I’ve mentioned the “Meditations” of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius before – I’ve been writing this blog for over 450 hours, I’m not sure there’s anything I haven’t mentioned except my feelings on the season finale of Doctor Who, Series 7. (Eh.) Marcus Aurelius, philosopher, statesman, Roman, and Emperor wrote twelve “books” which were apparently never meant to be published. These are the private musings, notes to self, of a thoughtful man, written stoically and Stoically. When he lectures anyone, he lectures himself. He even poses questions to parts of himself: his soul, most notably.
There is much to admire in the simplicity and purpose of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts. They are brief, because Emperors are busy people, especially when earning titles such as Germanicus (which usually involves squashing a nation state or two). They are direct, because he is talking to himself and he needs to be honest. He repeats himself for emphasis and to indicate importance, not out of forgetfulness.
Best, he writes for himself, for clarity, for the now and without thinking of a future audience.
There is a great deal to think about in this, because if you have read “Meditations”, you will know that every page contains a gem and some pages have jewels cascading from them. Yet these are the private thoughts of a person recording ways to improve himself and to keep himself in check – while he managed the Roman empire.
When I talk about improvement, I’m always trying to improve myself. When I find fault, I’ve usually found it in myself first. Yet, what a lot of words I write! Perhaps it is time to reinvestigate brevity, directness and a generosity towards the self that translates well into a kindness to strangers who might stumble upon this. The last thing I’d want to do is to stop people finding what zircons there are because the preamble is too demanding or the journey to the point too long.
Once again, I give my thanks to the writings of someone who died 2000 years ago and gave me so much to think about. Vale, Marcus Aurelius.
I do a lot of grounded theory research into student behaviour patterns. It’s a bit Indiana Jones in a rather dry way: hear a rumour of a giant cache of data, hack your way through impenetrable obfuscation and poor data alignment to find the jewel at the centre, hack your way out and try to get it to the community before you get killed by snakes, thrown into a propellor or eaten. (Perhaps the analogy isn’t perfect but how recently have you been through a research quality exercise?) Our students are all pretty similar, from the metrics I have, and I’ve gone on at length about this in other posts: hyperbolic time-discounting and so on. Embarrassingly recently, however, I was introduced to the notion of instrumentality, the capability to see that achieving a task now will reduce the difficulty in completing a goal later. If we can’t see how important this is to getting students to do something, maybe it’s time to have a good sit-down and a think! Husman et al identify three associated but distinguishable aspects to a student’s appreciation of a task: how much they rate its value, their intrinsic level of motivation, and their appreciation of the instrumentality. From this study, we have a basis for the confusing and often paradoxical presentation of a student who is intelligent and highly motivated – but just not for the task we’ve given them, despite apparently and genuinely being aware of the value of the task. Without the ability to link this task to future goal success, the exponential approach of the deadline horizon can cause a student to artificially inflate the value of something of less final worth, because the actual important goal is out of sight. But rob a student of motivation and we have to put everything into a high-stakes, heavily temporally fixed into the almost immediate future and the present, often resorting to extrinsic motivating factors (bribes/threats) to impose value. This may be why everyone who uses a punishment/reward situation achieves compliance but then has to keep using this mechanism to continue to keep values artificially high. Have we stumbled across an Economy of Pedagogy? I hope not, because I can barely understand basic economics. But we can start to illustrate why the student has to be intrinsically connected to the task and the goal framework – without it, it’s carrot/stick time and, once we do that, it’s always carrot/stick time.
Like almost every teacher I know, all of my students are experts at something but mining that can be tricky. What quickly becomes apparent, and as McGonigall reflected on in “Reality is Broken”, is that people will put far more effort into an activity that they see as play than one which they see as work. I, for example, have taken up linocut printing and, for no good reason at all, have invested days into a painstaking activity where it can take four hours to achieve even a simple outcome of reasonable quality – and it will be years before I’m good at it. Yet the time I spend at the printing studio on Saturdays is joyful, recharging and, above all, playful. If I consumed 6 hours marking assignments, writing a single number out of 10 and restricting my comments to good/bad/try harder, then I would feel spent and I would dread starting, putting it off as long as possible. Making prints, I consumed about 6 hours of effort to scan, photoshop, trim, print, reverse, apply over carbon paper, trace, cut out of lino and then manually and press print about four pieces of paper – and I felt like a new man. No real surprises here. In both cases, I am highly motivated. One task has great value to my students and me because it provides useful feedback. The artistic task has value to me because I am exploring new forms of art and artistic thinking, which I find rewarding.
