The Productivity Commission tries to think about the Education and Training Sector

The report of the Productivity Commission on the Tertiary Education Sector “New Models of Tertiary Education” is complacent.

The report observes that in the decade from 2001 to 2011, the ratio of non-academic and academic staff in the public tertiary educational system rose from about equal to six non-academics to five academics. In fact the number of academic staff has fallen slightly between 2005 and 2011 while non-academic numbers have risen. That probably means that the amount of teaching has fallen because the amount of research funding – and hence research time – has risen.

The report’s figures seem to suggest that the number of students has been falling over the period. (Unfortunately the report makes little effort to provide a comprehensive database, which is a signal that analytic rigour is not a priority.) So perhaps teaching numbers should fall. But why the rise of non-academic staff? Rather than investigate this question – an important issue if you are concerned about productivity – the report concludes lamely that ‘[t]he Commission has been unable to find more detailed information about the particular changes in composition that underlie these data.’

Or take its coverage of the system of Performance Based Research Funding. It reports the unease many academics have about the scheme. Let me remind you of just some of the PBRF’s weaknesses.
            - it has resulted in quality teachers, deemed to have poor research records, being laid off;
            - it distorts research in some subjects away from the deep and penetrating to the quick and superficial;
            - it is administratively clumsy, involving high transaction costs;
            - the measurement system is gamed (academics often use the term ‘corrupt’);
            - it is misused to portray to students the impression of the quality of the teaching and of their degrees (which is another form of corruption).

I would have thought this was an appropriate area for a productivity commission to investigate and suggest improvements. The report does not.

Or to go to the other end of the sector. It is clear that in a number of areas – most evidently for private institutions offering qualifications to foreign students – quality control is inadequate. It relies on students being able to make an assessment backed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (as an examination of websites portrays). Students starting a course are poorly placed to judge its quality, while the evidence suggests the NZQA has failed miserably to monitor standards, probably because its culture and focus is on secondary education. At the very least this suggests there is a need for a thorough investigation perhaps concluding that the tertiary sector needs a different agency for external quality assessment. There was no such consideration.

These are but some examples of how the Productivity Commission failed to do its job. To understand why, consider its remark that there is a need to avoid ‘false [and] outdated distinctions between "education" and "training" [and] between "academic" and "vocational" learning.’ Of course one should avoid falsehoods and outdated distinctions, but that does not mean there are no valid or universal ones. The report does not pursue this possibility.

One recalls the 1925 Reichel-Tate Royal Commission saying that New Zealand universities ‘offer[] unrivalled facilities for gaining university degrees but ... [are] less successful in providing university education’, which is close to suggesting that they were good at providing certificates but not at teaching anything fundamental. You may think things have got better in the last ninety years but one wonders whether the tertiary education system is drifting back towards a focus on certification.

As far as I know, the lack of distinction between education and training was first proposed in the 1989 Hawke Report on post-compulsory education prepared in the Rogernomics era.

To understand what is going on, go back to Keynes’ ‘[p]ractical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’

So what is the defunct economics? It is that the tertiary education sector should be run as a competitive industry, with the subtext that the highest performance occurs when businesses (here they are educational institutions) are privately owned and operated. The report quotes favourably a couple of academics who argue this, and is particularly revealing when it responds to the question ‘[i]s a university more like a workers’ collective than a hierarchy?’

For it dismisses the question without even discussing whether it is true. (Most academics would say that their institutions have become increasingly hierarchical and that today the so-called academic staff include increasing numbers of administrators who neither teach nor research which makes the evffective non-academic to academic staff ratio even higher and rising even faster.) The Productivity Commission favours a hierarchical model of governance, more like – as it says – that of a commercial business.

What strikes one is how unreflective the report is. Its writers were practical men and women enslaved to a defunct theory. (One might wonder, ironically, whether they had been educated to question the ideas they hold.)

Simple competitive models do not work well in the vocational training area and even less in educational ones. (This ‘even less’ generates the need to deny the distinction between education and training.) That is why the system has a plethora of government controls to try to make up for the defects in a competitive tertiary system. Given the imperfect underlying model, the government has to keep increasing its interventions. The Productivity Commission’s recommendations will breed further regulation which will require even more non-academic staff to manage them.

My view is that the report should be treated as a historic documen only. Such recommendations it makes should be treated with the greatest caution to avoid implicitly buying into support of the faulty ideology. Ideally, somewhere in the educational sector, a group of academics should propose alternative way of organising the system. They would, of course, risk their PBRF ratings and also of getting laid-off; we cannot have someone in a vocational training sector challenging the conventional wisdom.