Monday, January 9, 2017

More about taxes

Following on about democracy, I realise there are two threads that tie together.

Lets go back to tax cuts.  People vote for politicians who promise them.  No one enjoys paying tax.  No one like seeing taxes come out of their pay packet.  No one likes the 10% extra added on as GST.

So you vote for the pollie who promises tax cuts.  And the government they form tells the public service to deliver expenditure cuts.  At first its easy.  There are glaring inefficiencies.  There is widespread rorting.  Fix those and you are on your way.

Then another election, and more of those promises.  Now its harder to deliver.  But don't worry, one thing never in short supply are ambitious people who will tell you that they can save you money while they run your social security system, or your universities.  So you hire them and pay them handsomely, and they deliver.  A few people are hurt, but the world goes on.

And then there is another election.  And more promises.  Even while you proclaim a budget emergency, you are still promising tax cuts.  And out the door and down the street is the queue of ambitious people who will help you do it.  You know these people.  Talented.  Pragmatists.  Realists.  The sort of people who designed and ran gas chambers.

And now lots more people are hurting.  Your hospitals struggle to cope.  Your universities have done all the sensible things they can to improve efficiency, so now they start on the stupid things.  People choose to beg because they can't handle the social security system any more.  Fear levels rise, even among the well off. Xenophobia rises.  Right wing nut jobs like Trump and Hanson rise.

You lose the next election.  But your traditional opponents don't win.  You are now irrelevant.  And all because you kept promising tax cuts long after they stopped being a good idea.  And all because you tried to keep your promises.  Life is so unfair.  But at least you have a generous parliamentary pension to retire on.

So do it.  Even if it hurts you - promise higher taxes. Deliver higher taxes.  Vote for higher taxes.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

I, Daniel Blake

So you should probably go see this movie.  It is rather good.  But it paints an entirely dystopian view of both the present and the future.  A horror story.

And the movie leaves you wondering how we can turn this around.  I've come up with something that should be part of the solution.  Its simple really.  We need to curtail democracy a bit.  You see there is this problem with voting.  People tend to vote for their own self interest.  You may not see the harm in that.  But there is.  Think of the simplest thing a politician can promise to get elected.  Yes, its tax cuts.  No one likes paying tax, so promising tax cuts is a no brainer.  And everyone knows that government bureaucracy is horribly inefficient, so there is always room for tax cuts.

Now there are horrible inefficiencies, but maybe not the ones you think of.  You might think of Centrelink and its staff administering welfare payments.  They are not inefficient.  No, inefficient is that if you travel overseas for work, you can claim a couple of hundred dollars a day for "incidental" expenses, *after* your accommodation and meals and stuff are paid for.  That is tax that is forgone, money wasted.  Or you can "salary package" stuff, which has the sole result of reducing the tax you pay.  Whether you are eligible to salary package stuff depends on who you work for and what your employment status is.  A bit of a lottery really.  Or there is "negative gearing", where the owners of investment properties get tax concessions in their desperate attempts to become "financially independent".

So you'd think that when politicians promise tax cuts, they'd be looking at the many anomalies in the tax system, like those above, and be putting them to the sword.  But they can't.  Because the people who use the tax anomalies above are energetic, capable, ambitious people.  They won't take this shit lying down.  And many of these people work in the media, whose job it is to get the message out - and surprise, surprise, when they are threatened, these people will do a very good job of getting the message out.

No, when politicians promise tax cuts, it is those down on their luck who will pay.  The welfare recipients.  When I was young, I was on the dole for a while.  Back then, the government felt ashamed of the high unemployment rate, and claiming the dole was easy.  But little by little, successive governments have, in their desire to win government by promising tax cuts, sunk the boot into dole bludgers.  There are lots of little ways of making it harder to get paid.  Of "punishing" welfare recipients for failing their "mutual obligations" by reducing their pay.  No longer to governments feel guilty about the unemployment rate, no, they blame the unemployed for their predicament, no matter how few jobs there are.  And as far as I can tell, some of the cunts even believe their own bullshit.

