29 April 2012

Universities cut their noses to spite their faces

National's convention centre deal may have taken the cake as scandal du jour, but our esteemed universities were outed last week too. Radio NZ's John Gerritsen inquired into the anomalous statistics about eligibility of staff at the universities for the Tertiary Education Commission's research assessment (the Performance-Based Research Fund, PBRF) being undertaken this year. (Listen here and here.)
The PBRF is highly competitive partly due to the share of funding it delivers, but also due to the quality evaluation that it produces for institutions, creating a league-table. One way to get higher up the league-table is to rule out of eligibility for the assessment as many staff who have not produced research in the last 6 years as possible. So, rankings have almost as much to do with how effectively a university can manipulate the system, by (among other things) manipulating staff employment agreements, as they do with the production of actual research.
But this has produced some perverse outcomes. In its desperate bid to remain at the top of the league-table, Otago University is claiming (according to a study carried out for the TEC by KPMG) that nearly one third of its staff contribute to teaching or research only 'under strict supervision' by a properly qualified member of academic staff. No doubt they would bleat about the numbers of clinical staff who both practice and teach in medicine and dentistry. But, really, what kind of high-quality university has a third of its staff unable to do research and to teach at degree level independently? The alternative interpretation of the figures, of course, is that there has been some cheating going on, but Brutus, of course, was an honorable man.
Turning our attention to Victoria University, blogger David Farrar recently highlighted their unethical uses of employment agreements which are meant to ensure that research-inactive staff would not be counted in the TEC's census of staff in June 2012. It's hard to believe, but, according to KPMG's initial preparedness survey, Victoria University is claiming that 60% of its academic staff are not eligible for the PBRF assessment. That is, Vic 'admits' that most of their staff are not full-time and fully-qualified academics. And yet they still want us to believe that they are a university!
The deep irony is that, in their efforts to improve their reputations on the PBRF quality-score league-table for research, some institutions are jeopardising their own reputations as credible universities by saying that so many of their staff are incapable of the basic duties of academic life!
 If you have teenagers planning on university study, would you send them to an institution that declares that it has such high proportions of staff not engaged in research and not even able to teach degree-level courses without supervision? Or, shall we just assume that this is the result of unethical manipulation of the government's assessment?

25 April 2012

Sky's the limit?

In England at the moment, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is facing calls from the Opposition for his resignation due to the emergence of evidence that he may have decided in advance to favour Rupert Murdoch's company News Corp in its bid to take over BSkyB. Even though he was required to act impartially in making the decision on the takeover, it appears from emails presented to the Leveson Inquiry (which is looking into the News Corp phone-hacking scandal) that Hunt may have made up his mind in advance and may have been sharing inside information with News Corp executives. When it comes to commercial deals, ministers and public servants must be impartial - and be seen to be impartial - in order to give all competitors a fair go, to preserve public confidence, and to avoid any perceptions of cronyism or (dare I use the word?) corruption. Meanwhile in Godzone, the Green Party has politely requested the Auditor-General to investigate how Sky City became preferred bidder in the proposal to build a convention centre in Auckland. They are concerned about a possible level of closeness between Ministers Key and Joyce and the managers of Sky. Surely, if only to clear the names of the ministers concerned, an investigation is now warranted. Gambling is not a free-market industry. It is a highly regulated one. It requires close regulation due to the social effects of gambling, and due to the dangers of its becoming mixed up with crime and corruption. So, the actions of ministers around gambling must be seen to be squeaky clean. And there is now a suggestion that alternative bidders didn't get a level playing-field. Key claims that the Sky deal is superior because it requires no capital from government, but he seems unwilling to estimate the social costs of problem gambling that may affect us as taxpayers by increasing Sky's grip on this tightly regulated industry. Mr Key has argued that, even though Sky will end up with more pokies, the result nationally will be that there will be fewer pokies. But this means that the deal with Sky also guarantees them a larger share in a market that is declining in numbers of machines. Not only does the deal over the convention centre look like it could be favoritism, but the delivery of a greater market-share goes along with it. It's estimated that each pokie at Sky City earns about $140,000 per year - a sum much higher than the national average ($47,000). Anyone can do the sums! Whatever the outcome, the whole thing has turned into a PR disaster for Sky and for the National Party.