Thursday, March 31, 2011

Belshaw's World - university now a different world

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 16 March 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Well, we have moved house.

In the end it was a bit of a nightmare. Actually, it was a complete nightmare!

When we moved, eldest daughter was in Copenhagen, while my wife was in New Zealand on business. Youngest helped, but she had university commitments as well. So much of it fell to me.

I don’t want to bore you with it, but I find that I can no longer lug around book boxes quite as easily as I used to. Somehow, they have got heavier! Or have I got older? Really, I am in denial about that one.

Given the move, I don’t feel like writing a serious column this week: in it’s place a meander on some of the things that have involved me since my last column.

Youngest is producing the Ancient History Review at Macquarie University.

As her father, I could wish she put the same effort into her studies! Still, I really don’t have a leg to stand on here. After all, I can remember myself in third year uni!

Second table on the left was our table in the Union. There we gathered between lectures, sometimes to work, more often just to argue. I also spent far more time in the pub, in fact, than my girls do now.

I know that the world has changed since I was at uni. That’s a truism. Still, I have to remember those changes.

I graduated in a world of lots of jobs for graduates, of permanent employment. We also entered the workforce at quite an early age.

My girls live in a very different world.

With twelve years’ schooling, the usual gap year and longer university courses, kids finish studying at a later age. They then enter into a job world where the increase in the number of graduates means that graduates are taking jobs once the preserve of school leavers.

This is a world, too, where jobs or even entire occupational classifications can vanish quickly.

I do wonder about the value of the current focus on sometimes narrow vocational training. Both my girls have opted for broader courses that better reflect their interests, as an increasing number of their cohorts seem to be doing.

I feel that this plus their extra curricular interests will actually help them get that first, critical, full time position.

During the week, there was an interesting discussion on postgraduate education triggered by the remarks of Professor Larkin from Melbourne University.

Professor Larkin argued that there should be fewer PhD students, that they be full time and better paid. Built into his remarks were the apparent implicit assumptions that PhD students were young and that the PhD was training for entry into later stages of a career, especially in academe.

The reality is a little different. The average PhD student is more likely to be in the forties, the number studying part time is now around 50 per cent, while a large number are studying for personal reasons, not to achieve a ticket.

The world of the postgraduate student across all levels has become quite complex.

Debates have been raging about postgraduate qualifications, including the desire of Melbourne University to use the title “doctor” for what are in fact masters level courses.

I have watched these debates with a degree of despair. To my mind, they have little to do with students or the student experience, much to do with university positioning in a competitive world.

I haven’t properly absorbed the latest proposed changes to the Australian qualifications framework. On the surface, they appear to be something of a compromise that will, among other things, add to systemic complexity.

I seem to have settled into an education theme, so will finish on that theme.

While I am very critical of the management of Australia’s universities, I do understand the problems they face. In particular, they live in an unstable world in which actions are dictated by external forces.

During the week I reread Mathew Jordon’s history of UNE as part of my preparation for a seminar paper I have to deliver in Armidale in a few weeks’ time.

I was struck by the way the early College and University retained a consistent strategic focus over a very long period. That was very important, for it took almost forty years for the university to achieve some of the key objectives that emerged in the early days.

Forty years! That’s a very long time. Today, with constant chops and changes to official policy and funding, it’s hard for a university to maintain a consistent strategy over three years, let alone forty!

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