The solution?  Increase taxes, and when they've gone up enough, set a floor under which they can't go.  Make it so that an ambitious politician can't promise tax cuts in their bid to get into parliament.  Simple really.  Maybe not enough on its own, but definitely a step to fixing the obvious flaw in democracy - sometimes people are selfish and are quite happy for others to suffer so that they can afford a cruise, or that extension to their house, or their seventh investment property.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The UWA restructure revisited

UWA is part way through a restructure.  We've done the easy bit.  We've got rid of "excess" admin staff and re-organised into different teams.  We've also got rid of excess academics, and are in the process of employing 50 "star" academics.  I'm not sure the budget for this has been properly thought through.  Now for the hard bit - seeing if those new teams can actually deliver.

I think the university has made a fairly straightforward mistake with this restructure.  In order to see why, we have to go back to the previous restructure.

I wasn't at the uni when this happened, or if I was, it was in an area that didn't have much in the way of budgetary constraints.  But my understanding was that the university devolved budgets to the schools.  That is, there was a formula (probably based on the number of students) that told each school how much money they had.  And the school then spent the money as they saw fit.  When this change happened, Physics got into huge problems because a few old staff members retired, and the school did not realise that it was their budget that had to pay these people their retirement entitlements.

The schools of a university are its core building blocks.  A school is, roughly speaking, responsible for a discipline.  Mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology etc.  These aren't perfect.  We all know that maths has pure maths, applied maths, statistics etc - so its not strictly one discipline.  But it pretty well is.  And the people in a school care about their discipline.  A physicist is a physicist first, and a staff member at a particular university second.  The School of Physics is part of UWA, but its also part of the worldwide physics community. And the academic staff of a school are aware of the changing nature of their discipline.  They are in the best position to decide how their teaching needs to change, and which areas of research are growing, and which are shrinking.

Anyway, you now had the core building blocks of the university, the schools, controlling their own budgets.  No longer would the central admin tell the faculties how much they were getting, and the faculties tell the schools how many staff they could have and what they could spend on labs, computers etc.  Now the school got the money and decided how it was spent.  However imperfect this new model was, you will see that it was a step away from a Soviet style "centrally planned" economy to a market economy, with the important decisions being made by the people in the best position to know what was needed.

When I arrived in Physics in 2009, it had fully embraced this budget model.  I was employed in a role that didn't exist in the previous university structure.  Physics had identified a way of doing things that involved spending money on me to free up the time of its academics and allow them to be better teachers and researchers.  Like all good economic decisions, everybody won.  And while I have been there, the role has evolved, and other useful roles have been identified.

If you are an economist, you won't be surprised that the new university structure was more efficient.  But you also won't be surprised that greater efficiency did not necessarily lead to job cuts.  It should have, but rather than go to the boss and say, "We've run out of things to do", the admin staff would find ways of expanding the work.  I did some pretty useful things with that extra time!

Now I'm going to make a potentially unwise admission.  Some of the changes made by the university while I've been there have made my job easier.  Indeed, by the end of 1st semester 2015, if asked I'd probably have had to admit that I no longer deserved my half time appointment, and probably should have been made 0.4 time.  We'd had a huge upheaval in 2012 with the introduction of a new course structure, a new lecture capture system, and a new learning management system.  But by 2015, the LMS was running really well, the lecture capture system was stable, and the new course structure was now old and well understood.  In short, more efficient systems, both in Schools and university wide, should have paid dividends in reduced admin staff.

But the second half of 2015 saw a change to the learning management system (LMS), and the wholesale replacement of the universities teaching and learning support team.  Dazzled by the giddy visions of online learning, the university made sure we couldn't just sit back and run a good university.  In addition, 2015 saw dramatically reduced student numbers, based on a change in school starting age that happened 12 years earlier, and also (although we didn't realise at the time) based on the end of the construction phase of the mining boom in WA.  People started leaving Perth.  Competition for students between the Perth universities hotted up.  UWA's Engineering Schools ran out of money, and many of their best staff retired or went to Curtin Uni's engineering programme.  We lost students to Curtin, and many people now regard Curtin's engineering programme as superior to UWA's.