But what of the instrumentality? In the case of the marking, it has to be done at a time where students can get the feedback at a time where they can use it and, given we have a follow-up activity of the same type for more marks, they need to get that sooner rather than later. If I leave it all until the end of the semester, it makes my students’ lives harder and mine, too, because I can’t do everything at once and every single ‘when is it coming’ query consumes more time. In the case of the art, I have no deadline but I do have a goal – a triptych work to put on the wall in August. Every print I make makes this final production easier. The production of the lino master? Intricate, close work using sharp objects and it can take hours to get a good result. It should be dull and repetitive but it’s not – but ask me to cut out 10 of the same thing or very, very similar things and I think it would be, very quickly. So, even something that I really enjoy becomes mundane when we mess with the task enough or get to the point, in this case, where we start to say “Well, why can’t a machine do this?” Rephrasing this, we get the instrumentality focus back again: “What do I gain in the future from doing this ten times if I will only do this ten times once?” And this is a valid question for our students, too. Why should they write “Hello, World” – it has most definitely and definitively been written. It’s passed on. It is novel no more. Bereft of novelty, it rests on its laurels. If we didn’t force students to write it, there is no way that this particular phrase, which we ‘owe’ to Brian Kernighan, is introducing anyone to anything that could not have a modicum of creativity added to it by saying in the manual “Please type a sentence into this point in the program and it will display it back to you.” It is an ex-program.
I love lecturing. I love giving tutorials. I will happily provide feedback in pracs. Why don’t I like marking? It’s easy to say “Well, it’s dull and repetitive” but, if I wouldn’t ask a student to undertake a task like that so why am I doing it? Look, I’m not advocating that all marking is like this but, certainly, the manual marking of particular aspects of software does tend to be dull.
Unless, of course, you start enjoying it and we can do that if we have enough freedom and flexibility to explore playful aspects. When I marked a big group of student assignments recently, I tried to write something new for each student and, this doesn’t always succeed for small artefacts with limited variability, I did manage to complement a student on their spanish variable names, provide personalised feedback to some students who had excelled and, generally, turned a 10 mark program into a place where I thought about each student personally and then (more often than not) said something unique. Yes, sometimes the same errors cropped up and the copy/paste is handy – but by engaging with the task and thinking about how much my future interactions with the students would be helped with a little investment now, the task was still a slog, but I came out of it quite pleased with the overall achievement. The task became more enjoyable because I had more flexibility but I also was required to be there to be part of the process, I was necessary. It became possible to be (professionally and carefully) playful – which is often how I approach teaching.
Any of you who are required to use standardised tests with manual marking: you already know how desperately dull the grading is and it is a grindingly dull, rubric-bound, tick/flick scenario that does nothing except consume work. It’s valuable because it’s required and money is money. Motivating? No. Any instrumentality? No, unless giving the test raises the students to the point where you get improved circumstances (personal/school) or you reduce the amount of testing required for some reason. It is, sadly, as dull for your students to undertake them, in this scenario, because they will know how it’s marked and it is not going to trigger any of Husman’s three distinguished but associated variables.
I am never saying that everything has to fun or easy, because I doubt many areas would be able to convey enough knowledge under these strictures, but providing tasks that have room to encourage motivation, develop a personal sense of task value, and that allow students to play, potentially bringing in some of their own natural enthusiasm on other areas or channeling it here, solves two thirds of the problem in getting students involved. Intentionally grounding learning in play and carefully designing materials to make this work can make things better. It also makes it easier for staff. Right now, as we handle the assignment work of the course I’m currently teaching, other discussions on the student forums includes the History of Computing, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, the significance of certain questions in the practical, complexity theory and we have only just stopped the spontaneous student comparison of performance at a simple genetic algorithms practical. My students are exploring, they are playing in the space of the discipline and, by doing so, are moving more deeply into a knowledge of taxonomy and lexicon within this space. I am moving from Lion Tamer to Ringmaster, which is the logical step to take as what I want is citizens who are participating because they can see value, have some level of motivation and are forming their instrumentality. If learning and exploration is fun now, then going further in this may lead to fun later – the future fun goal is enhanced by achieving tasks now. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the correct first demonstration of instrumentality, but it is a useful one!
