One Ruler To Rule Them All

The proposal to increase funding for the primary and high school system in part out of an “efficiency dividend” from universities suggests the federal government has very little idea of the state of the university system.

I’ll note in passing that I  support the Gonski funding proposals. I don’t think they are ideal, in all sorts of ways, but I think they are the best we are likely to get for some time, and as a result I’m happy to get behind them, rather than joining with the critics. I regard grabbing a large chunk of the funding from higher education, rather than superannuation deductions for the rich or fossil fuel subsidies is both bad policy and bad politics. Nevertheless, I’m in favour of abolishing the discount for those who pay their HEC off early, despite some scepticism that it will offer the returns the government claims.

However, far from their being an efficiency dividend, most of the cuts to the higher education system will result in lower education standards (and often worse research outcomes). Moreover, I suspect a lot of the time the consequence will be less efficiency.

Let me make my point by focussing on a micro example, my own small role in academia. One of my side jobs is to work as a prac demonstrator in a physics department. The department I work at considers itself the leading physics department in the country, and while there may be a certain amount of hubris in that, the claim is not entirely ridiculous.

When I started working there, an embarrassingly long time ago, each student did 24 pracs and participated in one group project, each lasting 3 hours, in first year.  The demonstrators would then spend roughly two hours marking the prac books, so taking a single class meant 125 hours work.

Today, as a result of funding cutbacks, students do 16 pracs. The group project has been abolished, and we are now expected to mark the books as students go (tricky) while finishing the prac 15 minutes early so we can complete the marking. Ie 48 hours of work a year.

So, allowing for payrises somewhat less than the general community, we have seen cuts in payments of over 60% (although to be fair the training has been cut by less). There are also several staff responsible for setting up the lab, administration etc. It’s hard to keep track of what everything that is done, but it seems clear there have been cutbacks there as well, with some staff who used to work exclusively on pracs now being expected to spend some of their time on other aspects of the department’s teaching.

I don’t think there has been a 60% fall in what the students learn, so to some extent one could say we now have greater efficiency, but anyone who thinks the students leave the year having learned as much as previous generations from the practical component is dreaming. You simply cannot pack in as much teaching in this smaller amount of time. Moreover, since it is often impossible for the students to get through the work in the time available many demonstrators stay back, unpaid, to allow them to finish rather than kicking them out at the official end time. Effectively the good will of the demonstrators is subsidising the department, and ultimately the government.

However, it is in the equipment that we see the real problems with the defunding of higher education. Quite a bit of the equipment we use dates back to the late 1950s. It’s true that they built things to last back then, but the real reason for this is that after the Russians were the first into space with Sputnik, and then Yuri Gugarin, the west decided that something needed to be done about physics and engineering training. Serious money was spent buying quality equipment to teach a generation of rocket scientists. We live with the benefits of this all around us, but Neil Armstrong’s small step for mankind turned out to be a backwards step for science education. The race was seen as run and funding slowly withdrawn.

The result is that much of the equipment has not been updated, and we struggle along with inadequate numbers of some things, while others fall apart on us. A particularly ridiculous example arose yesterday. Many of the pracs require the use of metre rulers*

Normally these rulers are rotated to whichever lab is doing a prac that requires their use. However, this week every lab has needed them, creating a situation where we do not have enough rulers to go around. Some timeslots have slightly fewer students and got away with it, but I ran one lab where two groups of students had no ruler. The head of the lab fixed the problem for one group by finding an old, broken ruler that is now only 80cm long, giving it to students doing a prac where this is all they need and transferring their intact ruler to students doing the lab that needed the full length. Is this an efficient use of his time? Sure it only took about 10 minutes for him to be alerted to the problem, find the broken ruler and conduct the transfer…

However, no other broken ruler could be found, so one group of my students had to lag behind the others, waiting until they had finished their measurements to take on their ruler.

I don’t know what it costs to buy a 1m long piece of wood with evenly spaced lines on it, but I am guessing not more than a few dollars. Of course, seen in isolation, the department could find money for another two. But this is just one example of hundreds of pieces of equipment where we don’t have enough, and the budget doesn’t run to buying them all. Time after time we muddle through. If it wasn’t for the remarkable patch-up skills of the employee in charge of such things we’d probably have to scrap some labs entirely.

Is it efficient to have students twiddling their thumbs while they wait for someone else to finish with the ruler? That depends on your measure of efficiency. In a wider sense, no. But if you ignore externalities like the students’ time (not to mention their course satisfaction) then yes it is.

The department is reportedly considering shutting down first year labs entirely. Practical physics experiments, the very basis of the enlightenment, may no longer be taught at all. Or possibly only offered in one semester (although how efficient it would be to have the labs sitting empty for six months I don’t know). It seems ridiculous, but one wonders what further efficiency savings are possible otherwise if the department is to bare it’s share of the 3-4% the government wishes to cut.

* One actually requires students to drop objects from a 1.2m in height, measured fairly precisely. We don’t have rulers longer than 1m, so we count on some of the students having their own 30cm rulers that they can hold to the end of the meter ruler)

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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One Response to One Ruler To Rule Them All

  1. Pingback: There Is Always Hope | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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