The slide of academic standards in Australia: a cautionary tale

When thinking about academic standards, it’s important to think about the incentives to keep standards high - or low. from www.shutterstock.com.au

The recent furore about academic standards in Australian higher education – including Monday night’s damning Four Corners expose – has the potential to bring not only desperately needed attention, but actual change, to the sector.

The uninitiated observer of this frenzy may struggle to gain a balanced understanding of what has gone wrong, and how much more wrong it has gone in Australia than in other countries.

Let’s take a good look through the lens of an economist at where academic standards come from and how they are nurtured, so as to have a hope of crafting an Australian policy remedy.

Lesson 1: incentives matter

Any economist recognises these as the most important two words that our discipline offers. In the case of what is taught in higher education, the “cui bono?” question – meaning “to whose benefit?” in Latin – asks who stands to gain from actively upholding academic standards, and who stands to gain from their decline.

Let’s first consider the top leadership of a university: those responsible for making ends meet. This group, having increasingly lost ground in the battle for funding from the Commonwealth and having precious little endowment or alumni-sourced revenue – frequent go-to sources in other countries – has been pushed further and further toward dependence on the market for education services in order to meet its spending targets.

This translates into a need to focus squarely on customer appeal. The question then changes to: what do young high school graduates want from university?

Most want a job when they get out, and most also want to have a pleasant student experience, and neither of these is particularly well-correlated with their program’s level of academic excellence. Most also want to attend the best university that they can get into, and this would normally lead to pressure to uphold academic standards, since the university that is seen as “the best” will presumably be more successful at attracting students.

What do school leavers look for in a university? Student experience, job readiness, or academic rigour? from www.shutterstock.com.au

However, university quality isn’t always obvious to an outsider. What’s more, Australian domestic students do not typically change cities in order to attend university, meaning that Group of Eight universities all have either monopoly or two-player oligopoly access to demand from most of the top students within their home city.

This translates into market power for those institutions lucky enough to be already at the top of the rankings, which in turn means less of a competitive incentive to keep standards high in order to keep students coming.

Finally, let’s consider the incentives of academics. Academics are judged on both research productivity and teaching “quality”, where the latter is typically measured using student evaluations of teaching that are conducted online.

Because no serious incentives are given to students to fill in these online forms, most response samples are comically small in size. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that those students who do fill out evaluations are frequently the ones who either adored or hated the teacher.

Students don’t like feeling bad about their performance or being pulled up for academic misconduct, and can use teaching evaluations as a vehicle to make their displeasure known.

Academics also frequently face large time and effort costs if they pursue problems like plagiarism and academic misconduct, not to mention the raised eyebrows from university management if too large a fraction of students fail.

In sum, the university bureaucracy sees strong incentives to let standards slide in order to please prospective students and thereby get more revenue, while the individual academic at the coal face sees strong incentives to go easy on students so that students are happy and the academic’s chances of promotion are favourable.

Lesson 2: academia is defined by academics

Notwithstanding the protestations of teaching and learning administrators, academic standards cannot be perfectly pinned down in assessment rubrics or statements of learning objectives.

This is because evaluating university students’ work is largely subjective: it is based on the gut feel of the person doing the evaluation, where that gut feel is formed over years of exposure to the type of work that is expected in the given discipline.

This means that academics are ultimately the only valid institutional store of knowledge about what academic standards should be.

Academics are really the only ones who can say what academic standards should be. from www.shutterstock.com.au

There is a better chance of Australian universities keeping up with international best practice if academics have been rigorously trained, are active in professional bodies, travel regularly to high-profile conferences, and so on.

In truly world-class universities, the bureaucracy plays second fiddle to the academics who produce the service that the university sells. By contrast, in many universities in Australia, arguably the tail is wagging the dog.

Entrenched and disproportionately powerful bureaucracies act like fiefdoms, perennially announcing new platforms that the rank-and-file scurry to be seen to embed, and rewarding or punishing academics in accordance with how well they are seen to toe the party line.

The policy response

What to do? Some countries have trialled the creation of explicit sector-wide learning standards, endorsed by various groups, in a bid to control what gets taught (like the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes in the UK).

Make students surveys compulsory. Ed Yourdan/Flickr, CC BY

The Commonwealth-sponsored National Discipline Standards in Australia project, which taps selected professionals from across the country to develop explicit statements of academic standards in different fields (such as economics), falls under this heading. Without wide adoption by academics and embedding in university departments, however, such standards have a hollow ring to them.

No intervention will provide an overnight fix. Those who benefit from the present system will wince at the prospect of the potential remedies below being put to public debate and independent evaluation.

  1. Require student evaluations to be submitted by every student as a pre-requisite for the release of their final marks each semester. This small systems change – designed to shift students’ incentives to provide feedback – will make the provision of student feedback operate more like voting, and less like blackmail.

  2. Have teachers evaluate each other on a rotating basis and use these evaluations in promotion decisions. At the same time, mandate the complete freedom of individual academics to fail as many students as they see fit to fail, ensuring that appeal committees (staffed by academics) and support services are in place to process an increase in the numbers of failing students.

  3. Connect the admissions and teaching functions of the university by increasing the voice of teaching academics in the admissions process. Admissions decisions are an academic matter, and should be treated as such.

  4. Mandate an increase in the voice of academics within university governance more broadly. While Commonwealth funding to the higher education sector has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years, it is also true that large amounts of money are spent on large salaries to university bureaucrats with questionable academic credentials. We should design university governance to raise the voice of those who know what academic standards are, and whose personal incentives it serves to uphold them.


Read more of The Conversation’s coverage of Academic dishonesty in Australia here.

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