Monday, June 1, 2020

Why is the Australian government letting universities suffer?

On March 30, the federal government announced  JobKeeper – a A$130 billion wage subsidy for employees to limit the economic devastation of COVID-19. Employers are eligible for the A$1,500 a fortnight payment to staff if the business’ revenue had fallen over a specified period by 30% or 50%, depending on their size.
This excluded most universities. But the government soon announced the threshold for JobKeeper would be lowered to 15% for charities, giving hope to universities, which are not-for-profit organisations. That is, until the government clarified  “this lower turnover decline test does not apply to universities”.
And while some universities were still eligible by their calculations, the government made two other changes to JobKeeper that seemed targeted at ensuring university staff couldn’t get any help from the government. This is despite  Universities Australia’s estimate around 21,000 jobs will be lost.
While the government has provided some help to universities in the form of its higher education relief package – which guarantees funding for domestic students already budgeted for – it won’t fill the gap in revenue lost due to international students.
This will likely result in mass staff lay-offs and may risk some universities’ financial viability. It will also severely curtail Australia’s research capacity.
So, why has the Australian government taken successive steps specifically to exclude universities from its business continuity funding?

Research and the culture wars

Australian conservative politicians have a long history of attacking researchers.
We saw this in the Coalition’s “waste watch” committee, to keep track of allegedly unnecessary spending, established by John Howard when he was opposition leader in 1986. One of the committee’s prominent targets was a project to research working mothers’ child rearing in Ancient Rome.
The Coalition’s antagonism towards research was evident in their secret rejections in 2005, 2017 and 2018 of more than 11 grants recommended by the Australian Research Council for research in history, music, and art history. Education minister in 2018, Simon Birmingham, mocked one of the grants on Twitter.
The Coalition’s attitude is also on display in attacks by some MPs on climate change research, presumably because it challenges the primacy of narrow economic interests.
But conservatives have long supported universities as institutions. Many senior Liberal politicians have multiple university degrees: Scott Morrison has an honours degree in science from UNSW; Josh Frydenberg has four degrees – one from Oxford and one from Harvard; Mathias Cormann has two; Dan Tehan, three; Marise Payne, two; Simon Birmingham, at least one; Christian Porter, four; and Greg Hunt at least three.
So in many ways, universities support conservatives’ personal, material and political self interests. And yet the Coalition is undermining them by, in part, rejecting a motion moved by Labor and the Greens to extend JobKeeper to universities.
Conservatives also appear to oppose universities on  ideological grounds. Examples include former Prime Minister Tony Abott’s criticisms of ANU for divesting from fossil fuel  industries; education minister Dan Tehan’s review into universities allegedly suppressing the right kind of free speech; some conservative politician’s dislike of universities declining to host a Ramsay Centre celebrating Western civilisation, and failing to sufficiently celebrate Anglo-Australians’ historical legacy.
This is part of what is commonly called a “cultural war” against organisations such as the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the ABC, the creative arts, museums  and other cultural institutions that don’t support conservative ideology.

From elite to universal systems

There is also a structural explanation for conservative governments’ antipathy to contemporary universities. This is related to universities’ transition from elite to mass to universal systems of education.
These transitions were described by the distinguished US higher education scholar Martin Trow. In his important 1973 paper, Trow explained that elite, mass, and universal systems of higher education have different approaches to admission, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and quality assurance. They also have different social roles.
He explained that participation is a privilege in elite systems, where fewer than 15% of the relevant age group enrol in higher education. Participation is an advantage in mass systems of higher education, where up to half of the relevant age group enrol in higher education. But not participating becomes a disadvantage in universal systems, where more than half participate in higher education.
Conservative governments were happy to support elite systems of higher education. In 1959, the Liberal Menzies government greatly increased university funding. It also developed state universities into a national system by establishing the Australian Universities Commission which regulated universities’ enrolments and recommended the allocation of federal funds.
Conservative governments also supported higher education’s transition to a mass system from 1967. But they preferred most of this expansion to be in institutions different from universities. These Colleges of Advanced Education were funded for teaching by Menzies and subsequent governments at a much lower rate than universities, and were not funded to conduct research.
The colleges were incorporated into existing universities or formed their own universities in 1989.
A liberal strand of conservative higher education policymakers in Australia and the UK also supported the transition to universal higher education from the early 2000s. They removed government limits on university enrolments to give freer play to higher education markets and to students’ interests.
This demand-driven system encouraged the expansion of universal or open access systems, as Trow later called them.
But conservatives, such as former education minister Simon Birmingham, complained such policies led universities to lower standards by admitting low quality students.
As Trow also noted in 1973, the demand for higher education has importantly been social as much as economic. But  conservatives complain universities offer “useless” degrees, such as in Arts, not sufficiently tied to graduate jobs.
The incumbent conservatives in Australia and the UK prefer to limit higher education to students and programs they deem worthy. They have reimposed enrolment caps in Australia  and the UK.
For this strand of now-dominant conservatives, universal higher education should be like any other universal service: targeted, transactional, fee-for-service and preferably privatised.
Excluding universities from JobKeeper is another way of keeping universities in their place.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

On writing titles – what do doctoral researchers need to know?