The reduction in student numbers put pressure on UWA's budget.  There was pressure anyway because government funding per student had been stagnant for many years.

Also in 2015, UWA decided to improve their timetabling system.  It is better now, but not without a great deal of wasted effort - effort redirected from the core business of teaching.  The waste was largely because the "training sessions" did not work and because some staff deliberately tried to make the new system produce the timetables they were used to.  It could have been done much better.

So just as UWA was becoming efficient, the changes flooded in.  And something else was happening.  The university was trying to standardise the rules that were used.  The most annoying of these is "Special Consideration".  It used to be that when a student missed a test because they were sick, they would ring or email me on the day.  And I would say, "That is a shame.  Do you think you'll be better next Tuesday, because we'll run another sitting of the test then.  Please bring your medical certificate with you to that test".  And they'd rock up on Tuesday and all would be good.  But clearly the excuses that I was happy to accept might not be the same as the unit coordinator for Anthropology 1001 would accept.  And also, it was a pain for a student who was sick for a week and missed several assessments to contact each unit coordinator and explain their situation.  So the university made "Special Considerations" (SC).  You applied at your faculty office, and they then notified all the relevant unit coordinators.  Once the student got their SC approved they had 3 days to contact their unit coordinator and arrange an alternative assessment.  The net result for me is that I would have students contacting me nearly a week after missing a test.  Which is problematic, as by then I'd marked the tests, give the students their results, and published the test on the LMS.  So we either had to make up a new test for them, or to give them an exemption (which is what a lot of them were hoping for in the first place).

A friend of mine tells me how much easier it was to develop a new unit at the university 20 years ago than it is today, because of all the (basically irrelevant) people who need to be involved in the process today.

So the centralised rules created, unsurprisingly, more work, and a less efficient university.  And of course some attempts at centralised rules just don't work because of the wide diversity of the university.

To summarise, the university became more efficient because the devolved budgets put decision making in the hands of the people best placed to make decisions.  It became more efficient because of improvements in the IT systems.  It became less efficient because of unnecessary and poorly implemented changes to IT systems.  It became less efficient because of unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy.  The university suffers budget pressure because of stagnant government funding, reduction of overall student numbers in Perth, and competition with other universities.

And now, finally, to the universities response to this situation.

They are going to spend more on IT.  Well, everyone always does that.  We can only hope that it delivers.  My university password expires in 2 weeks.  My idea of a good IT system would be one that meant I didn't have to put up with a week of intermittent email and network access when I change my password (combined with central IT people who don't want to compromise the security of the IT system by telling you what the hell is going on).

They are moving the budget back to the faculty level (away from the schools), and developing a workload model that will determine exactly how much teaching each academic must do.  You may have noticed that this is a move in precisely the opposite direction of the budget devolution that increased efficiency after the last restructure.  Instead of the people at the coal face making the decisions (and living with the consequences), those people now have to take arguments to faculty about why they need more money in some areas and less in others.  Instead of shielding your students from academics who can't teach, you'll have to find ways of minimising the damage they do while conforming to university policy.

And you know what my biggest problem is with all of this?  This university has economists, who, if asked for their honest professional position, would tell university management that Stalinist 5 year plans and central control have fallen from favour among economists in recent years.  Indeed the recently departed VC who began this restructure is, I believe, an economic historian.  I wonder if he talked to himself about his plans at all.

The university probably has people who are rather expert in the theory of management, and these people might have opinions on how to go about a restructure in the most positive way - but I don't think these people were asked.  Just as no university statistician or psychologist was consulted about a "big data" learning analytics project now underway.  Will any of the computer science academics be consulted about the universities IT solutions?  I doubt it.

How can the university expect others to value it when it doesn't value the talent it has at its fingertips?  What are we, a Mickey Mouse university?

And needless to say the centralisation of the rules and regulations continues.

Its almost as though someone has taken what they've learned doing something like, you know, running a hardware chain, and decided to apply it to a university.