However, it requires time for both the staff member to be able to construct and moderate such an environment, especially if you’re encouraging playful exploration of areas on public discussion forums, and the student must have enough time to be able to think about things, make plans and then to try again if they don’t pick it all up on the first go. Under strict and tight deadlines, we know the creativity can be impaired when we enforce the deadlines the wrong way, and we reduce the possibility of time for exploration and play – for students and staff.
Playing is serious business and our lives are better when we do more of it – the first enabling act of good play is scheduling that first play date and seeing how it goes. I’ve certainly found it to be helpful, to me and to my students.
Note: This is a re-post of something that I put up on a student discussion forum as part of one of my first-year teaching courses. I write a number of longer posts to the students to discuss some of the things that are not strictly Computer Science but can be good to know. One of my colleagues asked me to put it up in a place where he could refer to it even after the original forum was closed, so here it is.
The Irish Central Bank recently released a 10 Euro coin with a quote from James Joyce on it. Regrettably, they got the quote wrong by inserting a ‘that’ which was not in the original quote. While this is hardly newsworthy usually, I want to draw your attention to the way that the bank handled this error.
According to the bank, the coin was “an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation”. In fact, “the text on the Joyce coin does not correspond to the precise text as it appears in Ulysses” and “the error is regretted”.
The error is regretted? By whom? This is a delightful example of the passive voice, frequently used because people wish to avoid associating the problem with themselves. Before this coin hit the mint, people could see the graphic design and the mistake would have been there. Was the error with the original brief, the designer, the people who should have been proofing? (The actual ‘apology’ is even worse as it says “While the error is regretted” and then goes on to try and weasel out.)
Look, the blame game is seductive because people love to allocate blame and, frankly, blame assignation is not very productive because it doesn’t fix the existing problem and, worse, it rarely fixes the future problem. However, the error (in this case) did not leap into the printing presses at the mint due to run-away nanotechnology – in this case, the producing organisation (the bank) should have said “Argh, sorry. We made a mistake.” and then gone on with the offers of refunds – but more importantly, having accepted that it was their error, they would have the mental gears engaged to make changes to stop it happening again. Right now, the bank is trying to wriggle out of a mistake, which might fool people inside the bank into thinking that this is how you deal with errors – through “after the fact” passive apology, rather than taking responsibility and doing some proper proof-reading!
Years ago, I worked with a guy whose motto was “Don’t tell me that you knew it wasn’t going to work. Tell me when you think that and tell me how we’re going to fix it.” Don’t just play the blame and “I told you so” game, be active and try to fix things!
But let’s bring this closer to home. Running late for a lecture? What happened? Was the traffic really bad – or did you not allow enough time to get there, having expected really good traffic? “The traffic was awful” is a great excuse occasionally but all the time? “I didn’t allow enough time for the traffic.” What does this mean? Allow more time! Be active! Take control (if you can). If you’re on a dire bus route, then you may have to think about other ways to deal with it – perhaps you just can’t allow enough time for the awful traffic. In that case, what do you need to do in order to get the lecture content? What do you need to let the lecturer know so that we can help you?
See the difference? If “the traffic is awful” then we have no solutions because a million cars and the Adelaide City traffic computers are beyond your control. If “I have a problem with time” then it is easier to start thinking about ways to fix this that involve you.
When you think to yourself “the assignment wasn’t completed on time”, who was actually responsible for that? Note, I’m not talking about assigning blame – I’m talking about taking responsibility. If you didn’t finish the assignment on time because you didn’t start early enough, then you have started the mental processes that lead to a potential conclusion of “Oh, I should start working on things a bit earlier.” Were you sick? Should you have organised a med cert or spoken to the lecturer?
Responsibility doesn’t have to be a burden but it does give you a reason to exercise your agency, your capacity to act and to make change in the world. If all of your problems are in the passive voice, then “assignments are handed in late”, “the money ran out”, “mistakes were made” rather than “I didn’t start early enough or put enough time in or I was horribly ill and thought I could just push through”, “I spent all of my money too quickly.” and “I made a mistake”.
