The Closure Alternative

This page written circa 10 August, 2013.

"Whackademia", by Richard Hil, is the book of the month here. It is a social study of the financially-squeezed, administratively-overburdened, pathetically-lead universities in Australia. Humorous by virtue of its cherry-picked worse cases, though not through any factual exaggeration, it requires a solid sense of humour on the part of the reader not to despair. There really is much less research coming out of Commonwealth universities, and the standard of both university entrants (school leavers) and university graduates really has fallen significantly in the last few decades. All this has resulted from reduced education budgets, increased administrative and management overheads, and undue concentration on short-term, commercial payback. Hil describes this as neo-liberalism gone wild. This is the system I left in the 1990s, "jumping the wall" in Hil's terminology.

A recent New Yorker article on Gina Rinehart (archived here) "skewers" her, in the words of one commentator. That is skewer in the sense of "accurately capture" as well as "deliver some damage". The article does point out that some of what she says is in accord with more credible critics, for example journalist and academic Paul Cleary, who is quoted as arguing in a recent book called " Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia's Future," that the resources boom is being classically mismanaged,

indicting both federal and state governments for failing to regulate and tax properly the multinational corporations flocking to Australia to extract nonrenewable resources such as iron ore. As a counterexample, he offers Norway's management of its offshore-oil boom. Norway, with a population of five million, has taxed the major oil companies heavily and created the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, now worth more than seven hundred billion dollars, insuring the prosperity of future generations. Australia is doing nothing comparable with a boom that Cleary describes as a "once-in-a-century opportunity".
I agree with Gina, to the extent that there is a good risk that "the government is running up debt to support a popular but unsustainable welfare state", much as in the UK. Australian government is certainly an icon of mismanagement. With regard to universities and higher education, however, the mismanagement runs contrary to the aims of socialism, in both the long and the short terms. The laudable government goal for 30+% of the populace to have college-level education for the knowledge century has not pulled up the collective intellect, but pulled down the standard of the college education. Surprise surprise, the intelligence of homo sapiens is not increasing, and paradoxically neither is his education. No bias to the incompetence, then.

My professional development course this semester is "Accounting Management". The lecturer started by playing the Monty Python "Vocational Guidance Counsellor" skit and telling us that this had done massive and unreasonable damage to the profession of accountant. So far this paper has not dispelled the apprehension imparted by that skit. The most I have learnt about accountancy I got from reading the lecturer's PhD which my colleague Andrea dug out while we were checking to see if the whole show was really legit. In defence of that benighted profession, it has undergone two "revolutions" since I studied it in 1977. The whole discipline still comes across as rather narrow. The first accounting revolution, bringing double-entry bookeeping, was reported first by Luca Pacioli in the fifteenth century. What he reported amounts to the principle of "conservation of money". It was proposed centuries before "conservation of energy", a good start. However, Accountancy has not stretched the mind a lot since then, and later revolutions do not introduce anything you might call a threshold concept. Well, maybe the DuPont model. One might interpret this as beancounters attempting to better their lot by incorporating ideas beyond bookeeping and changing their title from "Accountant" to "Management Accountant". Selling accountants as managers could well be what has caused a lot of the strife. John Cleese was right after all.

When I was a high-school student in the late 1960s a common joke, probably already old by then, ran "Ladies and gentlemen, we are landing in Melbourne, please set your watches back 40 years". When I was an undergraduate student in the early 1970s we joked similarly about New Zealand, then a financial basket case, but it was 20 years as I recall. While a peripatetic academic in the 1980s, I could reliably expect to return to Sydney with clothing designs or a new high-tech gadget that had not appeared in Australia, but that expectation vanished by the 1990s. When we moved to California in the mid-1990s we got the feeling that we had jumped forward a few years, that Sydney had been just that little bit behind the times. Over the years globalisation and the internet have meant that these differences have been flattened out. Everybody buys new iPhones, sees new movies or whatever, on the same weekend. The differences between countries are now policy-limited issues. The playing field is more level, at least in trade and information. Government expenditure on health, education and research is not the same everywhere, but it is remarkably similar in OECD countries. It is always nice to have some other country try out a new idea first. If it proves a winner you copy, if it's a debacle you breathe a sigh of relief.

This prudency fails in cases where it takes a long time for a serious mistake to cause serious harm. I believe the education funding mistake is in this category, and whackademia the first sign of the debacle. Free education is not the answer, I opine as a tangent. That gave Australia its current crop of politicians. Subsidised education is the right line, with the subsidy being greater when the student is cleverer or poorer, but rarely total. I surprise myself by advocating a middle line, how unextreme, irradical, out of character.

New Zealand is still behind in a few ways, a consequence of its size, sparsity, and its geographical isolation. Fortunately, in terms of buggering its university system, it does seem to be about 2 decades behind Australia. Things here are not in the same mess as they are in Oz. I am not saying this solely on the basis of Whackademia, but reinforced by personal stories and first-hand observations on both sides of the pond. On the down side, I have the same feeling now that I had in the early 1990s at Sydney University... things are shifting and there is a distinct squeeze starting. Circa 2011 my alma mater at Sydney U made all its technicians redundant, expecting academics and graduate demonstrators to take up the slack. My old EE school has whackademically imploded. We have dug our heels in here at Waikato, claiming that the two departed technical support staff must be replaced for the labs to continue. This may prove to be the test of viability.

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