Architectural Blatherations

What Australian Universities Don't Want You to Know

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The Good Oil

Australian universities have many good qualities. And many that are simply despicable. Prime amongst these is a formidable insecurity and fear of accountability. Australian academics spend their lives assessing students, but despise the concept that they themselves may be assessed: by their students, by their peers, or by the public.

Australian universities suppress information: the CEQ scandal

The last thing the Australian universities want you to know is how their students rate them. We present our case in point.

For many years, we ranked Australia's architecture schools in terms of student satisfaction. For our data, we used the annual Australian Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). The annual CEQ was a survey of all the previous year's graduates in every discipline in every Australian university, as to their opinions on their recent education. As far as we know, this survey was unique in the English-speaking world.

The CEQ was conducted by Graduate Careers Australia (GCA). While the work was done by the GCA, the results were published on the Universities Australia (UA) website. Universities Australia is the successor to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. It is the industry peak body representing all of Australia's universities.

Universities Australia provided free public access to the CEQ data for nigh on 15 years. It also provided a code of practice, which sternly remonstrated researchers from misusing their precious data1.

In 2009, Universities Australia decided to remove the CEQ data from public inspection. Not only the new data from 2008, but the entire CEQ database going back to 1994.

Want to know what Australian students think of their education? You can't find out. Universities Australia doesn't want you to know. We here at Architectural Blatherations will continue to fight the timid and fearful academics that cower behind UA's diktats. We will continue to publish assessments of Australia's architecture academics.

In an email to us, Dr Glenn Withers—the chief hooplehead at Universities Australia —justified his organisation's retreat from openness and transparency with some classic Sir Humphrey Appleby codswallop:

Ongoing public access to the GCA data through the Universities Australia website was in breach of the AVCC-GCA Code of Practice 2001[1] (available on the GCA website) governing the use of the survey data. This was specifically in respect to release of any survey results at all where response rates are less than 50%, and more generally in relation to provision of data to third parties by anyone other than the GCA. When this was brought to our attention Universities Australia was obliged to act promptly to remove access to those data through our website.

Tears streaming from his aged eyes, Dr Withers weepingly told us that, alas! alas! contractual responsibilities to Graduate Careers Australia forced his own Universities Australia to remove the CEQ data. So sad, so very sad.

That's not what Graduate Careers Australia (GCA) says. As Dr Bruce Guthrie of the GCA emailed us:

…Can I firstly just invite you direct your astonishment at UA, as it was they who took our data off their site. This was not our decision. They were concerned that they could not ensure the security of the data in terms of ensuring that only bona fide researchers had access to it. I'm curious as to what it was that made you assume this was a GCA decision?

Dr Guthrie implied that Graduate Careers Australia was indifferent to the Universities Australia's publication of the data.

Dr Withers, who is telling the truth? We know you take yourself very, very seriously. We're sure that broomstick up your arse helps you maintain your gravitas when having tiffin with the Queen. Frankly, we're going with Bruce Guthrie here as the more reliable, the more intelligent, and the less pompous-arse witness than you. Send us an email if you disagree.

From the archives: Australian universities stifle dissent

Although publicly funded, Australian universities make the Freemasons or the CIA look like amateurs when it comes to secrecy, paranoia and concealment.

Partly we suspect this is a generational matter. In Dr Garry's own day-job IT company, the senior management are all in their forties. The same is the case in all of Australia's dynamic companies. At Aussie universities the senior managers are reckoned as babes if they haven't turned sixty. They have that suspicious and closed nature characteristic of those who do not want any boats rocked that may threaten large retirement payments; combined with a deep bureaucratic distrust of openness and transparency. Add to this the fact that they cannot be fired, and one ends up with a senior management with the flexibility of concrete.

You may think this is an overly strong criticism. Surely, all these academics are very intelligent, and committed to the fullest intellectual debate.

