Submission to the Engineering faculty review, December 2005

Lee Naish

Overview of recommendations


I am an academic (level C) in the department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. This is a personal submission, though I am also in broad agreement with the content and style of the submission made on behalf of our department. I have had a continuous association with the department since 1977, first as a student, completing a BSc(Hons) then PhD, then as a staff member, appointed as a research fellow in 1985 then as lecturer and senior lecturer. Since 2000 I have been working part time, primarily for health reasons.

Decision-making in the faculty

This review is part of a process which may result in extremely important decisions for the whole faculty and I greatly value the opportunity to make a submission. As a level C academic I have minimal power over decision at the department, faculty or university level. The decision-making mechanisms are largely autocratic. Some department heads and deans (and vice chancellors) choose to be more collegiate in their decision making. The value of this is not that we come closer to the ideal of democracy, but we come closer to the ideal of meritocracy. We place truth above ideology and believe the best way to reach the truth is by considering evidence and logical argumentation. Our core business is generating and communicating ideas. We know that collaboration improves productivity and the best way to distinguish good ideas from not so good ideas is though peer review.

However, at various times during my long association with the university, it has been apparent that heads of departments, deans and vice chancellors have paid only lip service to collegiality. They can become out of touch with members of staff and make bad decisions. Although staff members are sometimes asked their opinions (such as in this review, and when the previous Dean's term ended in 2000), the occasions are few and far between. It is possible for staff to directly approach a head or dean at any time, but the times when a change of course are most needed are exactly the times such approaches are most difficult and least effective. A partial solution to this is to ask for staff input more regularly. It could be conveniently linked to the annual staff appraisal process. Just as teaching staff are appraised with student feedback from "Quality of Teaching" surveys in mind, Heads and Deans could be appraised with staff feedback in mind.

Teaching-based funding for departments

By far the worst time our department has had in its history was around the end of the 1990's. Our student/staff ratio approximately doubled over a period of three years. Work load was at an all time high, morale was at an all time low and several staff left the department (and I could no longer sustain full-time work). This should never be repeated. One cause was the general under-funding of universities, another was the vice chancellor's very poor decision to increase student numbers despite lack of funding, but another was the formula the faculty uses for determining department income related to teaching. The latter two causes were a symptoms of lack of collegiality and poor decision making at the university and faculty level, respectively.

The formula is based on a three year rolling average. Such a formula works well when student numbers are reasonably stable. However, when numbers increase significantly departments are effectively paid in arrears, putting huge strain on department resources (particularly staff). We are in a relatively comfortable position now due to falling student numbers. One possible alternative model is as follows. Departments are given the option of predicting student numbers for the following year and funding is based on that prediction. If numbers are underestimated, the surplus is added to the department budget the following year and if numbers are overestimated the deficit (plus some interest) is subtracted.

Faculty structure

The suggestion of the previous section assumes there is no major change in the structure of the faculty. I will avoid taking up too much space re-iterating the arguments against major change put forward in the CSSE department submission. Our department has always, through necessity, been quite lean and efficient with respect to support staff. For many years we were funded as a non-laboratory based science (like mathematics), despite having to provide substantial computing infrastructure for both teaching and research. Soon after this was rectified we were moved to the engineering faculty, where the teaching-based funding formula was such that every other department was funded in proportion to their teaching numbers but our funding was less (this is unrelated to the point raised in the previous section). Again this took many years to rectify. Thus, over several decades we have taught high numbers of students more efficiently than other departments and provided substantial computing infrastructure at a small fraction of the cost of the central university IT provider. At the same time we have developed a good research profile, through an evolving set of informal "groups", "projects", and "labs" with virtually no administrative overheads and been instrumental in significant technology transfer (not least, our role in bringing the internet to Australia).

Our experience with the Collaborative Information Technology Research Institute some years ago was that virtually all the (substantial) funding was essentially wasted on salaries for directors and administrative staff and (often duplicated) infrastructure. It probably had a negative impact overall. Lessons from CITRI were used in negotiations for our involvement with NICTA, but it is still unclear if the research outcomes of NICTA will represent good value for money considering the administrative overheads, including the thousands of hours highly productive researchers have already spent in meetings. The faculty should aim at teaching and research efficiency, where all sources of funding are considered inputs rather than outputs. A major restructure of the faculty would cost a great deal of money and time, and a disproportionate amount of the time would be spent by highly productive researchers. Even if the new structure did lead to more efficient teaching and research in the longer term (which is doubtful), it should be compared with the outcome if a similar effort was put into increasing efficiency without a major restructure, or we just concentrated on doing our research.

