Friday, November 28, 2008

Academic workloads - a few truths and a plea !

I have been dwelling on the analysis of our Work Environment Survey over the last week or so, and in particular that complex issue of workloads. Many Otago Polytechnic staff perceive their workloads as too high and unsustainable, and academic staff report the most dissatisfaction. And of the academic staff the more experienced and higher skilled staff - our principal lecturers - are the least satisfied. Now, I accept we have a major issue here, but it is very complex, to say the least. I have to confess to being somewhat at a loss to know how we can actually deal with this issue, but paradoxically the solutions are obvious!

So, at the risk of incurring some wrath, I would like to put some "truths" on the table:

Truth No 1: the obvious solution - hire more people to do the work we currently do - is simply not affordable. It would be affordable if we had an average EFTS:FTE ratio of 19/20:1, rather than the 14/15:1 we have now. This is about having more students in each class, but if we cannot achieve that we have to do other things - so some more "truths" follow.

Truth No 2: the second obvious solution to too much work is to remove work from the task list. For academics this includes:
- have fewer assessments. One of our Schools comes close to one assessment per course. Most have three/four per course and some have double that and more. But I constantly have discussions about this with academics who think reduced assessment activity is not possible and quality will suffer. This is not necessarily so at all, and even if having one assessment goes too far in some cases, two could work instead of three, three instead of four etc.
- don't spend unnecessary time in the classroom - ensure your time is very well used. And if I am not being too provocative: if you spend more than 10% of the time in class talking to powerpoints or OHTs you are wasting your time and that of the students. Unless of course they cannot read for themselves!

Truth No 3: work gets done faster and to a higher level of quality if we know what we are doing, i.e. if we are highly skilled - and as teachers, this means highly skilled as teachers, not just highly skilled in our discipline or vocation. Two skills in particular are needed: assessment design and course design. Now these are complex matters, but I fear that too many academics believe the contrary. As an interesting aside, try talking to our learning support specialists, who will tell you that a significant number of students present for help because they cannot understand the assessment task they have been set. And it is not because they are stupid, it is because the assessment is poorly specified.
The same is often true of course design - with courses focussed on content rather than the most effective learning strategies.
But a problem I see only too frequently - academics who will not take the time out to "sharpen their axe" ie to acquire the skills that will make their future workload so much easier.

Truth No 4: we each control the key resource which makes our workload sustainable or not - our time:
- we have to prioritise our work
- we have to manage the time we do have
- we choose to embrace options to reduce work or not
- we choose to build our skills, or not, when it is obvious we need more
- we choose to use technology which helps our efficiency - or not

Truth No 5: we all end up with a disproportionate amount of extra work if not everyone in our team pulls their weight. I have observed over the years that one negative person in a team of 10, or one who does not do their fair share, increases the workload of the others by a multiple of that 10%. And certainly leaves the entire team dispirited and feeling badly overworked.

Now I could come up with some other "truths", but these five will do for now. This is NOT "blame the victim". Rather, it is a "truth" (darn - that's the sixth one) that the victim has to be part of the cure. Nor do I resile from the fact that there are and always will be solutions to heavy workloads at the organisational level: streamlined processes, removal of unnecessary compliance and so on. But the organisational "cures" by themselves will simply not make enough of a difference. So, how do we bring about the changes in individual behavior? I am looking for wisdom on this one, so please - help!!

Friday, November 14, 2008

More on funding!

I have had quite a bit of feedback about the recent ODT article - all positive at this point, and some genuine enquiry as to what exactly is going on with tertiary funding. Actually, I tell a fib - one lot of feedback wasn't so complementary - that which came from TEC itself!

Now, it is understandable that TEC is sensitive to criticism about the funding of the sector - afterall, government votes the funding and they merely administer it. And they tell me they have set out to administer funding in a fair and transparent way. So, there are two issues for us to think about: is there enough money to fund an effective, high quality tertiary sector? Is the money that has been allocated to the sector wisely distributed?

Let's look at the adequacy question first of all. My view is a resounding "NO" - the sector suffers from systemic underfunding, and cannot even sustain its core business of teaching and learning, let alone meet a host of other objectives which government has set for us. How do I know this? Simply because there is hard (2007) data now available that shows that on average polytechnics lose money on core business - an average loss of nearly 9% in 2007, although I understand that one or two institutions may have managed a very small surplus. Overall, several institutions did return a small surplus in 2007, but this was a result of things like one off grants, interest earned on retained earnings and cafetaria profits! Bring on the polytechnic weekly cake stall! Actually, if every staff member at Otago Polytechnic baked a cake every week and assuming we could sell all of them we would get a surplus of $200,000 for the year!!