Monday, November 28, 2016

UWA Marks Policy

Now universities are from time to time accused of "grade inflation".  That is, they give higher marks than they used to.  Of course in the long term this can't really be true, because by now all students would have to be getting 100% all the time.  But I'm making light of a real problem.  How do we ensure that a mark of 80% is an impressive mark?

UWA, bless its cotton socks, has an idea to fix this.  At some point in the near future no unit will be allowed to give more than 50% of their students a mark of 70% or more.

Superficially, this is attractive.  But as is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.  The real world doesn't cooperate.  I wish it would, but sadly, no.  Not only won't the real world cooperate, but it fails to comply in multiple ways.

Firstly, lets look at a case where the rule will work.  You have a course that students enrol in and when they come out they are a professional widger, and can go out and get employment with that qualification.  Every year 300 new widging students start, and every year about 250 of them graduate.  You lose some because they change their minds, or they can't hack the work.  But most battle bravely through.  So you essentially have the same cohort of students throughout, and it doesn't really make sense if they get really high marks for "Widging in the field", and really low marks for "Rural widging".  If that happens, you'd think that the lecturer of "Widging in the field" maybe wasn't very confident in their lecturing, and so set a much too easy exam in the hope of hiding their incompetence (only to discover what the education people have told us a lot, the quality of the lecturer doesn't matter as much as you think it does).

Now lets look at a case where it won't work.  Take my favourite group of students, physics.  Take the 3rd years.  Look at their marks in PHYS3011.  You'll find more than 50% of them getting marks over 70%.  Should they?  Well, one thing you can do is look at how they went back in PHYS1001, a big first year physics unit.  They were just a small part of that unit.  And that unit had well under 50% of its students scoring over 70%.  But how did our PHYS3011 students go in PHYS1001?  Well over 50% of them got scores over 70%.  Unlike the widgers who kept much the same cohort throughout, the majority of students who did PHYS1001 don't do PHYS1002, and only around a third of those who do PHYS1002 end up doing PHYS3011.  Because physics is hard, and weaker students drop out, leaving just the best at the end.

And its not just PHYS1001 where our PHYS3011 cohort did very well.  Look at just about any non-physics unit they do, and you'll find that they break the "less than 50% over 70%" assessment rule.  So our PHYS3011 students are breaking the assessment rule all over the place, but the only time it actually shows up is in PHYS3011, where they are all together and undiluted by other students.

So that is one way the assessment rule breaks down.  Here's another.  Consider Advanced Music Ensemble, a 3rd year music unit (sorry name may not be quite right).  These students also get too many marks over 70%.   But if you look at their performance in non-music units they take, you won't see exceptional performance.  They probably won't break the assessment rules in anything other than units involving musical performance.  These units are very different to others at UWA.  Almost all units involve learning a lot of material and then demonstrating your understanding of and ability to apply that material.  But virtually no units are concerned with excellence of performance and technique.  No one watches the maths student produce a proof and marvels at their virtuosity.  Maybe they lose a few marks for an ugly proof, but as long as its a valid proof, they are fine.

No, with Advanced Music Ensemble, there is nothing for it but to leave the marking to the experts who know what they are looking for, and recognise it when they see it.

But lets make a point about this.  If the School of Music, or the School of Physics send out students with marks of 80 and 90%, and those students audition for orchestras, or enrol in PhD's at other universities - and if they embarrass themselves, then that would tarnish UWA's reputation.  And we don't want that.

So you see that there are competing forces at work.  Yes, the School of Music might want to have 200 students doing 3rd year Advanced Music Ensemble, and it can probably attract that many by marking really easily.  But they have the countervailing force of their reputation.  And these force balance out and ensure that the marks given out actually mean something.

But there are units at UWA which have very little incentive to keep marks down.  Broadening units that are not part of a major.  And if you look at these units their marks have gone up in the years since they were introduced.  Its hardly surprising.  You get paid for the number of students you teach.  The students want a broadening unit which requires little work and is likely to give you a high mark.  Students and academics interests align, and you get easy units with high marks.  I'm being a tiny bit cynical here.  Some of these units are really good.  And some of the students who take them do so because they are genuinely enchanted by the subject.  But none of that stops grade inflation.  And for these units, the assessment policy is likely a good thing.  I still think more effort is required by the university to ensure that these units run well, but fixing the assessment is a good move.

