From where I sit - Time to stop 'spruiking' PhDs

September 15, 2011

OK. I shall be the one to raise the question that cries out to be asked of my country's university staff, administrators and government financiers. Why do we enrol so many PhDs? Why do we entice so many bright young people into doctorates in the humanities and liberal social sciences?

In May in The Nation, William Deresiewicz pointed out that Yale was delighted if it could place half its graduating PhDs. He was rightly derisive of cheap, tenured professorial talking-up - or, to use an apposite Australianism, "spruiking" - of a "life of the mind" when the relationship between humanities graduates and academic posts deteriorates by the week. This situation is made sadder as every PhD student I've ever met has, at some stage, entertained romantic thoughts about a job teaching the discipline they have spent so much time studying.

In Australia, the plight has special features since its privileging within the university has fostered the national tendency to parochialism, given the determination that every university must have its wodge of doctorates. Worse, it has done massive collateral damage to undergraduate teaching and learning.

Administrators, ironically many of them unplaced PhDs, have for two decades urged staff to augment their postgraduate numbers. A longed-for higher placing in the university rankings is thought to be dependent on the matter. In following this line, they have been pushed by government, which finances every PhD candidate at 16 times the amount given for instruction delivered to an undergraduate.

Because staff-to-student ratios ever widen, canny staff develop their own "research schools", deemed helpful in obtaining lavish research grants. In turn, much undergraduate instruction is passed to doctoral students with the myth that teaching experience will serve them well in their applications for (non-existent) jobs and with the penalty that they do the basic work of marking essays and seeing students in tutorials, but cannot design their own courses.

Australia is obsessed with immediate wealth and the sporting life; in Perth, motorways and ferries are named after footy stars and Olympic champions. In not-accidental corollary, the nation's media are dominated by News International.

The equivalent of Times Higher Education is The Australian's weekly supplement Higher Education. This organ might be explained to a UK reader as aspiring to the political and intellectual quality of the Daily Mail. True, Perth is the only city not instructed by a Murdoch-owned daily. But The West Australian finds its mission downmarket from Murdochism. Its Saturday review section has been known to spend up to 100 words on a serious book. There are rivers more on footy and that national icon, the groin strain.

No doubt plenty of doctoral research has value. Yet, for a nation with media like ours, undergraduate study is immensely more important. It is crucial to our democracy. The arts and social sciences introduce each new cohort of students to beauty, to the meaning of knowledge, as well as to creative scepticism. They enhance the ability to ask why. They show how humankind's nervous but irrepressible inquisitiveness has helped us reach modernity. They suggest that the material and the sporting are not the only yardsticks of human comfort and achievement.

In a rational deployment of educational finance in Australia, every undergraduate studying the arts and social sciences should be worth 16 times each postgraduate.

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