Quality and the Residential Student

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"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven."

William Wordsworth
Paper first presented at the 2004 ATEM Queensland Branch Conference.

 

WHAT IS QUALITY?

  • First we need to examine what 'quality' means in the life of a University and to the various stakeholders involved.
  • The Australian University Quality Agency is not so much interested in defining quality as in examining the processes that universities use to create or to maintain quality.
  • Governments are not greatly interested in quality. They are more interested in what it costs. So Governments were reassured when Professor Lauchlan Chipman stated that all you need to deliver tertiary education (to non-science/engineering students) is a building in a central city location which is equipped with the latest computers and which has a table tennis area in the basement. [As an aside: it needs to be said that no university person should ever tell the Government what it wants to hear. That is not our job. We are not Ministerial Advisers and we should leave it to them to mislead their bosses and then get fired. Our job is to tell Ministers the truth, after which we may be fired, but in our case it will be worth it.]
  • University managements are interested in quality but are faced with shrinking budgets and competing demands from different parts of the University, the strongest of which is staff salaries.
  • Staff are very interested in quality, because a lack of it makes life in a struggling University hardly worth living.
  • Students are interested in two qualities. The quality of their hoped-for degree, and the quality of life they can enjoy while they set about getting it.
  • When you are eighteen, there is an intensity about everything which demands to be satisfied. If a student is going to spend hours of mental struggle every day, and many nights, the facilities that such a young person has to occasionally enjoy life must be of the highest quality and relevant to the business of growing up.

MY EXPERIENCE OF QUALITY
I recall that when I was a student in the early 60s at the University of Western Australia, I was blessed for two incredible years to be resident at St George's College.

During this time I played the College organ, threw the javelin and ran in the cross country. I sailed a Sharpie to Rottnest Island. I acted in a number of plays, including Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, Racine's Phaedre, Maxwell Anderson's Winterset, T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, and Berthold Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan. I also did quite a lot of work and won some good marks.

On the flip side of all that I was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, a second time for being a public nuisance and a third time for drinking under the age of 21. I also carried out a number of pranks at St George's College which I can prove by the number of books in the Library with my name in them. In my day all student fines at St George's were spent on buying Library books and the 'donors' name was inscribed in them. There was a natural pride in how many books there were in your name, which I understand resulted in the College managers eventually ceasing to name books for miscreants. This in turn led to a falling off in the number of miscreances.

There was a series of love affairs, many games of billiards, and an accident when I broke my shoulder just prior to my last examination by falling off my bike while riding through the beer garden of the Nedlands Park Hotel carrying a jug of beer. I was unable to sit my last exam in Ancient History, which resulted in me getting a pass instead of the distinction that my teacher had told me was on the cards.

Fortunately, the times have changed somewhat, and the heavy emphasis on drinking and sport is now attenuated. I am not advocating a return to these times. I am merely recounting an experience of how things were then.

All in all, my time at University was a total riot and I am grateful to the people of Western Australia for allowing it to be that way.

St George's College was an essential ingredient in my University life. It was the first two of my four years, and without the guiding hand of the Master and Tutors, and the daily conversations with older students, and better students, I think I might have been either failed or gaoled.

WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW TO QUALITY IN RESIDENTIAL COLLEGES?
The principal attack on quality comes from a management mindset which holds that student residences are rooms in which students sleep, singly or together, and nothing more. This view is even further removed from quality than the Chipman model, because if it was applied to that model, the table tennis facility would be seen as an unnecessary extravagance. This view is backed up by arguments that those who believe in a rich and varied experience of University life are 'old fashioned' or 'touchy feely'. It is held that we now live in a new era of commercial stringency, of accountability for the public dollar, of diminishing resources.

These arguments are derived from the commercial model which upholds that labour is cheap and management is expensive, because that is the way that the market is. In the commercial model, if we are going to be able to attract the best management possible, then we are going to have to sack hundreds of staff in order to pay the price of top management.

Or, if you put it in a University context: if we are going to have to pay the salary increase that will prevent our best staff from going to other places where governments believe in higher education, then we must degrade another part of the University.

So let us now look at the detail of how this mindset unfolds in the practical business of running University residences for students.

Pastoral Care
Pastoral Care is one of the roles of a well managed student residence. The term echoes back to the days 800 years ago when Churches were creating universities and when all Vice-Chancellors were also Bishops.

Catering, and the ceremonial that surrounds the 'High Table' dinner, are a very important part of the life of the College. Bad and cheap catering will have all the unintended consequences mentioned above.

When you talk about pastoral care to some managers, they will point out that there is an expensive university counselling service and chaplains of various denominations, and therefore there is no need to duplicate the service.

However, I can speak from experience and tell you that when it was necessary for someone to talk some sense into me, it was usually after midnight. I had various conversations with the Warden of St George's College, with me fully dressed and him in his pyjamas, and I can assure you that I never darkened the doors of a nine-to-five employee of the University. It was not only impractical, it was unnecessary.

College staff are, in an attenuated way, in loco parentis (in place of the parent). In this statement I include all the staff from the Head down to the kitchen staff. They are there to make life a little bit more like home for the student who has just left home. The university counsellor is not. That is the difference.

Parents are the people who have the biggest influence on deciding where their children are going to go to take life by the horns and shake it. They know all about what in loco parentis means and they know, being parents themselves, what a difficult job that is.

A well run university residence is what they are looking for to care for their children, and they know where to find them.

Therefore it follows that a manager, who decides that pastoral care is not in the duty statement of a great university, is actually going to have a deleterious effect on student recruitment, which will mean that the fees in the higher range will not be marketable, which means that the budget will be shot again. On top of that it means that the quality of the alumni will diminish, along with their desire to uphold the health and wealth of a University that let everyone down.

