Dobsons's Top 10 Editorial Introduction Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

This is a special issue of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. It is not unknown, apparently, for an ex-editor to be invited to assemble a ‘special edition’ of the journal, in electronic form, that comprises a selection of past papers valued in one way or another by that ex-editor. It is therefore with great pleasure that I attempt to whet your appetite one final time with Dobson’s Top Ten. 

In the beginning….

The first issue of the Journal came to life in October 1979, having been established by the Australian Institute of Tertiary Education Administrators (AITEA), precursor to ATEM – the Association for Tertiary Education Management. It was called the Journal of Tertiary Educational Administration at first, slightly re-imagined as the Journal of Tertiary Education Administration sometime in the 1980s, the moniker it retained until the Journal ceased to be self-published in the mid-1990s. I wasn’t the editor then (Gavin Moodie and Vin Massaro were), but I had been the Journal’s business manager since the late 1980s. We were approached by the quietly-spoken but energetic Jerry Mayer of Carfax Publishing, now part of the Taylor & Francis Group, to publish under the Carfax banner. With Jerry’s guidance, we became a Carfax journal, morphing into the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, the title borne to this day. I continued to see Jerry at TEM conferences until, sadly, he died a couple of years ago.

Signing on with a publisher was something we were happy to do. With a professional publisher comes a team of professional copy editors and the publisher arranges the collection of subscriptions and journal distribution, a pair of messy exercises, indeed. As business manager, it was my duty to send out hundreds of invoices for subscriptions (to persons other than AITEA members), and I had to arrange distribution of the journal to members and subscribers. This bi-annual task filled my dining room for a couple of weeks at a time, whilst the distribution team (me and my primary school-aged children) stuffed journals into shiraz, jam and vegemite-stained envelopes, and applied address labels and postage stamps as straight as we could manage. My children probably learnt something from this regular exercise: they drove a hard bargain, and were probably earning more than if they’d been working at 7-Eleven or Domino’s. 

Enough of the reminiscences, and on with the show!

Contents of ‘the Special’

In assembling this collection, I thought that it should be a recreation of an entire issue, including all the things one sees in a typical journal. Therefore, this edition starts with the letter from the editors that graced the first issue of the journal, includes a couple of Vale notices, has ten papers that tickled my fancy in one way or another, and finishes with a couple of book reviews. The papers herein cover a few of my own interests in higher education: ‘administration’ and AITEA/ATEM; staff other than those with academic appointments; student attrition; and ethics committees. Then there are a couple of papers about what we might call ‘rubbery figures’, followed by three papers that explain eloquently many of the things wrong with the contemporary Australian university. Readers will find that some of them are drawn from a long time ago, but it is not uncommon for people in my demographic group to value the long-past ahead of the recent-past. I make no apologies for this, but I also think that each of the papers selected has something important to say about higher education in Australia, and its transition to what it has become now. 

So, let us begin…

Every journal should have a statement from the editor / editors. For this collection, I thought it appropriate to include the first-ever ‘editorial’, from when Vin Massaro and David Muffett were at the helm. In it, they note that “This journal is intended for people interested in the administration of tertiary education”, this contrasting with the normal target for scholarly journals, the academic staff of universities. The journal was produced BY administrators, FOR administrators, with scholarly papers written BY administrators. Over time, the proportion of papers written by managers and administrators has declined, but the Journal remains a suitable target for staff not holding academic appointments to publish their scholarly work. There are few such journals around; the Australian Universities’ Review, and Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education being among this minority. Our journal continues to be different!

It is a sad fact of life that people important to us in one way or another eventually pass on. Such people are often remembered by those that they helped. Everyone connected with the Journal was saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Grant Harman. Grant had been a major player in higher education policy, and he was an important long-term contributor to the Journal, as an author, reviewer and editorial board member. Lynn Meek remembered his life for the Journal in 2014. Another sad departure was Colin Plowman. Vin Massaro and colleagues assembled ‘an appreciation’ of Colin’s life and contribution to university administration and AITEA / ATEM.

Universities’ main purpose should be to teach the next generation of intellectual leaders, although teaching has been pushed into the background in recent years by research. Of course, it is relatively easy to measure ‘outputs’ in research, although governments and universities continue to treat some research ‘inputs’ (such as grant wins) as though they were ‘outputs’. Teaching is much less easy to reduce quantitatively, and it seems less favoured than in the past. Many connected with universities also seem to have forgotten that university teaching and research do not occur by themselves: more than half of university staff do not hold academic appointments. The people responsible for ‘administration’ should be acknowledged as being part of the direct scholarly push. 

