounds. However, we need to be very careful about the degree of separation between the two. There is no doubt that unless you have people who are aware of “best practice”, teaching loses efficacy. Similarly, if you have great research institutions but don’t inspire and develop the next generation, you also get stagnation. Considering the pace of knowledge, is it really wise to separate the two? Should we be forgetting that “University” is short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium – a “community” of teachers and scholars? Will we stop educating great people if we separate the two?
This issue reflects, at its heart, growing political momentum behind the idea that universities are just there to create a trained workforce. This is certainly an important deliverable to society, but it is far from the only one. The problem is that politicians see universities as either a consumer of public R&D budget, or a headcount allocation for tertiary education – and nothing else. This gross simplification helps to propagate the argument for instilling the teaching/research divide. Unfortunately, it fails to consider a very important part of our modern world, namely the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the equal (in my view) importance of teaching and research to enabling innovation. There is no doubt that our universities are ripe for systemic and conceptual overhaul, and disruptors (i.e. MOOCs, immigration/population movement) are going to drive completely redefine the university environment in the next decade, but I am not sure this is the redefinition it needs.
However, what is going to become ever more important is that universities are places where truly interdisciplinary thinking can be nurtured. Mr Pyne talked about eradicating universities that offer “everything”, creating institutions with a focused and limited repertoire rather than the whole “smorgasbord.” Instead, he’d welcome universities that choose to excel in particular areas, to build centres of excellence where resources around a particular discipline are concentrated. In concept this sounds like a nice, efficient idea – but is it really practical? As a fairly small country, I don’t mind if we only build one “cracking” petroleum engineering school or mining department. I don’t mind if we only have once “Institute for Advanced Energy Research.” In a way, it probably also makes sense to try and distribute these centres around as much as possible otherwise only one or two universities are going to end up getting the monopoly on public funding and that will lead to a lack of competition.
Unfortunately, I think that if a university is going to have an engineering school, it probably wants a law school, a medical school, education and arts… and vice-versa. Why? Thinking no longer happens in silos. We live in an interdisciplinary age. We don’t innovate in traditional “fields” anymore, we innovate where fields bump into each other and blend ideas from disparate areas of intellectual endeavour. From an intellectual hygiene vantage, I couldn’t imagine a university not being a place where people from diverse disciplines couldn’t readily interact. Replicating an MIT or a Caltech in science/technology MIGHT work, but even those institutions thrive through diverse research and teaching collaborations with other universities – usually proximal.
I’m not sure I want our universities to become “monoversities” quite yet…
So, despite the fact that I am now encouraged by my (new) belief that not everyone in opposition government is as underwhelming as their leader, for now there is nothing really apparent in coalition education policy that makes me think that there are refreshing new ideas just waiting to transform our university system.