Time for the emeriti to stop taking pot shots at the establishment

A rejoinder to Richard Teese – How our elite unis ‘game’ the VCE and ATAR

Richard Teese’s article on universities, the ATAR and VCE shows that Hebert Marcuse’s Great Refusal is alive and well among Australia’s elite ‘progressive’ thinkers. The Great Refusal continues to provide the vacuum that allows neoliberalism to flourish. Teese’s article, with its Great Refusal tinged with a bit of ‘dead-white-male’ transcendence provides a caricature of authority that leaps established institutions at a single bound, swiping hard working teachers along the way. Teese confounds and conflates many distinct interests, institutions and dynamics in his overarching spray at public institutions; in particular, the role of universities, the ATAR and the VCE.

Teese’s authority on universities must be respected however. When he characterises their behaviour as bellicose, vain and market driven we need to accept that these are true even if somewhat localised and self-reflexive by way of Teese’s own university career.  Yet these characteristics may not be attributable to other universities with their autonomous mission and values.  Saying that universities ‘hide behind their students’, instead of taking ‘pride in their students’ could reflect Teese’s personal university experience, or may perhaps reflect a personal negative disposition.  Nevertheless, each university has its own autonomous body politic consisting of its own academics, so sweeping generalizations about their collective motivations are likely to be erroneous.

As to the ATAR, it is what it is. It provides a common meeting point for individuals and institutions to coordinate their actions.  The power of enfranchisement that the ATAR can bring is demonstrated by the celebration of Casimira Tipiloura’s achievement in being the first from the Tiwi Islands to attain an ATAR.  The ATAR provides students with a personal indicator that allows them to open up conversations with a large range of institutions on future educational options.   Of course how individual universities take up that conversation is up to them.  Some are indeed odious by priding themselves on the basis of QS rankings, research rankings, and world university rankings.  While the ATAR is a good facilitator of conversations between institutions and students, it remains a crude instrument and necessarily so given its academic and geographic scope as well as its focus on inclusiveness and fairness.  Furthermore, it is an annual ranking that’s not criterion referenced so substantive meaning of rank is not stable from year-to-year.  The ATAR therefore has no predictive validity and is not designed to be a predictive measure.  As Teese identifies the progress of students at the tertiary level is dependent on the preparedness of both students and academics as well the university’s balanced priority between teaching and research. Commentary on the ATAR’s predictive validity is therefore ill informed.

The most pernicious aspect of Teese’s commentary relates to the VCE.  The VCE remains a world leader as a broad based credential.  It has over one hundred subjects including community languages, has a wide range of assessment types, has a mix of internal and central assessment, has substantial teacher involvement in implementation at the school and central levels, and uses effective statistical techniques to articulate student VCE achievement with national and international institutions.  The VCE involves detailed processes conducted within tight timeframes on a shoe string budget.  Criticism in the vein of Teese’s can only damage these highly effective yet fragile processes operating within the public sphere. Teese’s criticism can only provide succour to neoliberal forces who would seek to apply proprietary uni-dimensional models to tertiary selection.

There are of course significant broader equity issues in education and these have been well identified by studies such as the OECD’s PISA.  It is interesting to note that the rearticulation and regurgitation of these same issues continues to be of interest to think tanks, research centres and academics alike. However, callous criticism of public and civil institutions such as the VCE and ATAR can only undermine the universal enfranchisement that these institutions seek to provide. It is a type of criticism that serves to dissolve publicly justified processes to have them replaced by opaque market based mechanisms.

The tradition of the Great Refusal is therefore alive and well and in some part explains why we have reached this current situation.  Victoria, a state with a university ranked among the best in the world for education, a university with academics that wantonly slag-off fellow state-based institutions, a state with a declining educational performance. I will not be as careless as Richard Teese with my inferences however.

What is clear is that as societies become more complex knowledge becomes increasingly differentiated, concurrent to this phenomenon are demands for broader enfranchisement for students of all backgrounds.  This requires enhanced technical and problem-solving skills across the educational industry to develop ever more comprehensive systems that are justifiably fair in ensuring enfranchisement at the national clearing house that is currently the ATAR. Unfortunately the current academic focus seems to be on cheap pot shots at the establishment, a stance that should have died in Paris in 1968.

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