On these matters, I have drawn three papers that I thought made an important contribution. First, Maree Conway provides a context for administrators (and ATEM) by pointing out that university administrators are accustomed to being ignored: by the government, the universities that employ them and many of the academics with whom they have daily contact. The government, for instance, continues to describe the majority of the university workforce in terms of what they are not: ‘non-academics’. Maree points out that working in a university for many is much more than just a job. This paper was published in 2000.

Judy Szekeres continues this line in her paper from 2004 called ‘The Invisible Workers’. As she notes “There appears to be either a total confusion in terminology about administration or a complete disregard for administrators’ work but in most cases administrative staff in universities are largely invisible”. Her paper “explores a range of texts (academic, government reports and novels) and provides a picture of how the work of administrators and the staff themselves are represented”. 

Carroll Graham is another author in this area. She notes that there is considerable discussion about the ‘greying’ academic workforce, but those with the skill to manage and administer universities are not getting any younger. In her paper ‘Investing in Early Career General Staff’ (2009), she points out that there ought to be more institutional investment in general staff. 

The Journal has published many other papers on ‘general staff’, and other authors such as Celia Whitchurch, Sue Wohlmuther, Darlene Sebalj, Julie-Anne Regan, Kate Ricketts, Judith Pringle, and even Ian Dobson pop up from time to time in this discussion. One thing that should be acknowledged by governments and universities alike is that as more and more general staff have doctoral-level qualifications, they could equally become academics! However, isn’t it more than annoying when universities fill important central admin jobs with not-great academics? Not-great academics often become not-great administrators, and in the process, they have kept a career administrator from a senior job.

Student progress and student attrition have long been reciprocal topics of interest to me. A lot has been written on this subject, but relatively little of it has been published in our Journal. The paper included here was written in 1994 by Raj Sharma and Zena Burgess from the Swinburne University of Technology. Their study considered a range of factors: personal, demographic, institutional and environmental, with the general aim of improving future institutional policy and planning directions. Raj Sharma also holds the distinction of having had more papers published in our Journal than any other person.

A more recent interest for me has been the impact of universities’ human research ethics committees. It isn’t that I’m against ethical research, but forcing researchers not dealing directly with children, other humans or animals to fill in the same 40- or 50-page form seemed ludicrous. I recall an occasion when it was suggested that I should seek ethics committee approval before I used data sets freely available for downloading from the internet. The paper on ethics committees (institutional review boards (IRBs) as they are known in the USA) reproduced here is by Caleb T Carr, from Illinois State University. It is entitled ‘Spotlight on ethics: institutional review boards as systemic bullies’. In the paper, he looks at the bullying that can arise from the IRBs’ “increasing expansion beyond their federally mandated guidelines and roles, capricious review and approval practices, and resource-intensive processes…”. It could never happen here!

For the ‘rubbery figures’ section, I selected two papers. The first of these is by Wolfgang Grichting, at that time a professor of social science at the University of Tasmania. It is entitled ‘Do Storks Really Bring Babies?’, and was published in 1992. His target in this instance was the Affirmative Action Agency (AAA). As he states, “the entire argument [in the AAA legislation] seems to be predicated on the assumption that women are discriminated against because of their gender rather than because of some characteristics which may be highly correlated with gender. By focusing on gender in an effort to overcome discrimination against women….one commits the same old fallacy as the individual who attempts to explain the variation in birth rates through the presence or absence of storks in the immediate neighbourhood”. It has an intriguing title, and is a readable paper.

A more recent paper that points the finger at dodgy data interpretation was written by the much-published Kaycheng Soh from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. (See Volume 39, no. 1). He puts world university rankings under the microscope, noting the statistical problems that ensue. He describes the ‘seven deadly sins’ of world university rankings. One of these is the inconsistency between changes in ranking and overall scores: just because a university climbs (or drops) several places on a rank scale, it does not mean that academic excellence has improved (or vice versa). Kaycheng has also written extensively on grade point averages (GPA). If you wish to look into these relativity-assessing metrics, your friendly neighbourhood search engine will help you find his papers.

