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Bulk Learning

Kathy slid a brochure across the table. It was so glossy that the spilt coffee flowed off it, leaving it dry and unwrinkled. It showed a lone figure in an academic gown standing on a hill, behind it cloistered halls of learning, in front, distant mountains, where a rainbow ended on a pot of gold. A twenty-lane freeway stretched across the intervening valley. The caption read:

Exploring the Information Highway Together,
Australiaís Education Achiever

"Leichhardt," Emma said reflectively. "Australian explorer who was so incompetent that he got lost."

"Thatís why heís a national hero," Sue said.

"Thereís a guy in our department wants to enrol in a course there," Kathy said. "Iíve got to approve it. But I get different stories, everybody I talk to."

"I applied for a job there," Sue said. "Itís a beautiful campus. Tennis courts, eighteen hole golf course, olympic size swimming pool, gourmet restaurant ..."

"I think Iíve seen it," Kathy said. "Thereís just the one building. A forty-storey tower at one end. Concave, curving, so the sunlight focusses on the houses in the next suburb, and sets them on fire."

"Thatís the administration building," Sue said. "The carpet on the top floorís so deep you have to hack your way through the pile with a machete."

"So where are the students and the academics?"

"There arenít any," Sue said. "There are signs at the front gate. Someone reading, with a big red line through them. Someone else in a gown and mortar board, with a line through them."

"Though there is The Tomb of the Unknown Academic," Emma said. "Down by the river. Itís a bit overgrown. The story is that he tried to fail a student with a rich daddy. For a while, he was chained to a rock, while a vulture ate at his liver, but then the vulture died, and they decided not to replace it as an economy measure."

"But if thereís no staff and no students, what does the university do?"

"It buys its courses in," Sue said, "and delivers them electronically. The students download lectures and reading material, then do tests and assignments on the computer. All the markingís automated, so you can get an entire degree without talking to a living soul."

"Iíve heard one or two disaster stories," Emma said. "Like the Dry Land Farming unit from Arica University in Chile, that turned out to be in Spanish. And the Yak Grooming course from Lhasa University, which had been dubbed into English by someone that thought that a yak was a grade of Tibetan monk."

"Thereís also the successes," Sue said. "Thereís been a boom in imports of both pins and dolls since they ran the University of Haitiís course on A Model-based Approach to Interpersonal Relations."

"The courses are all imported, then?" Kathy asked.

"What do you expect," Sue said. "It costs too much to make them here. Weíve got unions, remember. And working conditions. Weíve always imported text books, so itís not much of a change. And the market will soon sort out the good courses from the bad."

"What about the Australian universities?" Kathy asked

"Theyíre inefficient. Theyíve been protected for too long. Theyíve got to learn to compete."

"Even if the imported stuff is made by some Burmese barefoot doctor of philosophy with five hundred words of English?"

"Itís probably more intelligible than some Australian academic who knows five hundred thousand words, all of them ten syllables," Sue said.

"So you donít care if the Australian universities are wiped out?" Kathy said.

"Why should I?" Sue said. "They can compete if they try. Reform work practices. Move labour intensive activities offshore. Sell their own courses in the world market." She paused. "Thereíll always be scope for boutique universities, of course, for people who want to pay. But we canít go on subsidising some bottomless pit."

"This doesnít really help me with this guyís application," Kathy said.

Emma smiled. "I donít think you should look at in isolation," she said. "Remember that youíre training officer for a large department. Use your buying power."

"So I should shop around different universities?"

"Make them fly you round the world to see their facilities. First class, of course. And wine you and dine you, and give you elephant rides and tickets to bull fights and olympic games and civil wars ..."


"See, youíve got a selection criterion already. Anyone associated with bloodsports ó out!"

"And that includes external examinations," Kathy said.

"You could go out to tender," Emma suggested.

Kathy wrinkled her nose. "Sounds pretty tedious. All those specifications."

Emma smirked. "If you do it properly, itís fun. Think of how often you were given a hard time at university. How often some stupid rule stopped you doing what you really wanted to. And how there was no way they would bend it or change it, because they had Ďstandardsí to uphold.

"So nowís your chance to institute a measured response. Give them a hundred page checklist of quantified outcomes, and require every one of them to three decimal places. Demand a graph of student stupidity versus time to finish, and specify guaranteed completion rates of ninety eight percent on students randomly selected by you. Ask for recognition of prior learning for messengers, filing clerks and canteen cleaners. Produce productivity rankings in cents per processed public servant. Donít forget to ask for the table of big bulk discounts.

"And if they make one tiny slip, reject the entire tender."

"Iíll probably be left with nothing," Kathy said.

"Thatís okay. You can then select on some arbitrary, irrational and irrelevant grounds, just like they do when deciding who to admit."

"Such as?"

Emma flicked Leichhardt Universityís waterproof piece of paper with disdain. "Like who has the best brochure for mopping up spilled coffee," she said.


Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1994

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