Sunday, April 10, 2016

UWA restructure

So right now the University of Western Australia is undergoing a restructure.  We are going to lose around 200 "professional" staff.  "Professional" means you aren't an academic - you are an administrator or you do accounts, or you are a PA to an important person, or a lawyer, or you work in HR, or like me you are a unit coordinator, etc etc.  This is about 10% of the total.

The new model for the university is that there will be 4 faculties and a central admin.  Each of these will have a "service delivery centre" (SDC) which will house most of the admin functions.  This is a considerable reduction in the number of faculties, and this new model is supposed to allow the 10% cut in staff.

The current phase of the restructure involves deciding which professional positions are to be based in the SDCs, and which will be based in the individual schools that make up the university.

And I'm wondering about the restructure.  I'm wondering exactly what values will be driving this process.  What is in the hearts of the people driving the process?  Obviously everyone working at the university will have different priorities.  What do I value?

We teach students.  I love the students.  They are great young people at a very difficult time of their lives.  They've done well at school, but now they are making their own way, in an environment where they may not do well.  They are starting to chart their own path in the world.  They may not be able to achieve what they set out to do.  Dreams may be shattered.  I reckon we owe them something.

We have to offer them a good degree.  High quality, with high standards.  A degree that has some status in the world.

We should not enrol students who have no chance of success.  Universities have plenty of data on high school and degree performance.  The very least they should do is give students an idea of their chances of success in their proposed course(s) of study.  Its not impossible for a student with a weak background to succeed, but at least we should tell them up front that they have a long hard road ahead of them.

We have to fail students who don't master the material.  We do no favours to first years if we let them progress to second year despite a failure to master the first year material.  "Failure" is not really failure, it is just a sign that your efforts are best taken in a different direction.  By not giving that signal early, we are delaying the inevitable and wasting the students time.

Clearly the university makes money from students.  So the university has a motivation to pass students who should fail.  But ultimately the professional pride in each of the schools at the university will stop them handing out degrees to undeserving students.  It really is best if students stop wasting their time as soon as possible.

A very important part of failing students who haven't mastered the material is not allowing cheating.  There is currently a push towards online testing.  Why?  Because it is cheaper to do testing online, but I have yet to hear of a method of having online assessment for 1000 students that isn't susceptible to cheating.  I look after a unit where there is an online assessment component.  Its worth 10%.  If it wasn't worth marks, the students wouldn't do it.  That is why its worth marks.  The reason its only worth 10% is because you can cheat at it.  So you can't pass the unit just by cheating on this component.

In some situations markers are paid casual rates, but are told that a certain number of essays are expected to be marked per hour.  So if we give you 40 essays, we will pay you for 2 hours.  If such a marker detects cheating, they will be required to do extra work, work that may not result in extra pay.  Such markers will, suprise, suprise, detect very little cheating.  Whatever structure UWA decides on, they do need to make sure that perverse incentives to tolerate cheating are not part of the system.

We have to be organised and efficient.  Its one thing to have students failing because they aren't good enough, but quite another for it to happen because their course of study is disorganised and haphazard.  Every unit should have a clear structure spelt out at the start of semester so that students know what is expected of them.   The students fill in a "SURF" survey on each unit, and generally the scores are good.  Where they aren't, the university tries pretty hard to fix it.  This will be a key part of the restructure.  If SURF scores fall, the university needs to see if any of that has been caused by the restructure, and fix it immediately.

Lastly, all the core units that make up the backbone of a degree should form a cohesive structure.

So mainly I care that we do the right thing by our students.  And I hope that the students are uppermost in the minds of the people doing the restructure.  And not just because of the dollars attached to them.


Friday, April 8, 2016

That diet thing

So back on 22nd November 2014, I started monitoring my weight.  I wanted to lose weight, and figured that before I tried to do that, I should at least have an idea about how my weight behaved.  I weighed myself each morning, after going to the toilet, but before eating anything.

In February 2015, I had some gastro, and decided to start a diet.  A pretty simple diet - no food after about 8pm at night.  Typically this removed a bowl of muesli eaten at around 10pm.  I based this diet on the idea that fasting was good, but that I didn't have enough willpower to actually fast for a whole day.  I also figured that this was not a temporary measure, but a change for the rest of my life.  With that in mind, I didn't want anything too onerous.

The weight just dropped off.  By May I'd lost about 6kg.  Then the weight loss stopped.  It was flat until October, at which point it went up slightly until early January 2016.  And then it started falling again.  Its now down 8 - 9 kg from the start.


You'll notice that I changed scales around June 2015, to ones that weigh to 0.1 kg instead of 0.5 kg.  The new ones also weighed about 2 kg heavier, (measured over a 3 week period where both scales were used), so I added 2.01 kg to each of the measurements taken with the old scales.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Australian Liberal Party Policy

The Australian Liberal Party, the equivalent of the Conservatives in the UK or the Republicans in the US hasn't really announced any policies for the election that will be held this year.  Except they have.  It pretty much goes like this:

We accept that we can't force companies to pay tax, and that we can't collect tax from wealthy Australians.  We won't do anything about negative gearing, or about those ridiculous superannuation laws for the moderately wealthy.  We won't ask more than a pittance from BHP and Rio as they ship Australia to China, bit by bit.