Obviously, a false declaration of responsibility, where you have no intention of changing, is just as bad as weasel words in the passive voice. Saying “I made a mistake” achieves nothing unless you try and change what you’re doing to stop it happening again.
When you feel that you are responsible for something, you are more likely to devote time and effort to it. The way that you describe the things in your life can help to remind you of what you are responsible for and where you can take charge and try to bring about a positive change. Language is powerful – it can really help to focus the mind on what you need to do to get the best out of everything. Use it!
(Edit: This is now in the comments but after the original post, I linked to an article on one set of steps students could use to write a real apology. You can find it here. Thanks for the nudge, Liz!)
You may have seen this quote, often (apparently inaccurately) attributed to Socrates:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” (roughly 400BC)
Apparently this is either a paraphrase of Aristophanes or misquoted Plato – like all things attributed to Socrates, we have to remember that we don’t have his signature to any of them. However, it doesn’t really matter if Socrates said it because not only did Hesiod say something in 700BC:
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint”
And then we have Peter the Hermit in 1274AD:
“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”
Let me summarise all of this for you:
You dang kids! Get off my lawn.
As you know, I’m a facty-analysis kind of guy so I thought that, if these wise people were correct and every generation is steadily heading towards mental incapacity and moral turpitude, we should be able to model this. (As an aside, I love the word turpitude, it sounds like the state of mind a turtle reaches after drinking mineral spirits.)
So let’s do this, let’s assume that all of these people are right and that the youth are reckless, disrespectful and that this keeps happening. How do we model this?
It’s pretty obvious that the speakers in question are happy to set themselves up as people who are right, so let’s assume that a human being’s moral worth starts at 100% and that all of these people are lucky enough to hold this state. Now, since Hesiod is chronologically the first speaker, let’s assume that he is lucky enough to be actually at 100%. Now, if the kids aren’t alright, then every child born will move us away from this state. If some kids are ok, then they won’t change things. Of course, every so often we must get a good one (or Socrates’ mouthpiece and Peter the Hermit must be aliens) so there should be a case for positive improvement. But we can’t have a human who is better than 100%, work with me here, and we shall assume that at 0% we have the worst person you can think of.
What we are now modelling is a random walk, starting at 100 and then adding some combination of -1, 0 or 1 at some regular interval. Let me cut to the chase and show you what this looks like, when modelled. I’ve assumed, for ease of modelling, that we make the assessment of the children every year and we have at most a 1 percentile point shift in that year, whatever other assumptions I made. I’ve provided three different models, one where the kids are terrible – we choose very year from no change or a negative shift. The next model is that the kids have some hope but sometimes do nothing, and we choose from an improvement, no change or steady moral decline! The final model is one where we either go up or down. Let’s look at a random walk across all three models over the span of years from 700BC to today:
As you can see, if we take the dire predictions of the next generation as true, then it is only a few hundred years before everything collapses. However, as expected, random walks over this range move around and hit a range of values. (Right now, you should look up Gambler’s Ruin to see why random walks are interesting – basically, over an infinite time, you’d expect to hit all of the values in the range from 0 to 100 an infinite number of times. This is why gamblers with small pots of money struggle against casinos with effectively infinite resources. Maths.)
But we know that the ‘everything is terrible’ model doesn’t work because both Socrates and Peter the Hermit consider themselves to be moral and both lived after the likely ‘decline to zero’ point shown in the blue line. But what would happen over longer timeframes? Let’s look at 20,000 and 200,000 years respectively. (These are separately executed random walks so the patterns will be different in each graph.)
What should be apparent, even with this rather pedantic exploration of what was never supposed to be modelled is that, even if we give credence to these particular commentators and we accept that there is some actual change that is measurable and shows an improvement or decline between generations, the negative model doesn’t work. The longer we run this, the more it will look like the noise that it is – and that is assuming that these people were right in the first place.
