The realities of the ERA and L&T support services

In mid-October last year I blogged about my search for a research publication outlet. The conclusion was that in my context, the Australasian Journal of Education Technology (AJET) was probably the best fit. It is an open journal and the first round of the Australian government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative had ranked AJET as an A journal, second only to A*.

More recently that blog post got a reference in an AJET editorial (that the editors are referencing a blog post in an editorial is a good sign for AJET, especially if it is one of mine). The editors hope was

that his recommendation, written in 2009 when AJET was a Tier A journal, will not change as a result of AJET’s demotion to Tier B in the 2010 list

I’m sad to say, that it probably will!

Why?

There are two reasons why:

  1. the on-going uncertainty around L&T support services within Australian higher education; and
  2. the increasing force of having to comply with government indicators.

On-going uncertainty

Early in 2007 I moved from being a faculty-based academic in the information systems discipline to a role within a central L&T support division. Within about 6 months of taking on the role, the then Director of that L&T division was told her services were no longer needed. Apparently, they were after someone with a greater research focus, rather than on getting things done for the institution. The division limped on for around another 18 months while they failed in appointing such a person. During this time, rumour was rife that we would be restructured, though officially this was not confirmed. By the end of 2008 the restructure was complete, I was in position limbo for 6 months (theoretically better than having been made redundant, but I’m still trying to decide if that was the case) and the institution tried again (again unsuccessfully) to appoint a Professor to lead the unit.

So, as you might deduce, there has been little certainty for the folk in L&T support services. Oh, by the way, the institution has finally admitted that the last restructure was somewhat less than successful in its outcomes (of which they were informed many times back in 2008) and they recognise they need to address this problem. By another restructure. So, again, there isn’t a lot of certainty.

This is not something unique to my current institution. A regular topic of conversation at the last ASCILITE conference was around the restructuring of L&T services. It seemed that every second person from an L&T support area was going through, just been through or predicting they would go through a restructure. Just recently I heard that the Director of another L&T support area is being replaced with someone who has a more research focus. Deja vu all over again.

In the past, I have argued that this is, at least partly – if not mostly, to do with the absence of any broadly agreed indicators for the quality or impact of L&T support. Combine this with the fact (or at least strong likelihood) that every senior manager who has taught a course thinks he/she has a unique insight into how to support L&T at a university and the sheer complexity of such a task, and you have a recipe of on-going change, little or no success and little certainty for the folk within such centers.

Requirement to comply

The ERA itself is just one example of the Australian government specifying indicators of success. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an argument to be made the universities should be accountable. However, as I’ve argued before such indicators are generally very poor and at best result in compliance and at worst task corruption.

For example, I’ve seen in the last few weeks the following:

  • A faculty dean’s report to academic board spend a lot of time explaining how many A* journal publications the faculty had produced.
  • New guidelines for course (my institution uses american terms, so a course is the smallest unit of education offered by the institution, a program is a collection of courses) coordinators that specify having a graduate certificate of higher education – or the intent to get one – a desirable criteria.
  • A job in a central L&T support area that listed having a graduate certificate in higher education as the first necessary criteria.

To me these are indications that the compliance has begun. Senior management at universities have decided, regardless of other reasoning, to adopt the government indicators as prime decision criteria. This is bad because a heavy focus on these types of indicators gives a false sense of security that we’re doing the right thing. It reinforces simplistic beliefs. e.g. that if teachers with a formal teaching qualification will be better teachers. A belief that ignores a whole bunch of literature around the impact of context – i.e. if the context of a university does not value L&T, it will not be good.

It will encourage a generation of senior leaders at universities that focus on these indicators rather than a broader and deeper understanding of what it takes to encourage and enable effective teaching and important research. This is because most of the current senior leadership roles at Australian universities are short-term appointments – 3 to 5 years. You can’t effectively and broadly improve the teaching and research at a university in 3 to 5 years, but you can sure as hell pragmatically hit some simplistic indicators.

The pragmatic defense

Worse still, this combination of factors encourages academics in L&T support areas to be seen to comply with the indicators. If you’re uncertain about the value senior leaders place on the contribution of L&T support areas, the best way to ensure a place at the table is to have lots of A* journal publications, important grants etc. You need to have a place at the table because you can’t effectively battle against the short-term focus on broken indicators when you’re on the outer. Even if you don’t get to the table, given the uncertainty and a likely need to retain some sort of salary, you need to have fulfilled these indicators so you can get a job at another institution.

What’s even sadder is that you probably can’t effectively battle against the short-term focus on broken indicators even when you’re sitting at the table. Sadder again is the observation is that your focus on these indicators may end up changing you.

My potential publication outlets

Sadly, at least in the short-term, AJET has slipped down the rankings. It probably won’t be my first target for publication in the next couple of years. I have to hit the A*/A journals. Hopefully, I can find one of those that is somewhat open – I believe ALT-J has some sort of set up that is somewhat open.

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