We can't collect any more tax from those ordinary Joe Blows who actually do pay tax, so we just don't have enough income.

As a result, we will be gradually cutting spending on government hospitals and schools.  We will be trying very hard to take money away from low income earners and those on welfare.  We will do our bit to help corporations make even more money.  Because if we don't, they will pack up their bags and leave.

In our future we see a two tier society.  The ambitious and well connected, going to private schools, and private hospitals, and those who will just have to scratch around for scraps.  If you have illusions that you are in the top tier, great, you'll vote for us.  If you don't, we aim to convince you that the without the top tier being fabulously well off, you will be even worse off.  Look, we know its a lie, but you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The price of a closed shop

The medical specialties in Australia are a closed shop, and it is a disgrace.  Perfectly qualified people are denied the chance to practice as anaesthetists, gynaecologists, dermatologists, immunologists etc etc, not because they aren't any good at it, but because entry to those specialties are controlled by the existing specialists, and they have a very strong vested interest in keeping newcomers out.

And it appears that this may have contributed to this tragedy.

Try booking a specialist appointment.  You will notice that they are not desperate for work.  That they don't say, "Is tomorrow at 3pm good for you?".

If the Australian government had any guts whatsoever, they would tackle this now.  But no, the Australian government is busy tackling penalty rates for hospitality workers on Sundays.  The Australian government is busy making sure that the backpackers who are paid a pittance to pick the fruit we eat - that they are taxed properly.  Not the multinationals who shift their profits to Singapore - no, the fruit pickers.

Friday, March 18, 2016

You know that famous "quote":

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Well, I can't help but think that in a different way, something like this is going on now.
We in Australia are being globalised.  That is, gradually we are being exposed to economic competition from the rest of the world.  Its fully happened in some areas.  Almost all manufactured goods and clothes come from China, Bangladesh etc.  It has happened to taxi drivers - they have been imported.  Oh, there are still a few Australian taxi drivers, but not many.  Its happening with computer programmers.  A friend of mine has been on the same nominal pay now for many years - so in real terms his pay is falling.  Competition from Indian programmers, both here in Australia, and in India is driving down his pay.  I work in the university sector, and I have no idea if its international competition or what, but every year we need to provide the same services for less money.
And I can't help thinking that this is how you do it.  You take one sector at a time, and open it up to global pressures.  A few people lose pay, or lose their jobs, but most of us are happy.  Happy because for us, cars, clothes, food etc are fantastically cheap.  And that is fine, until it happens to you.  Once you are out of work, then it doesn't matter how cheap cars are, you won't have one.
And so we come to the next bit of the puzzle.  There is this dislocation, and people find their pay squeezed, or their jobs gone.  And if their jobs are gone, then they go on the dole.  And we are told now, that in order to stay competitive globally, we can't afford to pay much to people on the dole.  
Now look, we shouldn't complain about all this.  We are, after all, ludicrously wealthy compared to most of the people in the world.  And if we get less and they get more, they will appreciate the extra far more than we will feel our loss.  Except it seems that it doesn't work quite like that.  The more seems to go to those, both here and in the poorer countries, who already have plenty.
I was on the dole in 1979.  I lived in a share house in Nedlands, a nice house in a nice suburb.  Over a period of 6 months until I got work, I saved a small amount of money.  This is nearly 40 years ago.  Australia is vastly richer now than it was then.  But somehow Australia then could do what Australia now cannot.  It could keep me alive and it could provide free universities, and a health system that, while technically far inferior to todays, was actually more responsive.
This theme, it is bullshit.  There is no necessity for things to go the way they are.  It is simply the vision of the rich and their cheer squad.  But the strength of the rich and their followers is that they have a very clear view of the world.  They know exactly what they want.  And that is where they have the advantage over the "left".  The left is confused.  Half of them believe the story of the rich, and all they want to do is to try and make the process a bit more humane.  Others look for some utopian fantasy.  Something that can't exist.  There isn't a single coherent scheme for a better future than the race to the bottom the rich are busy implementing.  And we need one.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Maths education

OK, every so often people bemoan the state of maths education.  Like this.

Anyway it gets me thinking about maths.  Which is actually pretty much applied maths.  That is, you don't intend to make fundamental maths discoveries, what you want to do is use a little bit of existing mathematical knowledge to help you do something.