Rubbery figures are with us all the time in Australian higher education. Just look at the Australian Research Council’s unscientific journal ranking scheme. Even if the Minister of the day (Senator Kim Carr) formally abandoned the scheme at the end of May 2011, try telling that the Australian universities that continue to ‘assess’ academic staff on the basis of an out-of-date, discredited list. If we could see the report card on the ARC, it would probably read “Could try harder”.

Next, we have three papers that tickled my fancy. The first of these, from 1980, is by erstwhile administrator and mate of mine, Arthur O’Neill. He presents a simple tale, concerning reactions to changes to the arrangements for providing tea and coffee to staff at the Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences (which subsequently disappeared into La Trobe University): “This is the story of a tempest in a tertiary institution”. The paper looks at the reaction to the decision to make staff pay for their morning and afternoon tea and coffee, when it had previously been provided gratis. “A relatively trivial matter touched staff deeply and excited more response than any other college issue of recent times”, he says. I seem to recall from my early-1970s days at a major city-based institution’s library that ‘Tea and Coffee Club’ was a regular, much discussed item at the fortnightly Senior Management Group meetings. Priorities have to be set!

Another sad thing about modern life has been the decline of the use of English. (Yes, this is my opinion). Gabrielle Baldwin wrote this paper “…from a personal concern about current developments in higher education [1994], in Australia and overseas.” Her concern is about the “colonisation” of universities, leading to “… a wholesale usurpation of customs, structures, values and perceptions”. She notes that a key element in colonisation is language. Examples includes the rise of ‘quality’: its reification and the increasing use of a noun as a verb. ‘Quality’ was definitely the go in the 1990s; apparently, we tried to do things poorly before then. Universities created job titles such as ‘deputy vice-chancellor – quality’, but as former colleague Jim McGrath once noted, no university appointed a ‘deputy vice-chancellor – quantity’, as logical as that would have been. (See Jim’s book reviews in the special issue). Gabrielle is also critical of the language of business and industry into universities, and the transformation of students into ‘clients’. 

Finally, to round off the papers in this special edition is one by Joseph Gora “operating undercover at one of Australia’s larger universities”. It was published in 2011. His inciteful writing uses humour to highlight the situation Australian universities find themselves in. This paper, entitled ‘No Place to Hide, No Place to Run’, is about the ‘24/7’ pressures on university academics via the “never-ending inquiries that flow through emails and online discussion boards that sap their energy and wit”. He points to the myriad trivial student inquiries: ‘It’s been 12 hours since I wrote to you! What is going on?’; ‘Should subtitles be in bold?’; ‘Should the question mark follow the full stop?’. Gora reports that “The response of academics to such inquiries is determined to a large extent by the all-consuming terror of the student complaint…”. And so on! Eventually we discovered that there was no Joseph Gora at all. In fact, Joseph’s alter ego is none other than Richard Hil, author of best sellers Whackademia (2012) and Selling Students Short (2015).

That’s it for Dobson’s Top Ten papers, so it’s time to move onto the book reviews. Jim McGrath reviewed Don Watson’s Death Sentence, and Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. The former looks largely at some of the vapid and content-free writing that emanates from the contemporary public sector, including universities. One of McGrath’s concerns about Watson’s book is its layout, which requires the reader to flip backwards and forwards through the book. This book was later published in the US as Death Sentences, and in that edition, the layout is ‘normal’. (Of course, the spelling is American, which is a pity). Within that review, McGrath segues into an examination of the ‘strategic plan’ of a large university, strategic plans being the source of considerable amounts of content-free writing. I can’t tell you which university it was, but he used to work at Monash! In the second review, he looks at Truss’s book on punctuation. He didn’t really like it. “Much of the book is chatter, prattle and gush”, says McGrath. He prefers Eric Partridge’s You Have a Point There (1953). I didn’t mind the book myself, but its title does remind me of a joke about a wombat.

I hope that you enjoy some, if not all of these papers and the other ‘journal bits’. ATEM members should never forget that they have their very own scholarly journal, one that became stronger once the LH Martin Institute became co-proprietor a few years ago, with sage advice from its inaugural director Lynn Meek and his successor Leo Geodegebuure. If you are not already a member of ATEM, become one today!

I’m no longer the editor, but it was a role I enjoyed for nearly all the 16 years I spent at the helm, and as its business manager for more than a decade before that. Of course, the journal is now in excellent hands. With Peter Bentley and Carroll Graham taking over the mantle, the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management will go on to bigger and better things!

I wish the Journal and all who sail in her all the best for the future!

Ian R Dobson