Lastly, will the assessment policy have any bad effects?  Well, yes.  If you want a mark of over 70% (a grade of "D" or "HD"), then you are not attempting to exceed a standard that could be defined for the unit before you start it, you are competing against your fellow students.  If you help a weaker student improve their mark, your mark could go down as a consequence.  This is ludicrous.  We could even reach the ridiculous situation of encouraging weak students to continue because we know that more weak students will allow us to reward our more able students with higher marks.  Now of course this is not the sort of thing we'd do - but in running a unit we are faced with a lot of seemingly minor decisions, and if we have in the back of our mind that more weak students helps us reward better students...

In summary, this policy looks just like the UWA restructure.  The university has identified a problem, and produced a simplistic solution that ignores the unavoidable complexities.  And in doing so they will create a new set of problems, which at least in the short term will be worse than those they sought to fix.  Like the UWA bosses, I wish for a simpler world.  Unlike them I don't pretend to be living in one.


Friday, November 18, 2016

What makes good teaching?

A fellow worker in the School of Physics at The University of Western Australia (UWA) got a teaching award, as he does most every year, because he’s a fantastic teacher.  So the Dean of our new faculty (Engineering et al) asked him to come in for a chat.  And he asked him what made for good teaching.  Now I can teach, but I’m not that great at it.  But I can tell you what makes good teaching.  

The key things are values and incentives.  If you have those right, the rest is just details.  What follows is based solely on my experience in Physics. 

The main value is that we love the kids we teach. They are not just students, they are partners in the teaching and learning process.  Many of us are parents.  We know how we want our own kids to be treated, and we should not do any less with other people’s children.  We love them because they are interested in physics.  We owe it to them to provide a physics education that will allow them to join the worldwide community of physicists.  We owe it to them to fail them if they don’t master a unit.  Allowing them to waste their time would be cruel.  We owe it to them to catch cheats.  Allowing cheating devalues their degrees.

While we can all individually have such values, there is great benefit to the Head of School having these values.  Many decisions in physics teaching are easy to make.  We know the Heads values, and we apply them.  So less work for him, and more responsibility for us.  Its a win - win situation.  I worry a little about the university as a whole.  Is aiming to be in the top 50 universities in the world a value driven goal?  How does that goal translate into the decisions that everyone who works at the university makes on a day to day basis?  

But good values alone are not enough to ensure good teaching.  We are regularly faced with decisions on how things are done.  And being human, we sometimes go for the easy option even if its not “the right thing”.  However if your choices have consequences, you might think harder.  In Physics, we get paid for each student, and we like having lots of students.  If we teach badly, we will lose students, and money.  There is our incentive.  Many of our students are very talented, and they could major in maths, engineering, computer science etc.  To keep as many as we can makes us teach well.  It makes us choose our teachers well.  What happens if the incentives aren’t there, or the incentives are perverse?  In Physics, we are battling with one such situation.  

By the time our students are in the 3rd year of their degree, they are unlikely to change majors.  So one incentive to be excellent teachers is gone.  Worse still, by trying to “be nice” to the students in the earlier years, we’ve left a lot of content for third year, and we’ve left some of our not so excellent teachers for third year.  So traditionally 2nd semester in 3rd year has been a nightmare for the students.  This was recognised a couple of years ago (and may have led to us having fewer Honours students than we expected), and we’ve put a gun teacher in charge of 3rd year.  Its a lot better this year, but there is still work to do - its no easy thing to turn an oil tanker round.  So if you want excellent teaching, and your students are “captive”, then you will have your work cut out for you.  Its pretty easy to indulge in fuzzy thinking when there is no cold hard loss of money attached to bad decisions.