But I digress! No institutions in the polytechnic sector in 2007 actually came within a bulls roar of a surplus of 3% -5%, which the wise men in TAMU constantly cite as our target. Now, it is possible that EVERY polytechnic in the country is extremely inefficient, and that is the reason for the deficits. This is, of course, the view which pervades TEC, but it is simply not credible. Most institutions have been reviewing every activity and pruning costs and laying off staff for nearly 5 years now. And every year costs increase at a rate in excess of the inflation adjustments which government reluctantly grants us, enforcing "productivity " gains as a matter of routine management.

So, the evidence speaks for itself, and has done so for several years. Indeed, just over three years ago the then Minister of Tertiary Education ( or was it the Associate Minister of Education - Tertiary) Mallard called together the CEOs and Council Chairs of the sector to acknowledge that the sector was in some considerable difficulty, to urge us not to take precipitate action ( aka laying off staff) and to announce that Government was setting up a significant fund to help polytechnics through problems he recognised as not of our making. These were problems such as low class sizes and the costs of delivery to regional communities. The fund was the now infamous "Quality Reinvestment Fund".

Less than a year later the then CEO of TEC, Janice Shiner, assured the CEOs in the sector that "once we have right sized you, we will fund you properly" - and went on to clarify that "properly" meant being funded for a surplus. Well, we have all been "right sized" - that is what the "investing in a plan" process is all about. But alas, the funding cupboard is bare, the deficits pile up and the polytechnic infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

I think this bit of potted history is important, because it reminds us that our funding problems have been acknowledged in the recent past. It is also inconvenient, because someone forgot to budget the resources to fix the problems. And none of the underlying problems have gone away. Class sizes in polytechnics generally remain below the optimum, and our regional populations have continued to live in the regions! Jolly unreasonable of them don't you think.

But has TEC done a good job in administering the funding system? Actually, no! First of all, TEC has vigorously held to the view that " there is plenty of money in the sector" and all that needed to happen was for this to be redistributed. Those who had too much would get less, and those who were short on funds would get more. This has not proven to be the case at all. What's more TEC has continued to advise government that there was plenty of money overall, thereby undermining the case for improved funding. It is true that TEC did persuade government to increase funding to the sector this year by some $20m - gratefully received, but short of the mark.

Actually, it is not a huge amount of extra funding that is required - about $40m/$50m pa ( an increase of around 7%/8%) will do the trick. Is this reasonable to expect? Yes, in my view, and especially if we consider that Labour was prepared to increase student support funding by $200m pa, and National is on record to increase research funding to universities by over $300m pa.

We should also highlight that TEC has managed to waste a fair bit of precious funding as well. The central bureacracy has increased exponentially, and whilst the basic investment planning/management process is sound, the stakeholder management process is not. There is literally an army of bureacrats roaming the country with a mission to improve the relationships amongst all of the players in the sector. And micro management is alive and well. It is difficult to get an accurate handle on what money could transfer from the TEC bureacracy to direct funding of provision, but $15m pa will not be far off the mark - about a third of what is needed to fix the sector!

Well, this may read like a bit of a whinge - apologies if that is so. However, funding IS the big issue. If we cannot convince our owners - government- to get the funding right we will never realise the enormous potential our sector has. So, join me - lobby a politician or two, and ensure a few concerned citizens understand the situation polytechnics are in!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tertiary Policies - who is promising what?