I’ve been preparing a workshop that includes a short section on writing titles. It’s an area of writing that I’ve always found difficult myself, and I am full of admiration for those who come up with clever, witty, memorable titles that perfectly encapsulate the subject or argument of the piece of writing. Within a specific field of research, it can sometimes feel like all the journal articles have almost the same title, with tiny variations to point to their very specific focus and contribution to the conversation. What advice can researcher developers offer to doctoral writers?
One of my colleagues has a particular talent for titles - he’s even inclined to dream up great titles and then work out what the article would need to be to fit that title. While that may not be good advice for doctoral writers, it’s kind of fun to be so inventive and playful when it comes to academic writing. Tim Moore’s (2020) article in the Australian University Review  62(1) - with its own memorable and helpful title! - offers interesting insights into quirky article titles. Moore reminds us that researchers are not necessarily sucked in by such wittiness: cleverly titled articles don’t actually receive more citations than those with more mundane but informative titles. However, I personally find memorable titles useful when I need to identify and return to articles read previously.
Moore’s article also includes some interesting reflections on the role of the colon in titles (e.g., “Colons in titles: frequency and value”), titles that use the form of verb-ing + noun (e.g., “Writing titles”) and alliteration (e.g., “Tentative titles in trying times”). These are all common forms and can be used very effectively (or not, as Moore also shows us).
Key message titles
Titles are extremely useful for carrying the key message of the article. This can be presented as a straightforward statement of the key finding or argument. Instead of  “Voice as a threshold concept in doctoral writing”, I could have been more direct: “Authorial voice is a threshold concept in doctoral writing”.  An advantage of this approach is that, even if readers never get beyond the title, they’ll still understand the main point being made. Identifying this one-sentence argument of the article is also a very helpful way to stay focused when writing, to avoid wandering off on tangents that might be interesting but are ultimately confusing for the reader.
Quotation from the text
I personally very much like the kind of title that takes a quotation from the text that encapsulates a key moment of insight or central message from the research. This was the inspiration for the title of a paper I wrote with a colleague on team supervision: “They’re the bosses” asserted one interviewee. And there we had it, the main idea that doctoral writers, in recognition of the hierarchies at play in the university system, need to respond to what all their supervisors ask of them.
Searchable titles
It is also good practice to consider what keywords are useful for readers looking for your research in databases and online. Be canny about how to write titles that optimize search engines so that the work is found easily. What are the keywords and their synonyms that readers are likely to look for? Try to cover this within 65-70 characters. Most academic journals offer good advice on this approach (see, for example, the guidelines from Taylor and Francis, Wiley  and  Elsevier).
Different titles for different genres
Doctoral writers very often need to communicate their research to an audience beyond their supervisors, examiners and disciplinary peers. We see some good examples of this used for Three Minute Thesis titles that are very different from the thesis title; instead of carefully including all details to ensure that an examiner is perfectly located in the topic, a short, catchy title for 3MT captures the listeners’ attention. Last year, for example, the winner of the Asia-Pacific 3MT competition, Jessica Bohorquez, entitled her talk “Guardians of the pipelines”, while her journal article is entitled “Identifying head accumulation due to transient wave superposition in pipelines”. At my current university (ANU), the 3MT winner, Lithin Louis, used the title “Mysteries of a beating heart” to present his thesis on “Molecular and cellular roles of RNA-Binding Proteins in cardiac biology and disease”. Similarly, posts for online newspapers such as The Conversation use much more accessible titles than their academic journal articles do.
When researchers are engaged in public outreach, their titles might need to be shorter than we usually see in academic articles and often also use more emphatic language (“hate”, “brilliant”). To attract the interest of a broader audience, it can also be useful to focus on the “who” part of the research, rather than the “why”; that is, drawing attention to the human face of research can sometimes be more emotionally appealing as a starting point to get your audience to read on.
Workshop exercise
The following exercise, adapted from Richard Leahy (1992), offers productive fun in generating lots of potential titles. I think it is useful to put clear timings on the exercise so that participants go with their first thoughts rather than agonising in what might already be a stuck place (maybe just 2-3 minutes each for the first 4 prompts, then faster for 5-7, and a little more time for the final prompt).
  1. Write a title that is a question beginning with What, Who, When, or Where.
  2. Write a title that is a question beginning with How or Why.
  3. Write a title that is a question beginning with Is/Are, Do/Does, or Will
  4. Write a title beginning with an -ing verb (like “Creating a good title”).
  5. Write a one-word title - the most obvious one possible.
  6. Write a less obvious one-word title.
  7. Write a two-word title, a three-word title, a four-word title, a five-word title.
  8. Think of a familiar saying, or the title of a book, song, or movie, that might fit your story.
This exercise often sparks some creative thinking that generates just the right title.
Moore does remind us that, “irrespective of the title, if the research is sound and the writing good, the work will find its way regardless” (p. 56). This is sound advice. It’s great to provide helpful titles for readers, but it’s never a replacement for good research.
Do you have some other exercises that you use with doctoral writers to help them design good titles for their work? I’m also keen to hear from you about better titles I could have used for this blog post - as I said at the beginning, it’s not my strongest writing skill!
Richard Leahy (1992). Twenty Titles for the Writer. College Composition and Communication 43(4), 516-519.
Tim Moore (2020). Academic clickbait: The arcane art of research article titling. Australian University Review 62(1), 54-56.