Another example of perverse incentives relates to specialist broadening units.  These are units that are not part of any major, and it is entirely up to the student which of these they take.  Now from the student’s point of view, they want an easy unit for which they’ll get a high score.  This frees them up to focus on their major.  From a School’s point of view, they want lots of students so they get lots of money.  So to attract large numbers of students, the school has an incentive to make the unit easy and to mark easy.  And if you look at these units in the time since they were introduced, you will see grade inflation.  That is, the Schools have responded rationally to the incentive.  Why do we not see the same in other units?  Most other units are part of a major.  The school running them wants to be sure that students who pass that unit are capable of proceeding to higher units.  The school wants to turn out quality graduates, as this reflects on the school.  So they have an incentive for a mark of 80 to actually mean that the student is pretty good.  But this incentive is not present for broadening units.

Given that Physics has an incentive to deliver quality teaching, it is not surprising that we do it by allocating our teaching resources in a way we think is optimal.  Its like a hockey team.  You put your best players at inside left and inside right.  You probably put your worst players at full back (my old position).  So Physics knows there are some people who you shouldn’t unleash on students.  Or at the very least, you don’t let them loose on 1st and 2nd years.  We try not to put our weaker teachers in the early weeks of semester - we still want students there on the all important census date!


So that is values and incentives.  After that you still have to get the best out of your teaching staff.  If you overload them, then they will forget about values and incentives and just struggle to survive - and clearly the students will suffer.  So your values dictate that you can’t overload them.  You also have to get your support staff to reduce the load on your teaching staff.  High quality teachers should not be wasting their time on drudgery (unless they like doing it as a form of meditation).  In Physics we have shared out unit coordination duties in a way that works for staff and students.  Moving to a different way of doing this might reduce teaching quality.  I say this as someone with a vested interest - my unique role in Physics looks like it will vanish next year as the university restructures to a more "public service" model.

Friday, November 11, 2016

With a day to think about it.

Democracy sort of worked in the US.  The voters delivered a message to the establishment that they aren't happy with the status quo.  There are lots of horrible things about who they chose, but that was the choice they were faced with.

Trump will fail.  He's got some good ideas, but he's hamstrung by his low tax policy.  That means he's going to really disappoint a lot of people who didn't think things could get worse.

30 years ago, we were better off than we are now.  Not richer, but definitely better off.  Come up with a plan to fix that up, and I'll vote for you.  But not if you're a cunt like Trump.

Actually, scrap that.  I've got that plan.  So vote for the Newstart Party.  Follow me.  We may not fix it, but the smart dudes will be so scared of us that they will fix it.  All you need to do is follow me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Fuck. He won.

I live in a world that I don't understand any more.  It is changing so rapidly.

Donald Trump just won the US presidency.

And he won by appealing to white people.  They are the biggest single group in the US, and Trump made it very clear he would represent their interests.  The blacks and latinos knew what this meant for them, and they voted against him, but there are not enough of them, and the white vote won.

Hillary made the stupid mistake of being inclusive - the sort of president who would govern for everyone.  I guess white people looked at that and couldn't see why they had to share.  Poor parenting.

In Australia, we had an election earlier this year.  There is an organisation called "GetUp!" who campaign on the progressive side of politics, my side of politics, and I gave them money, and I worked on a polling booth for them.  It kind of worked, as the conservatives won, but only just.  And now I realise, that if I want progressive politics, I have to pay.  And that is fine, I'll chip in to balance the millions donated by big business.

But the same is true of newspapers too.  If I want to read quality online, ultimately I'm going to have to subscribe to The Guardian, or The New York Times, or The Sydney Morning Herald, or The Melbourne Age, or New Matilda, or Crikey.  Because the Murdoch media is on the side of evil.  Because our ABC has been starved by government and cowed.

So now I'm living in a world I don't like.  A world where the relentless drive of the rich is wearing us down.  A world that is heading back in time to the 1930's, but without the shining light of an FDR.  We are heading back to the era of robber barons (or oligarchs), to an era of patronage, to an era whose values led to the Russian revolution.  To an era of jingoistic nationalism.  To an era of increasing inequality.

And the American people, they know good, but they said, "Stuff that", and voted for Trump.