Now computers can do maths, and music, and CAD, and lots of stuff.  So just let a computer do it?  An example might help.  Say you are looking at an object that is undergoing constant acceleration in a straight line.  You know its initial position and velocity, and you want to find out when it will pass a certain point 20m to the right of where it started.  If you know a bit about motion, you will know that velocity is the rate at which the objects position is changing, and acceleration is the rate at which the objects velocity is changing.  A bit of calculus (or some high school physics) allows you to write

x(t) = v0 t + 1/2 a t^2  

where "x(t)" is the position at a given time "t",  "v0" is the initial velocity, and "a" is the constant rate of acceleration.  I've taken the starting position, x(0), to be 0.

So now if you want to know at what time(s) the object is 20m to the right of where it started you must solve the equation

20 = v0 t + 1/2 a t^2

So you go to your computer/calculator, and ask it solve this, putting in the actual values of v0 and a. And your computer says that there are two solutions, t = 4 + 3i, and t = 2 - 5i  (or something like this).  WTF ?  What is that "i"?  What does this even mean?

So here is where the mathematical knowledge comes in.  Firstly, you look at the equation and recognise that it is a 2nd order (quadratic) polynomial equation in one variable.  You know that such equations will have 1 or 2 solutions.  And you know that the solutions can be real numbers, or they can be complex numbers (which is that "i" that was in the solution).  You know that the quantity you are interested in, time, only has real values, so that if your computer tells you that t = 4 + 3i is a solution, then that isn't a possible solution for you.  So there are no actual solutions to your equation, and the object never reaches a point 20m to the right of where it started.  If you are fairly sure that there should be a solution, then at this point you'd look at your working, and see if there were any mistakes made along the way.

We know a lot more about this type of equation.  If one solution is complex, then the other one will be too.  The solution to such an equation is exact.  You don't have to write it as a numeric approximation if you don't want to.  We know that solutions exist if v0^2 + 40a is greater than or equal to zero.  We know that if its equal to zero, then only one solution exists.

In summary, being able to solve 20 = v0 t + 1/2 a t^2  was something we could leave to the computer.  But understanding how the solutions to this sort of equation behave is mathematical knowledge that we should have.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The right incentives

People and businesses respond very well to incentives.

Take the for profit education sector in Australia.  The trade education sector (TAFE) was opened up to them a few years ago.  The private provider had to get their courses approved.  Then they could enrol students.  They got money from the government for each student they enrolled.

There are two problems here.  Firstly they got paid when the student enrolled, not when the student graduated.  Secondly, there was no external assessment of students.  And to this you can add the third problem - the private educators deliberately targeted people who were vulnerable.  People who would not realise that the education they were being given was woeful, and people who would blame themselves for their failure.

Not surprisingly this highly successful adaptation to the incentives led to a disaster, with shonky colleges and unhappy students, and a lot of government money going into the mansions of unscrupulous operators.

Now as it happens, I work for a university, and I ask myself, "How are we different?"  I know we are.  Firstly we have no personal profit motive.  None of us get more money for enrolling students who we know will fail.  Secondly, we have a certain pride in our profession.  We don't want poorly trained students going out into the world with a degree we gave them.  Thirdly, we, the people who make the decisions about how our units will run, work with the students.  We tend to like them, and don't want to do the wrong thing by them.  Fourthly, we don't want to look like idiots if our graduates go on to do PhDs at other universities.  That is, we care about our reputation.

But my particular institution is treading on thin ice as the moment.  They have what are known as "broadening units".  These are units at the 1st year level, that are outside your major.  For an arts major, it could be commerce.  For a business major, it could be music.  Students have to take four of these units during their degree.  When we were setting up a couple of these units, we were thinking that they would bring in some teaching dollars for us.  That is, it might cost us $400 per student to deliver the unit, for which we would get $700.  So we could use these units to cross subsidise our other activities.  Nothing unusual about this.  It tends to be true of all big first year units.  They make money which ends up subsidising the smaller 2nd and 3rd year units.

But there is a problem.  The first year units in our major are hard.  We know that the 2nd and 3rd year units of our major are hard, and letting first years without good skills get through is just causing problems for them and us down the track.  But this motivation is totally absent with broadening units.  The music department does not really care what students got out of "World Music".

Now put yourself in the shoes of a student.  They want a good grade point average.  They want easy units.  So they talk among themselves, and everyone says "World Music" is really easy, and you can't really fail, so you do it.  You choose it over a possibly more interesting unit that has a reputation of being a "bit of hard work".  So if you run a broadening unit, and you want to boost enrolments, just make it easy.  Really easy.  And isn't that great, because creating good assessments is hard work, but you don't have to do it!

OK, there is still no actual personal profit.  The extra money benefits your school though, and that is a bit of an incentive.  If your university is trying to squeeze money out a stone, maybe its a large incentive.  Anyway I'm sure you can see the problem.  We have a bad incentive, and virtually no motivation to avoid a race to the bottom, offering easier and easier broadening units.

This needs to be fixed before it becomes so bad that it ends up in the news.  Many of the broadening units are really well designed, and could provide a great educational experience.  It would be a great shame if they all ended up as mickey mouse money spinners with minimal student engagement.