I have been asked if I would offer some views on the tertiary education policies of the various political parties, and I am happy to do so -especially those that relate to polytechnics.
First up, I have to say that across the board the thinking about tertiary education by our politicians is underwhelming, to say the least! What we do not have is any party advocating for New Zealand to have a genuinely world class tertiary system, although all are prepared to go along with that rhetoric. There is some advocacy for boosting the university sector through more research funding - National has just announced an intent to redirect tax write offs for research of $315m into the direct funding of science and research in universities. If I was charitable I would say they have not even given polytechnics a moment's thought, but more likely is that they simply do not understand what we do in these areas. We as a sector must shoulder some of the responsibility for that. However, let's look at some specific key issues.
- will stick with the course they have already set for the polytechnic sector, believing that the so called "reforms" have been successful and are supported. They have not and are not! There was initially significant support because the intent was honourable and it appeared that the concerns of the sector had been taken on board. The reality is that the single most important issue - proper funding of the sector - has not been addressed and most institutions face a bleak future of operating on a shoe string with poor quality infrastructure (appalling infrastructure by international standards!) . What's more, the reforms have not delivered a high trust and low compliance cost regime at all - the opposite is the case.
-are promising to reduce the TEC bureacracy, which will be a good thing. Hopefully the first to go will be the stakeholder engagement function and the resources being wasted there being redirected into direct funding of the regional facilitation process. National is also promising a simpler accountability system, but the policy is short on detail, which is where the devil always lies.This system will include publishing more information about institutional performance eg completion and retention rates. Personally I am relaxed about this. Indeed, I would rather see information about educational performance being used to judge institutional success rather than solely financial perfomance as is the case now.Finally, National has a strong commitment to see more young people go into training and will fund free education for 16/17 year olds with a non school provider if this is a better option for the student. This is a good policy in my view, and better than Labour's Schools Plus, which is about keeping kids in schools even if school is nor the right place for them to learn! Both parties seem keen to fund new trades infrastructure in schools, which is a good thing if there is no trade training infrastructure in a region, but which could seriously undermine polytechnic viability if duplicate facilities are established. Neither party appears to have examined the possible consequences of their schools interface policies on the polytechnic sector.
Maori Party:
- understandably is committed to seeing a better set of outcomes for Maori, and that is a good thing. Hopefully they will be in a position to influence better resourcing of Maori educational initiatives in our institutions.The Maori Party also supports the extension of the salary supplement currently enjoyed only by university staff to include polytechnic staff. This is again great to see, as is their belief that more funding per EFTS is necessary for the polytechnic sector. The Maori Party is the only party to recognise explicitly that our sector is not adequately funded. There is hope yet!!
Green Party:
- is generally supportive of improving the sector, but is also generally supportive of what we have now. The only standout for me in terms of their stance is that public education should be prioritised ahead of PTEs. Of course, that is one of the downsides of National's approach - more support for PTEs based on their deeply held views that competition is always good and that it is perfectly sensible to fund other businesses to compete with your own!!
Other parties:
- not worth commenting on in my view, because none have given any indication that they have an agenda for tertiary that would be a "must have" as part of a coalition deal.

To finish, this election will not be won or lost on tertiary education, and all of the policies put forward really are bland at this stage - which is to be expected. What must happen is that the incoming minister, whoever that is, needs to be well briefed on our sector needs and issues. Otago Polytechnic will be providing just such a briefing, and I will cover off the issues in a future posting.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Back from Shanghai

Certainly an interesting time in Shanghai! Robin and I were well looked after by staff from Shanghai University of Engineering Science, and it was great to have participated in their 30th Anniversary celebrations. The University is proud of the cooperative education focus of its curriculum, and it was clear that they very much want to be known for a "practical" curriculum - so my address was well targetted.

I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with SUES to enable our CAPL project to proceed. This project will be a challenge for both ourselves and the Chinese, because the whole concept of recognising prior experiential learning is not currently part of the way the Chinese see tertiary education. On the other hand, experiential learning is precisely the direction they want to take, so the challenges are worth tackling.
We were really impressed with the level of resources that SUES enjoys, and they are but one of eight universities being invested in on the same site. And "invested in " is the operative phrase - unlike here in New Zealand where our government is hell bent on seeing how little they can get away with in terms of spending on the polytechnic sector. Actually, the lack of investment in polytechnics in NZ is a disgrace, and by international comparison a sick joke! We have a government which urges us to increase export earnings through tertiary education, and has a stated vision of building a world class polytechnic sector - but these really are just hollow words, especially so when one realises that funding in real terms for 2009 is a reduction on 2008.

Shanghai itself is certainly a city of contrasts - rich and poor, old and new - both ways of life as well as buildings and transport. What stood out, though, was that people were very friendly - everywhere - and more often than not had a smile on their faces. In spite of the congestion, the smog and for many the poverty. Perhaps it has something to do with choosing to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty!

I also came away reflecting on what a "cotton wool" society we have become in NZ - manifested in our present day attitudes to health and safety. This appreciation was brought about through experiencing the utter chaos ( from a visitor's perspective) on the roads and footpaths - but especially the latter. Here, bicycles, motorbikes/scooters and pedestrians intermingled with gay abandon, but I did not once hear the screech of tyres nor witness a close call. I also climbed a 1000 year old tower, and was free to do so without signs screaming at me about the dangers - which were pretty obvious.

And talking about the contrast of old and new - one of the thrills of the visit was riding the Maglev, the very high speed electric train from the city to the airport. We reached the phenomenol speed of 431kmph, in almost total silence. And when we passed the train coming the other way it was but a blurr and a whoosh, in a split second. Now, for a long time petrol head ,believe me this was just great!