Suing other universities

Ah, no. A prize example of Australian academic suppression comes from the University of Western Australia (UWA). In 1997 they threatened the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) with a lawsuit because a web site run by one of UB's students was not entirely flattering of UWA. You can read about this insane attempt to suppress free speech across the Pacific in an article in the University of Buffalo Reporter.

Another surreal attempt was the University of Adelaide's threat to its sister university, the University of Wollongong, in New South Wales, Australia. Further articles about these attempts at suppression by supposed free-thinking intellectuals can be found in an article by Professor Brian Martin. And we Aussies thought we lived in a free country!

Marks for money, grades for greed

In early 2001 a series of articles appeared in Australian newspapers detailing an entrenched culture of marks-for-money (or, for North American readers, grades-for-greed) in Australian academia. A choice example was provided by the University of Melbourne, in which a wealthy mature-age student offered his department millions of dollars of funding. He also offered several of his lecturers (professors) $250,000 each (about four times their annual salary) to take up positions in a new research institute of his own funding.

In a result that only serves to vindicate some of Carl Jung's theories on coincidence, the student quickly had his grades moved from Fail to Pass, and even higher. Some academics were worried about the proprieties. The head honcho of the university, the Vice-Chancellor, commissioned a report from one of his own employees, the Dean of the Law School. In a spirited display of impartiality, the Dean piously exonerated all of Melbourne's academics from the least taint of wrong-doing.

None of this, of course, was made public at the time, in 1998. It only surfaced in early 2001 in Federal Parliament, when the Shadow Minister for Education, Senator Kim Carr, revealed all: two years after the events took place. Oddly, the university's administration have declined to comment, and university professors have been forbidden to mention the matter on pain of instant dismissal.

Blowing the whistleblowers

The scandals kept growing. There is mounting evidence that entrenched corruption is the very hallmark of senior administrators through out the country. We quote from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of January 18th 2001, about a whistleblower at the University of Wollongong:

Wollongong University vice chancellor Professor Gerard Sutton has repeatedly denied any grade doctoring has taken place at the university. Associate professor Ted Steele, the man who accused Wollongong University of doctoring grades, agreed to take the matter no further after a departmental meeting last Wednesday. Dr Steele claimed that at least two of his honours students' marks were changed from a fail to a high grade. Last week's Biological Sciences Department meeting confirmed the process was not compromised in the cases of the two students in question. Biological Sciences head Mark Walker said in each case a composite mark was produced from the assessment items.

The university claims Dr Ted Steele denied that he had said he had been instructed to upgrade honours theses - an allegation which caused a furore when reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. But Dr Steele said he made no such denial and attacked the university's version of what he said at the 45-minute meeting of 13 key academics of the School of Biological Sciences.

That's rubbish, he said. I told the meeting I was concerned that the story of the upgrade to PhD entry level and middle range pass got out into the open public domain. That quite frankly I was thoroughly disgusted by the way the department upgraded those marks.

The University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gerard Sutton, said no mark had been changed. The process of the department has been followed to the letter, he said.

Dr Steele said his job had not been threatened at yesterday's meeting.

In February 2001 Professor Steele's optimism was proved wrong. Using the same sort of oppressive law that protects odious petty tyrants everywhere, Professor Sutton fired Steele on the grounds that he has brought the university into disrepute. No, Professor Sutton, it is you who have sullied the name of the university.

1. This addle-headed document pretends to prohibit the users of its statistics from making comparisons between universities. We have been taken to task for ignoring this prohibition. We shall continue to do so. This document should not only be ignored, it should be burnt: it is a testament to the academic cowardice that relegates Universities Australia to the lower rungs of the world's universities. There is a very good reason why there are so few Australian universities in the ARWU top 100 list, and the attitude of this code exemplifies it. Australian academics are scared witless by the notion of performance assessment, and even more so of inter-school comparisons. Their attitude is that if they all keep their heads down and pretend everyone is doing the same wonderful job, then no one will notice just what a bunch of mediocre teachers they are.