Personally, I think that the kids of this generation are pretty much the same as the one before, with some different adaptation to technology and societal mores. Would I have wasted time in lectures Facebooking if I had the chance? Well, I wasted it doing everything else so, yes, probably. (Look around your next staff meeting to see how many people are checking their mail. This is a technological shift driven by capability, not a sign of accelerating attention deficit.) Would I have spent tons of times playing games? Would I? I did! They were just board, role-playing and simpler computer games. The kids are alright and you can see that from the graphs – within statistical error.
Every time someone tells me that things are different, but it’s because the students are not of the same calibre as the ones before… well, I look at these quotes over the past 2,500 and I wonder.
And I try to stay off their lawn.
I recently read an opinion piece in the Australian national newspaper, the conveniently named “The Australian”, on funding school reform. The piece, entitled “School Reform must be funded” and sub-titled “But maybe we need fewer academics thinking up ways to spend our taxes”, written by Cassandra Wilkinson, identified that the coming cuts to higher education because of the apparent impossibility of paying for school reforms in any other way. No-one, sensible, is arguing that the school cuts can come out of thin air, I make explicit reference to realities such as this in my previous post, but it does appear that Cassandra is attempting to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the academics, for this sorry state of affairs (“the growing influence of the university sector on early childhood and school education is partly responsible for the now necessary cuts to higher education.”, from the article).
It is the professionalisation of teaching, and the intervention of education academics to convince governments that early educational investment, potentially at the expense of the family unit’s role in child rearing, that has convinced governments that money must be spent here – therefore, it is our fault that our argument is leading to money coming out of our pockets. I cannot think of a more amazing piece of victim blaming, recently, but then again I generally don’t read the opinion section of The Australian!
Now, you may immediately say “You must be quoting her out of context”, here is another extract from this rather short opinion piece:
“In addition to the public costs being generated by education academics, we have public health academics driving an expensive “preventative health” agenda that includes mental health checks for kids and public advertising about the calorie content of pizza; safety academics driving up the cost of road building and tripling the price of trampolines, which now come with fencing and crash mats; and sustainability academics driving up the cost of housing.”
Not only are people concerned about education driving up the cost of education but we have increased all other prices through our short-sighted adherence to preventative health, safety and sustainability! I keep thinking that Wilkinson, who has some quiet excellent social project credentials if I have researched the correct Cassandra Wilkinson, must be making a satirical comment here but, either my humour is failing (entirely possible), she has been edited (entirely possible) or she is completely serious and we in higher education have brought doom upon our heads by dint of doing our job. The piece finishes with:
“It may well be that the real efficiency savings will derive from a university sector employing slightly fewer academics to dream up new ways for governments to spend taxpayers money.”
and whether this is intended to be satire or not, this statement does raise my hackles.
Right now, most of the academics I know are trying to dream up ways to meet our obligations to our students in terms of a high-quality, useful and valuable education under existing restrictions. The only tax spending we’re trying to do is on the things that we can barely afford to do on the monies we get. I’m assuming that Cassandra is being satirical but is just not very good at it – or is assuming the role of her namesake, in that no-one will actually take her seriously, which is a shame as the approach that she seems to be supporting is not just saying that the only place this money can come from is higher ed, but that we should shut up because of how much we’re costing decent, family-centered Australians. If only I had that many column inches in a large-scale distribution paper to put my case that, maybe, people should stop talking about what they think we’re doing, or their fuzzy memories of old Uni days and bad movies, and come down and see what we’re doing now. Shadow me for a month. Bring running shoes. But, hey, maybe I’m just lazy, soft and dreamy. How would I know?
The rich dream of luxuries, the poor dream of staples. We are dreaming of having enough to do our jobs adequately and these are not the dreams of rich people.
Maybe I’m just too tired right now to see her humour in all of this. I seriously hope that I’ve just got the wrong end of the stick, because if this is what the social progressives are saying, then we may as well close up shop now.
(I return with a very long rant about funding cuts in higher education. Rather political so feel free to not read if you’re after my edu research and praxis stuff.)
Like most governments, the Australian Federal Government is making spending cuts at the moment. Unlike most countries, Australia is actually doing pretty well but, unfortunately, we have a federal election coming up this year and we are losing the ability to do mathematics in a sea of politics. One initiative that has just been announced is increased funding to schools in line with the Gonski review – hooray! The only problem is that they are cutting University funding to do this – wait, what? (Four different links from different news organisations, for your delectation.) School funding will go up $14.5bn over six years and, for my sector, “$2.8 billion in cuts to universities, discounts for families paying upfront HECS fees, self education tax deduction changes and converting a student scholarship scheme into a loans scheme” (from the last link). The University cuts include a $900M “University funding efficiency dividend“.