Price discrimination

I believe the faculty (and university) should be able to increase its full-fee teaching income and quality of students by using price discrimination. We should try to charge each student as much as they are willing to pay, as long as they are willing to pay more than the marginal cost of teaching them. Currently the faculty has fixed fees for each course so some students pay less than they are willing to pay and other excellent students do not apply, even though they would be happy to pay more than the marginal cost. The faculty could effectively introduce price discrimination by increasing fees and offering scholarships and/or bursaries. Even without price discrimination, potential students are likely to prefer a $40000 degree with a $10000 scholarship (which they can mention on their CV) to a $30000 degree with no scholarship. The size of the scholarship can be related to inability or unwillingness to pay (this can be estimated in various ways, such as willingness to negotiate a maze of deadlines and paperwork), rather than academic merit alone.

Similarly, many students would be willing to pay higher fees if they have a guarantee of a bursary where they perform a certain number of hours of casual work such as undergraduate lab supervision. We could also charge more for some degrees than others (for example the new ME in Distributed Computing could have higher fees than the Masters of Software Systems Engineering) even though the actual subjects taken by students could be identical. If we do pursue price discrimination it is important to streamline the faculty processes and make potential students do the bulk of the work rather than us.

Some may argue that such things are inequitable and counter to the merit based philosophy of the university. However, any fee structure is counter to the merit based philosophy. By charging fees which are more in line with student's ability to pay is an improvement over fixed fees. For example, ideally we should be able to accept a good student who can only afford slightly more than the marginal cost, which is significantly below the current fee.

A form of price discrimination currently seems to work for the faculty for HECS places. There is a strong perception that students with good marks in high school don't want to "waste" them on courses with relatively low "enter" scores. This seems to be one reason for the popularity of combined degrees amongst the high performing students. Although this helps maintain the number of (good) students, there are significant costs of combined degrees (not least is that having completed around six years as an undergraduate they are unlikely to stay on to do a higher degree). If undergraduate courses are re-structured it would be prudent to retain multiple paths into the courses with different enter scores. For example, "BE leading to ME" could have a higher enter score than a plain BE, even though subsequent acceptance into ME is based entirely on academic performance during the BE.

Restructuring of undergraduate degrees

There has been a recent flurry of activity in the faculty discussing possible changes in the structure of undergraduate courses, for example, dropping the current four year BE and adopting a "3+2" model, citing the "Bologna declaration" (which, it is worth noting, also endorses the "4+1" model we currently have). The motivations and process have been largely opaque and there has not yet been sufficient time to properly consider our goals, develop detailed alternative proposals and evaluate them. I believe the faculty review panel will not be in a position to make an informed judgment on the best outcome, though it may help clarify some issues and suggest a process by which the matter can be decided.

I am in no doubt that the combined wisdom of the faculty can design academically excellent courses with many different structures. For example, a four year degree which does not lock students into a single discipline from the outset. I see no academic reason why there could not also be a more graceful transition to a Masters degree and exit after three years (without engineering accreditation). However, there are also financial and ethical considerations to course structure which must not be ignored. Within our department, the main criticism of the draft department submission to the review was the lack of discussion of accessibility in a 3+2 model (discussion was not included because there was doubt that consensus could be reached, though this question was not actually tested). A core issue is the financial cost of an accredited engineering degree to an Australian student. Tempting as it is to sweep this issue under the carpet, it must be confronted.

As professionals, we have considerable power to influence society and the responsibility to ensure our influence is a good one. Doing the right thing must be our first priority and doing it with excellence our second priority, not the reverse. It may be within the combined power of the faculty and the review panel to stop the University of Melbourne providing accredited engineering degrees which are fully covered by HECS. It is hard to see how this would not decrease accessibility. Accessibility has gradually been eroded by successive federal governments but we should resist this trend, not be complicit in it. There may of course be arguments against this, such as the standard of engineering education we provide with current resources is so low that it be an insignificant loss. Debate on ethics and social responsibility should not end when we pass the undergraduate subject which covers that topic. It is urgently needed now.