This illustrates a failure to think things through to the end, and foresee all the unintended consequences of bad policy.

Academic Support
A well run student residence is always populated by a small group of people, often studying for higher degrees, who are paid pitifully small amounts of money to assist students in trouble. In any good College there is a Senior Tutor, and several other staff.

The money manager will tell you that the University employs academics and you will find them in the Faculties and Schools. However, if you can ask any academic out there in the Faculties, they will tell you that the student-in-residence generally does better than the others. This anecdotal evidence is partly supported by a study of transition to university (McInnes and James, 1995)1 which found that students in residence were happier with their first year's experience of university than the average sampled by the study. 'Happier' does not necessarily translate into better marks, but unhappiness certainly does not. Also, anecdotal experience at the University of Melbourne finds that rural first year students in residence do not experience the attrition rates of rural non-residential students, (Collins 2004)2.

Selection and Admission
The traditional method of choosing wisely when admitting a student to a residence is to interview him or her. The Warden knows the ethos of the College and knows what is going to be the best fit when it comes to selection and admission. This is an intuitive, instinctive art. It is also tempered by the modern policy requirements about equity and discrimination, and the need to avoid a 'monoculture' taking over a College. The modern manager however has been trained to see things quantitatively. If there is no quantitative measure, then the only rational selection technique is 'first come first in'. Or, to put it another way, if you cannot quantify and rationalise selection, then you have to avoid using any judgement in the process at all, and allow the laws of chance to prevail.

The conflict between these two cultures is going on all over Australia right now, and it is resulting in a huge amount of waste, as students arrive in Colleges where there is an imbalance between one type of person and another type. Colleges become ungovernable because discrimination at the point of selection is lost and disruptive cultures arrive in undiluted numbers. The reputation of the College suffers, the quality of the student body declines and the unintended consequences of rational but bad management happen again.

Managers should trust staff to use judgement, instinct and intuition. If they try to write a rule that makes trust unnecessary, then they diminish the University they manage.

The Experience of Leadership
All good Colleges have an element of student government in which students can experience the struggle to lead or be led in the internal running of an organisation. It is a crucial aspect of character formation in young people that they are exposed to this democratic process and to find out how to manage it.

However, to those who do not understand that Universities are places where young people learn, the whole process is seen as 'play acting', a waste of time, an unnecessary frippery, and that we would all be better off without it. These people simply do not understand what a University is, and one wonders how they ever survived the job interview.

Catering and Ceremonial
The most successful catering model for a College is the small business or the employee whose whole survival is tied to providing the best possible product on the available budget.

However, out-sourcing is preferred by some managers and the preferred model is a huge multi-national, headquartered in London or somewhere else far away. They win tenders. The staff they employ are itinerant and do not have their hearts in it. The service declines gradually and they jack the prices up each year. In the end quality diminishes and cost escalates.

Ceremonial based on the 800 year old tradition of University life is also scoffed at by some managers. They say it is old fashioned: like weddings, funerals, first communion and so on. If taken to its logical conclusion the same manager would abolish the Graduation ceremony and students would have their testamurs delivered by mail, together with a ten dollar note to spend on celebrating their victory.

Likewise there would be no ceremonies for the opening of buildings, art collections would be sold so that parking lots could be built, and once again the discerning parent would steer their children to better places.

Parents are well aware that the best universities in the nation are places where people can think, but not park. They also know which Universities are renowned in Australia for up-holding all that is best in student residential facilities, and which ones are letting things slide by regarding these facilities strictly as bedrooms for rent.

WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
The answer lies not in our stars but in our selves, as Shakespeare wrote. The people who manage Universities must be trained to think outside the commercial model or the public service model.

The role of commerce is to make a profit in such a way that it profits us all.

The role of the public service is to administer a nation and preserve the public good.

The role of Universities is to create the future of the world by assisting youth to learn and understand the nature of truth.

Both commerce and the public service have their own professional training schemes which endeavour to impart their own unique culture to their employees.

It is long past the day when Universities could think, that by copying the commercial model or the public service model, they could fulfil their purpose.

Universities need to develop their own staff training schemes where our 800 year old tradition can be understood and applied to today's circumstances.

Universities used to be managed by staff who understood this culture. They were the academics.

Managerialism has arrived, even though my computer is telling me that the word is a spelling mistake. If managerialism is going to continue, then it must learn why and how Universities differ in their fundamental role from other sectors, and why copying the methods used by other sectors will never succeed in avoiding the fatal unintended consequence.

University Management is now a profession in is own right. If it is done badly it will have a negative impact world-wide for a very long time into the future.

CONCLUSION
There are plenty of people who welcome the brave new entrepreneurial world that has come to Higher Education since John Dawkins. I admit that there is much that has been done which is good and I would not want to return to the sixties.

But we must not forget that all this has been paid for by the students and their long suffering parents. The picture I painted for you of University life in the glorious 60s is no more, and it will never come back. In some respects, that is a good thing. Students are now working longer and harder at their academic work, as well as in petrol station, bars and restaurants in their spare time.

People may think that my talk has been one long whinge, but there is a difference between a whinge and a lament. A whinge is always about a personal loss. A lament is about a loss for others. I have not personally experienced the loss that I can now see in the system.

I lament the loss of innocence that the present system inflicts on students. I lament the lost youth of the students. They are being forced to grow up much too quickly, and that is a shame.

1. MCINNES, C. and JAMES, R. First Year on Campus Canberra: AGPS, 1995
2. A comment made in June 2004 by Hugh Collins, Master of Ormond College and President of the Association of Heads of Australian University Colleges and Halls Inc.

 


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