For those who, like me, have just seen the Australian University sector be scheduled for a 2% efficiency dividend you may have wondered “What does this actually mean?” You can read about this concept at this web site, but let me summarise it here. The efficiency dividend is defined as an ‘annual reduction in funding for the overall running costs of an agency’ so, if you were looking for a different way to say this, you might say ‘annual scheduled operational budget cut’. This is tied together with the concept of efficiency and is based on the assumption that a (public service) department will become steadily more productive over time and thus we can cut resources and still get the same level of output. Money saved here can then be used for other high priority projects. What this means to me is that we, as Universities, will get less money and must cut our resourcing but have to maintain our quality of outputs because of a staggering belief that there is some sort of dependable Moore’s Law productivity gain for public sector and quasi-government agencies – and this includes Universities. (Moore’s Law is “the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years” – Wikipedia – and is often reinterpreted as “computers double in speed every 18 months”. Moore’s Law is actually an observation and people who use it as a reliable prediction of the future are missing the point. I note that the semiconductor industry is starting to think that the doubling rate is dropping to ever three years, which makes this even less of a “Law”.)
Let me clear up something straight away. Yes, the schools need more funds, teachers need more pay and this is essential to our future and stability as a nation. And, yes, I know the money has to come from somewhere, but if we are going to trim under the illusion of doing it along productivity maintenance lines then let us clear up some fundamental misconceptions so that we know whether we are surgically trimming or whole carcass butchering.
It’s worth reading the whole document because it contains gems such as “The efficiency dividend also recognises that the public sector does not face the same incentives as the private sector to pass on gains from increased productivity in the form of lower prices.” Well, this is true, the public service is not in competition and the same is, to a reasonable extent, still true of schools. Most students will go to a mainstream public school funded by government and determined by where they live. Some will go to private schools that still get a sizeable chunk of change from the government. It is, however, unlikely that the majority of students will migrate to a different state to attend school and, conversely, setting up competing schools is a highly regulated activity (as one would actually hope) so competition is kept at bay.
What gets cut, usually? Let me quote from the document:
The efficiency dividend is primarily applied to departmental appropriations including ‘funding for depreciation/amortisation, Departmental and Administered Capital Budgets and Collection Development Acquisition Budgets’.  The dividend is also applied to ‘appropriations for other expenses of a departmental outputs type nature’ and ‘funding for all new policy initiatives following the year in which the new measures are introduced into those appropriations’.
Capital budgets, acquisition budgets, expenses incurred for outputs and new policy initiatives. At a time when the Federal Government is, at the same time, trying to increase the number of Australians in tertiary education and all of us a trying to work out if MOOC is some kind of long con or useful technology, a 2% cut in our ability to buy things, innovate and improve our teaching and research (our outputs) seems… odd.
It’s worth remembering that the Higher education sector is actually in a highly competitive market – at the national and international level. We face competition from other states and countries and if you think that the Group of 8 (the notional top 8 Universities in Australia) and the “almost 8s”, who are eyeing “weak” members in the group, aren’t already storing their powder and trimming sails to politely engage each other in a rather genteel multi-way replay of the battle for dominance of the trade routes, then you haven’t been paying much attention. On top of that, investment targeted at increasing international standing in the various lists is already redirecting funds. Putting on an ‘upwards trajectory’ Professor with lots of citations? Not only is that almost a no-brainer but many places will have special funds to target this. Where does that money come from? Existing staffing not being refilled, contracts not being renewed, outsourcing to a partial position at corporate rates to reduce overhead. I’m lucky in that we are not yet in the full grip of this – but take away 2% of our resource growth and development funding annually and it will be rampant soon enough. You know all of the travel I do? Almost all of the money for that comes from months or years of prior work, hard-fought competitive grants with travel components and the Uni pays for very little of it – 10 years ago they would have funded several of my trips. I’m lucky in that I got a start when the money was flowing because, right now, we’re beyond lean and mean and heading towards emaciated and angry. Yet, I come from a relatively well-off Uni with a fairly good market position. We’re only grumpy but I have colleagues at other places who are struggling to keep enough people to produce any outputs, let alone the high quality ones magically predicted by the efficiency dividend document.
And, please, let’s not forget that the vast majority of educators are already working well over allotted time, using their own resources, haven’t had real pay raises in many places for years and, in some cases, supporting their own students in order to keep education going. This is already unsustainable, for both productivity and quality of product, in the long term – making it harder isn’t sensible or in anyone’s long term interests. I’m sick of going to conferences to hear how many people have been made redundant in the past year – but it’s a deep pit of the stomach sickness because I know it’s not going to stop.
But let’s step sideways to look at a strange mechanism – the notion of fungible product. Something is fungible if units of it can be substituted. Crude oil is the common example used here – a barrel of crude is a barrel of crude. Can we make all of our products mutually substitutable, because that is one of the obvious ways that we somehow maintain the same output despite cutting back our production. If we designate the annual productivity of a government department as P, then this total productivity is made up of sub-tasks, p1…pn, which have some notional ‘benefit’. There are two ways we can increase the productivity – we can add more ‘p’s in later years, so we have pn+1 and so on, or we can increase the benefit of these sub-tasks. The productivity trade-off of the efficiency dividend assumes that, if it takes R resources to produce the ‘p’s, we can cut R by some value and somehow generate a subset of the ‘p’s that is still considered productive. However, if we had actually increased our productivity by increasing benefit (and let us assume that this maps to quality) then what we are now saying is that the cut in R means the removal of an existing service – not the removal of an added service. Now, yes, the obvious onus of this is on administrative efficiency and we can denote the administrative sub-services as ‘a’s. So P is now composed of the maximum number of ‘p’s and the minimum number of ‘a’s. Ultimately, we reduce down to one ‘a’ administrative service and we have the most efficient government department in the land – all but one of our efforts is directed at productivity. Hooray! The system works!
But this is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, the product of almost all of these areas is most certainly not fungible and we do not have a uniform value for quality, nor do we exist in a vacuum. Has it honestly been so long since “Yes Minister” that we have forgotten how important employment and transport are in marginal electorates? We don’t even have clean value propositions for those services that we wish to keep as benefit is so hard to pin down in a world where public money, public opinion and high profile representation intersect. Why are Unis being cut for schools? My dark suspicion is that this is the natural intersection of an election year and rather cynical calculation that more people have kids at schools than at Uni, hence this will please more voters. To meme for a moment, desperate government is desperate.
The second reason that this is wrong is that establishing the productivity of any given area is a highly controversial measure and tying a cut to reported productivity increases ignores any number of human factors, as well as compound interest. How long does it take a 2% annual ‘efficiency dividend’ to severely reduce the real budget? Let’s look at 25 years. After 25 years, your budget will be at 60% of its original figure. Please, stick your hand up if you provide me with a sound, evidence-based solution that will allow us to maintain the quality of the Universities with 60% of the cash. 3% per year? We’re under 50% of budget in 25 years. Managers are under pressure to report improvements in productivity but, having driven people to work harder, having already streamlined operations to do so, the reward is that, next year, it gets harder. As my colleagues in the US can tell you, there is a point at which you stop cutting fat and you start cutting flesh. In some parts of the US, they are nearly out of flesh and are using the bone saws to get at the marrow. That sound you hear from the disadvantaged states in the US is not the whistle of air escaping from the balloon, it is a straw sucking air from a hollow bone.
My friends, I am not the hardest working person I know, but I do know that I’m no longer shaking illnesses as quickly, my blood pressure is up, I don’t sleep as well and, given half a chance, I will spend the whole weekend working, only to discover that there is always six months more work ahead of me. I’m not sure I have 2% more to give – perhaps it is time I stepped aside for someone hungrier or better (or cheaper)? Will this give us the efficiency that is sought, when we remove me and my 20-odd years of educational experience, 7 at the higher ed level?
An interesting subsection of the document I’ve referred to is that exemptions are granted – either recurring or annually. Nine agencies continue to be exempt from efficiency dividends for a variety of reasons. Three are fully exempt: ABC, SBS (both broadcasters who are exempt because of election promises), Safe Work Australia (co-funded State/Fed). Six are partially exempt: CSIRO and Aust Inst of Marine Science, Australian Council of the Arts, Customs and Border Protection, ANSTO and DoD – all of whom can pretty much keep their cuts away from major operational areas because of FEAR to a large extent. (It’s always sad when xenophobia becomes one of the facets you depend upon for continued funding.)
In 2008-09, the following got a one year reprieve: Australian Trade Commission; Australian Fair Pay Commission Secretariat; Workplace Authority; Australian Prudential Regulation Authority; Australian Sports Commission
In 2012-13, another set with one year reprieves: Family Court of Australia; Federal Court of Australia; High Court of Australia; Federal Magistrates Court; Administrative Appeals Tribunal; Social Security Appeals Tribunal; National Native Title Tribunal; Migration Review Tribunal—Refugee Review Tribunal; Australian National Maritime Museum; National Gallery of Australia; National Museum of Australia; National Library of Australia; Australia Council for the Arts; Australian Film Television and Radio School; Australian Sports Commission; National Film and Sound Archive; National Archives of Australia; Old Parliament House (Museum of Australian Democracy); Screen Australia; Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies; Australian War Memorial; Torres Strait Regional Authority; Aboriginal Hostels Limited; Indigenous Business Australia; Indigenous Land Corporation; Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Confusingly, if you look at that list, the entire Australian higher education sector is ranked slightly lower in priority than a vast number of bodies who depend upon our scholarship and educational infrastructure and our increasingly (and overdue) embracing of more inclusiveness and outreach into non-traditional pathways. Yes, schools need money and, yes, money has to come from somewhere, but why are we interfering with one of the receiving points of the system we’re trying to fix!
This is, frankly, silly. When you have a water crisis, you have to find the water, make it drinkable and get it to people who need it. The pipeline is a great way to do this because it centralises your maintenance expenses and works as a distribution mechanism with much lower cost than container transport – lower waste footprint as well! But building giant shiny new taps in the city does not mean that the water will just magically appear with no intervening pipeline or treatment. Neither does building an intake in the ocean automatically mean that a disconnected sink in Wagga will suddenly yield clean water. Education is a pipeline from which we can only lose students. We start with a number at the start of primary school and we’ve lost a lot (over 80%) by the time we get to University. Transitioning students into higher ed is non-trivial, retention is not guaranteed and sometimes it’s hard enough to be 17 without throwing our stuff on top. Reducing our ability to innovate is making a hard situation harder. Reducing our ability to invest for the future doesn’t just hurt us now, it hurts us for decades to come.
Education costs money and we are already well beyond the salad days fondly remembered by politicians who were last in our system 20-30 years ago. Every professor we lose takes 20-25 years of knowledge with her or him. Every teaching assistant we don’t replace increases the student-teacher ratio and this, in turn, will have an effect in the future. Every time our educational system shrinks, we reduce the outputs in terms of graduates, therefore in terms of professionals and academics, which gives us a generational problem because, on this trend, that 25 year timeframe doesn’t just give us 60% of our budget, it gives us much fewer potential staff and this just keeps happening.
Education is the core of civilisation. Education should not be a tool of class warfare, a cheap grab at votes or overseen by people who wilfully refuse to think in anything other than 3-4 year terms – and I paint all sides of politics with this brush. Get some generational focus issues going – 25 year projects with no political currency or opportunism. Yes, let’s fix up the schools, but let’s not do so in order to funnel students into work training schemes to produce cheap labour with no hope of anything beyond that. Let’s look at education as what it is – a lifelong endeavour made up of schools, communities, Universities, businesses and government working together.
Goodness knows, we’re all working hard enough already. Maybe working together might give us enough total effort to do something about this.
I’ve recently been rather unwell. Too much travel, not enough sleep, not enough rest, but I’m now on the mend, which is great. I hope to pop out a few posts over the next couple of weeks – including the feared ‘post hoc’ analysis of last year’s effort in detail! We’ll see how that goes.
Right now, I’m managing the integration of a new kitten into a household of two older cats and my typing is slowed by issues of lap contention – one cat already there, one (or two) attempt to jump up. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday.