16 June 2012

Bank jobs

'Robbing Banks: Crime Does Pay - But Not Very Much' by Barry Reilly, Neil Rickman and Robert Witt in 9(3) Significance (2012) 17-21 argues that bank robbers would be better off in another occupation, with a UK 'career' bank robber being likely to be in prison after only four attempts and the average per-person return amounting to US$19,750.

The authors are Chicago-School economists who claim that
we have been given rare, perhaps unique, access to a normally confidential data set [from the British Bankers' Association]. This has let us construct, for perhaps the first time, a model of the economics of robbing banks. ...
our research was concerned with the various factors that determine the proceeds from bank robberies; hence, we could work out (among other things) the economics (to the criminal) of attempting one, and the economics (to the banks) of trying to thwart it. How much should banks spend on such security precautions as fast-rising screens in order to deter robbery attempts and to foil those attempts that do take place?
we cannot share all the raw data with you; we can, however, share our analysis and conclusions. They give a remarkable picture of the profitability of bank robberies – a picture that is rather different from the popular imagination or from the depictions in big-budget movies.
They comment that -
Figures for the UK show that there were 106 bank robberies or attempted robberies in 2007; there are approximately 10,500 high-street bank branches. This gives us one important factor in analysing the economics, to banks, of security measures: relatively few of their branches – one in a hundred – are likely to suffer a raid or an attempted raid.
In the same year there were 80000 robberies recorded by the police, of which 7500 were committed against businesses; so clearly even among the criminal fraternity robbing banks is a minority occupation. ...
what kind of banks are most targeted? Does the size of the branch, or its location, or how busy it is make a difference? We used distance from the nearest police station as a proxy for location. A small distance would imply a city; a larger distance, a smaller country town. The number of staff present during the raid was our indicator for the size of the branch, and the number of customers in the bank was our guide to how busy it was.
We found that none of these factors had any significant effect on whether the branch was targeted. There seems no favourite type of branch to rob. Of all the branches that were subject to robbery attempts in 2007, only 13 were targeted twice, and only one three times. The choice would seem random. Nor does the size of the haul depend on the type of branch. If larger floats of cash are held in bigger branches, or if smaller branches have less security, this does not seem to enter the calculations of the robbers in selecting their targets. 
What is the return? The authors comment that -
the average haul from a bank raid in the UK between 2005 and 2008 is £20,330.50. The standard deviation is £53,510.20. The sample size of 364 raids includes those that were foiled; as the table shows, one-third of raids were unsuccessful, meaning that the robbers got way with no money at all. The average haul per successful robbery is therefore around £30,000. But again, some “successful” raids – around 20% in both the UK and the USA – are detected and the perpetrators caught and sentenced, and in some cases the money is recovered; this reduces the expected gain to the robbers.
The average US bank robbery nets considerably less: some $4,330, compared to an average of $1589 for all commercial robberies. (There is a sector low of $769 for robberies from convenience stores.)
They argue that -
A bank robbery can be thought of as a production process. It has “inputs”, which the potential robber has to supply; and “outputs” – the money, if any, that he gets away with. The nature and size of the inputs affect the output. As with any commercial enterprise, the inputs include both labour and capital, as well as factors that affect productivity – the efficiency of your factory or the ease or difficulty of your raid. 
For the potential robber, the main “inputs” are the number involved in his gang (which we can think of as the labour input), whether firearms were displayed in the course of the crime (which is part of the capital input), and a raft or vector of what you could call difficulty or deterrent factors that may influence the effectiveness of the inputs: bank security measures (such as the presence of a fast-rising screen), whether the alarm was activated during the robbery, the number of staff and customers present during the robbery, and so on. The “output” is a function of all of these and is the value of the money that is stolen. In an unsuccessful raid of course this is zero. The output might also include capture and a lengthy term in jail. Our equations let us model the effect of varying one or more of the inputs on the expected output. 
As we have seen, the “average” proceeds from the “average” robbery is £20331, but about one-third of robberies yield nothing at all. The average number of raiders is 1.6 ..., though a sole raider was involved in 60% of cases. The average number of customers present was 2 and an alarm was activated in 85% of cases. A firearm was displayed in over one-third of robberies, and just over 10% of banks raided had a fast-rising security screen system in place. 
As we have also seen, neither the numbers of customers nor of staff in the bank at the time of the robbery affects the output. How- ever, the number of raiders involved most definitely does. It yields a positive well-determined coefficient. The bigger the gang, the greater the take. We were able to use maximum likelihood estimates to quantify it. Every extra member of the gang raises the expected value of the robbery proceeds by £9,033.20, on average and other things being equal. 
This may well reflect the effect of criminal organisation. More experienced robbers operate in teams. It is advantageous to divide tasks – monitoring the bank lobby, accompanying staff to vaults to ensure maximum takings, driving the getaway car and so on. A larger gang may have spent more time on planning and reconnoitring – in short, it may be more professional, and the larger returns may reflect that. Even so, if the gang splits the proceeds equally, although the total haul goes up the haul per person goes down.
From there it's a short jump to algebra city ... v[qR – (1–q)P] + (1–v)[q×0 – (1–q) P]* ... and conclusions such as -
A robber will attempt a raid if and only if the expected benefit outweighs the expected costs – both costs and benefits being as perceived by the robber. This assumes, of course, that potential robbers behave rationally and self-interestedly. That people behave thus is a central assumption in all economics and is no more true, and no more false, for bank robbers than for anyone else.
The expected benefits are, of course, the haul multiplied by the probability of getting it and keeping it; the probability of getting it is the probability that the raid is successful, that of keeping it is the probability of not subsequently getting caught. The expected costs are the lengthy term in jail – converted into monetary terms at the robber’s own conversion rate – times the probability of serving that term – that is, of being caught and convicted. The balance between these costs and probabilities can be expressed as an equation, as in the box at top left. 
Expressing the main deterrent – the potential prison sentence – in terms of money is of course problematic. It does not include the psychological effects of prison but treats in- carceration in purely financial terms as merely a period of non-earning. The fear of jail may well outweigh calculations of lost earnings as a deterrent. On the other hand, in certain subcultures serving time in jail is a “badge of honour” or rite of passage, a perverse incentive if you like. Similar considerations apply to the expected gain: the kudos from planning and executing a raid may be a greater incentive than the financial reward. Attempts to quantify this we leave to others. 
It is here that we can answer our original question of why, statistically speaking, robbing banks is a bad idea. The return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish. It is not unimaginable wealth. It is a very modest £12,706.60 per person per raid. Indeed, it is so low that it is not worth the banks’ while to spend as little as £4,500 per cashier position at every branch on rising screens to deter them. 
A single bank raid, even a successful one, is not going to keep our would-be robber in a life of luxury. It is not going to keep him long in a life of any kind. Given that the average UK wage for those in full-time employment is around £26,000, it will give him a modest life-style for no more than 6 months. If he decides to make a career of it, and robs two banks a year to make a sub-average income, his chances of eventually getting caught will increase: at 0.8 probability per raid, after three raids or a year and a half his odds of remaining at large are 0.8 × 0.8 × 0.8 = 0.512; after four raids he is more likely than not to be inside. As a profit-able occupation, bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired.
* R is the proceeds from the robbery, v is the probability of a successful raid (i.e., leaving with R > 0), q is the probability of not subsequently being arrested (i.e. retaining the proceeds), and P is the penalty perceived by the robbers when planning the raid should they be apprehended and punished.

Barriers and secession

'Crimes of Passion: The Regulation of Interracial Sex in Washington, 1855-1950' by Jason Gillmer in 47(2) Gonzaga Law Review (2012) 393-428 explores -
the regulation of interracial sex and marriage in the state of Washington from its time as a territory through the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on local records rather than canonical cases, the Article's main thesis is that, although the criminal bans on the practice were short-lived, Washingtonians used legal mechanisms to discourage and penalize interracial families in much the same way. The result of these efforts may not have been prison time; but, lawyers and judges regularly used the law to ensure that wealth and property remained in the hands of whites rather than racial minorities. In doing so, the legal system became an effective deterrent to interracial relationships, perpetuating existing notions of race that privileged whiteness over other racial groups.
Gillmer concludes -
Sadly, the result in these cases was the rule not the exception. In an early case with strikingly similar facts to Irene’s, Charles Kelley sought to establish that he was the legitimate heir of Michael Kelley, a white man from Kitsap County who died in 1870. Charles’s mother was Julia, a Native American woman, and Charles was tasked with proving that Michael and Julia were husband and wife. The evidence suggested that Michael and Julia were married according to the custom outlined by Chief Wilson, Irene’s witness, and lived together for five years. But the court in 1893 was no more predisposed to recognize marriages between whites and Indians than it was forty years later. Derisively dismissing the money offered during the ceremony - “Michael Kelley obtained this woman by paying two or three dollars in silver to her sisters” - the court ruled that “[a]ll of the testimony in relation to these parties agreeing to live together” should never have been considered. “Such arrangements,” it held, “could hardly amount to marriages under any law.” 
Other cases reached similar results, with immediate family members - most often wives and children - from mixed marriages passed over by the courts, ensuring that property remained in the hands of the ever-important and ubiquitously-present white stakeholders.248 Perhaps more discouraging than the results, however, was the method by which courts assured racial dominance, drawing on notions that privileged whiteness over other racial groups. For example, the court labeled Susan Enos an “adventuress” for laying claim to her white husband’s estate, a designation that surely would never have been used to describe a white woman who lived with a man for nine years and had three children by him. Or consider the dispute over John Wilbur’s estate - possibly the only case where the court actually found that a marriage ceremony between a white man and a Native American woman had taken place. Still, it conveniently found that the ceremony, done according to Indian custom, occurred in 1867 while the criminal bans against interracial marriage were in effect. This allowed the court to conclude that the marriage was never valid. A subsequent effort to fix the date in 1868, coupled with evidence that the couple lived together for nine years, did nothing to nudge the court into recognizing the marriage. “They lived together, and had children born to them, and that was all,” it concluded with an air of mockery. Like Irene York, John’s wife and two children - all classed as Indians - took nothing, while his second wife, a white woman, inherited everything. 
Notably, the implications from these cases have snaked their way into more recent times. Indeed, following the decision in Harvey Creasman’s case, the court found itself in a troubling position. It was one thing to evict Harvey, a black man, from his home and deprive him of the many possessions purchased with his paychecks but in his wife’s name. It was quite another to turn away white persons who, after many years of living in “meretricious” relationships, unwittingly found themselves in Harvey’s position. Rather than deprive them of the property acquired during the relationship, the court spent the next four decades carving out carefully crafted exceptions to the “Creasman Presumption” to allow these white spouses and children to inherit what Harvey and Irene never did. 
In 1984, the court finally closed out this sad chapter in its history. In that year, the court overruled the Creasman decision, holding that courts should examine each “meretricious” relationship and disburse property as the court finds “just and equitable.” While this decision should appropriately be remembered as a positive step in the right direction, it is important to remember that for Irene York, Harvey Creasman, and countless others who courageously crossed the color line, the damage had already been done.
Another one of those 'sovereign citizen' judgments in Lee and Robert Rumble v Liverpool Plains Shire Council and Ors [2012] NSWDC 95.

The Court refers to the Rumbles'
publicly expressed affiliation with something known as the "Independent Sovereign State of Australia" (abbreviated to "ISSA"). This was evidenced by documents that the plaintiffs had themselves forwarded to the Council (see Exhibit MP3, JB687 to 699, and Exhibit 16, a document entitled "Secession", which, on its terms, amounted to a political manifesto). By virtue of their membership, both plaintiffs asserted they were exempt from, inter alia, the Local Government Act and Commonwealth taxation legislation. 
Mrs Rumble agreed that she claimed to be a member of the "Independent Sovereign State of Australia" and that the Local Government Act did not apply to her (T84.36). 
Mrs Rumble was asked about the notices referred to in paragraph 23 above that were placed on the four gates to the property. Under the subheading "PUBLIC NOTICE", the following words appeared: "This property is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Independent Sovereign State of Australia The appointed Foreign Minister under authority of the Parliament Signed Secretary of State by her seal 21 January 2005" 
When cross-examined on this document, Mrs Rumble did not know the full name of the Secretary of State, who was the appointed Foreign Minister or what "the Parliament" was. It was her view that the Local Government Act did not apply to her (T86.45), but she did not agree that she believed that the taxation legislation did not apply to her, on the basis that she was on a disability pension (T87.2). She stated that she first applied and commenced to receive a disability pension just after the incident the subject of these proceedings (T87.22). 
On 7 January 2010 the plaintiffs' solicitor wrote to solicitors for the Council stating: "Our client informs us that because our clients are members of ISSA (Independent Sovereign State of Australia) they are exempt for all taxation purposes with the Tax Office and therefore have not lodged or are liable to lodge tax returns." (T89.7).

13 June 2012

The Other Originalism

'Donor Conceived Individuals and Access to Information about Their Genetic Origins: The Relevance and Role of Rights' by John Tobin, forthcoming in the Journal of Law and Medicine, comments that
The discourse of rights has increasingly been used to frame debates about access to information for donor-conceived individuals. This paper seeks to clarify the moral and legal basis upon which human rights are relevant to this issue. It then outlines the elements of a substantive rights based approach which is then used to balance the competing rights of a donor and a donor-conceived individual. Three arguments are offered. First, donor anonymity must be prohibited prospectively and donor-conceived individuals must be entitled to information about their genetic parents. Second, a context-sensitive application of a human rights-based approach allows retrospective access to non-identifying information but precludes retrospective access to identifying information where a donor wishes to remain anonymous in circumstances where anonymity was guaranteed at the time of donation. Finally, despite this finding, a rights-based approach requires states to actively encourage such donors to consent to the release of identifying information and take reasonable steps to support donor conceived individuals in circumstances where donors refuse to provide their consent.
Tobin concludes that -
The following key findings emerge from the application of a substantive rights based analysis to the issue of access to information for donor conceived individuals. First, donor conceived individuals have a right to receive both identifying and non-identifying information about their biological parents and States have a positive obligation to ensure prospective access to such information. With respect to retrospective access to information, States must encourage donors to consent to the release of such information voluntarily. Moreover, the release of non-identifying information will be reasonable. But the mandatory disclosure of identifying information without consent is likely to be deemed unreasonable and thus represent a violation of a donor’s right to privacy in those circumstances where he was guaranteed anonymity. 
The findings offered in this paper may not offer adequate solace to those donor- conceived individuals who are unable to access identifying information about their biological parents. But their identity rights are not absolute and they must yield to the rights of other individuals where access to information about their genetic identity would represent an unreasonable interference with a donor’s right to privacy. It is conceded that this is far from an ideal outcome from the perspective of donor- conceived individuals. At the same time, a rights based analysis still demands that states develop an effective system to enable access to donor identifying information prospectively. It also requires states to encourage donors who enjoy anonymity under old regimes to voluntarily consent to the disclosure of their identity. And it requires states to provide reasonable support and assistance, such as counseling, to donor-conceived children who are unable to identify their biological parents. A rights based analysis may not always offer them the remedy they are seeking, but it does not condemn them to exclusively bear the burden of historical practices, the harm of which has only now become apparent. 
Indeed, perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from the experience of donor- conceived individuals is for adults to recognize the consequences that follow when children’s interests are conceptualized in certain ways vis a vis their relationship with adults. In the context of assisted reproductive technology, the interests of adults were originally placed at the core of this technology and the interests of the children who were to be produced were, if not overlooked, then certainly not given adequate consideration. Anonymity for donors was informed by a range of considerations that spanned from protecting donors against potential inheritance claims to rendering them invisible and thus alleviating the need for the recipient parents to disclose the true biological origins of their child. These aims may not have been intended to cause harm to a child. On the contrary, an overwhelming majority of the adults involved in this practice would have believed that the child’s best interests would have been served by anonymity and non disclosure as to origins of their conception. But research tells us that this has not been the case and children born as a result of assisted reproductive technology often experience deep distress and anxiety as a result of their origins. A rights based analysis demands that the knowledge of these experiences must be used to ensure the creation of regimes that prohibit anonymity, encourage disclosure and support those individuals where it would be unreasonable for a State to insist on the disclosure of the identity of their biological parents.

12 June 2012


In my crueller moments I've compared action by the national Privacy Commissioner to being savaged - oh, the horror - by a toothless and arthritic sheep. A ferocious watchdog the Commissioner is not.

Last year there were reports that unsophisticated hacking of First State Super, a major superannuation funds service, had potentially exposed information regarding some 770,000 people ... enough, one would think, for some serious attention in a world where people are increasingly experiencing data breach fatigue. (The past weeks have seen claims of large-scale breaches involving the Linked-In and eHarmony social network services and Last.fm). The personal data included member names and addresses, details of superannuation account transactions and balances and the member’s current age.

The Privacy Commissioner initiated an own-motion investigation of the First State breach and has now published a report on that examination. It is, alas, depressing reading.

The Commissioner indicates that
On the basis of the information available to the Commissioner, he formed the view that the incident was not a disclosure in breach of NPP 2.1. However, he considered that, at the time of the incident, FSS had not taken reasonable steps to put in place security measures to protect the personal information it held in the member area of its online system. For this reason, the Commissioner formed the view that, at the time of the incident, FSS was in breach of NPP 4.1. 
The Commissioner acknowledges that upon becoming aware of this matter, FSS’s administrative manager, Pillar and FSS itself acted immediately to contain the incident, commenced an internal investigation of the incident, reviewed data security practices and sought external advice on how to handle the situation. Many of these steps are recommended by the OAIC in its Data breach notification guide.  Consequently, the Commissioner ceased his own motion investigation into this matter, on the basis that the response to this incident appears adequate in the circumstances.  The Commissioner’s file on the matter is now closed. 
The OAIC has not received any individual complaints in relation to this matter. 
The OAIC has advised FSS that should individual complaints be received about this matter, each complaint will be considered and information gathered as part of this investigation will be taken into account in any subsequent investigation.
And that, it seems, is that.

In the UK, where they do things differently - and the Commissioner's counterpart has more legislative teeth (and arguably a less laissez-faire attitude) - the Information Commissioner has been imposing financial penalties for smaller breaches. In the US it has become increasingly common to encounter penalties and settlements of several hundred thousand dollars, with this month for example being marked by a US$775,000 settlement by South Shore Hospital after investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office over allegations that the hospital failed to protect the health information of over 800,000 consumers.

In thinking about the Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Bill 2012 (Cth) currently before the Australian Parliament we might want to consider the shape of sanctions for corporate indifference to data breaches and whether shaming is an effective mechanism for encouraging best practice.

Regrettably also there's been no word from the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority regarding application - or otherwise - of its 2010 Prudential Practice Guide 234 – Management of security risk in information and information technology [PDF].

10 June 2012


The 70 page 'Happiness Surveys and Public Policy: What’s the Use?' (University of Pennsylvania Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 12-36) by Matthew Adler offers -
 a comprehensive, critical overview of proposals to use happiness surveys for steering public policy. Happiness or “subjective well-being” surveys ask individuals to rate their present happiness, life-satisfaction, affective state, etc. A massive literature now engages in such surveys or correlates survey responses with individual attributes. And, increasingly, scholars argue for the policy relevance of happiness data: in particular, as a basis for calculating aggregates such as “gross national happiness,” or for calculating monetary equivalents for non-market goods based on coefficients in a happiness equation.

But is individual well-being equivalent to happiness? The happiness literature tends to blur or conflate important concepts: well-being, subjective well-being, happiness, utility, satisfaction. A preference-realization account of well-being denies the equivalence of happiness and welfare, since someone can have preferences for non-mental attributes, such as health, autonomy, goal-fulfillment, knowledge or the quality of her relationships.  
It is critical, therefore, to differentiate two potential policy roles for happiness surveys. First, the survey response may provide prima facie evidence of the respondent’s preference-utility: the extent to which her preferences are realized. Second, it may indicate her experience-utility: the quality of her mental states. The Article clarifies these two, very different, ideas. It then criticizes, in turn, the preference-utility and the experience-utility defenses of the policy relevance of happiness surveys. Enthusiasm about happiness is premature.
Adler concludes -
Enthusiasm about the policy role of SWB [subjective well being] surveys is premature. Why think that the number which someone assigns to her momentary or overall happiness, life-satisfaction, positive or negative affect, or some other aspect of her experiential state offers real help in evaluating governmental policies? Two different answers to this question need to be teased apart. One says that a higher self-rated degree of life-satisfaction shows that the respondent’s preferences are more fully realized. In short, SWB surveys evidence preference-utility. But the evidence would seem to be pretty poor. Preference and scale heterogeneity hamper the use of self-rated life satisfaction to make inferences about preference-utility. Even if all respondents share the same underlying preferences and utility function, someone’s answer to an SWB survey may well be skewed by evaluation error or miscommunication; this number may well be an inaccurate and, indeed, statistically biased indicator of the degree to which her life-circumstances realize her preferences. 
Stated-preference surveys dominate SWB surveys as evidence of preference-realization. Anomalies using the stated-preference format suggest the importance of debiasing preferences— rendering them rational and well-informed. Perhaps debiasing is fruitless. But that would show that government policy choice must (somehow!) find a normative foundation other than individuals’ preferences, and not that preferences should be inferred via the SWB technique. Skepticism about the rationality of preferences hardly advances the PR (preference-realization) defense of SWB surveys. 
The second answer to the “Why” question takes a different tack, suggesting that a happiness, affect, or life-satisfaction rating is a measure of experiential quality. Thus the EQ defense of SWB surveys. Kahneman’s “objective happiness” framework - using SWB surveys focused on momentary hedonic quality—is an important first step in developing a policy- relevant measure of experiential quality. Kahneman does not argue that well-being and good experiences are equivalent - but rather, much more plausibly, that good experiences are one important aspect of well-being. 
However, a close examination of the “objective happiness” framework suggests significant limitations. The framework purports to cardinalize momentary hedonic utilities by appealing to an “observer’s” ranking of temporally extended hedonic episodes, but presupposes - without justification - that observers have the same ranking, and that these rankings are separable from nonhedonic attributes. In empirical implementation, Kahneman has suppressed the observer and, most recently, abandoned any attempt at cardinalization - via a “U-index” that merely reports the fraction of time that individuals spend in an affectively unpleasant state. This is a crude measure of hedonic quality (let alone the non-hedonic aspects of experiential life, such as memory or a sense of meaning), because it does not tell us about the intensity of individuals’ affective states. 
It remains unclear whether SWB surveys - asking for a numerical rating of experiences - should be the central tool for incorporating information about experiential quality into policy analysis. At least in principle, a different approach, more closely continuous with traditional cost-benefit analysis, is available: namely, to use revealed or stated-preference evidence to infer individuals’ preferences over “hybrid bundles,” comprised of both experiential and non-experiential attributes. SWB surveys are at most an ancillary component of this approach; the central focus is inferring preference-utility, with experiential attributes merely one entry in the utility function. 
Much more work remains to elaborate both this approach and frameworks (such as “objective happiness”) that revolve around SWB surveys. In undertaking this effort, scholars should exercise caution, taking care not to muddy their concepts - taking care to understand that well-being need not reduce to good experiences; that individuals can have intrinsic preferences for aspects of their lives other than their mental states; and that someone’s perceived degree of happiness or life-satisfaction can diverge from her true preference-utility.

The Way We Live Now?

Once every generation there’s a book that attempts to tell it as it is, or that simply resonates with the intended readers. Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of The Troubled University (Sydney: Newsouth 2012) by Richard Hil is that book for many Australian researchers and teachers, people whose vocation often still shines bright but who perceive their institutions as having lost their way.

Whackademia is indignant, informed, incisive and polemical. It joins other expressions of saeva indignatio such as Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Swift’s Modest Proposal, Fussell’s Wartime, Pusey’s Economic Rationalism in Canberra and Heller’s Catch-22. It is a book that is unlikely to be welcomed - or even read - by Vice-Chancellors and marketers. More importantly, it offers a message that will be lost on those administrators whose culture of disregard for academics and academic integrity lies at the heart of Hil’s lament for the post-Dawkins university.

Whackademia offers a damning critique of ERA and of the Bradley Review. His conclusions are similar to those offered by Bexley, James & Arkoudis in last year’s The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce (Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education), Cooper & Poletti in ‘The ERA and Journal Ranking: The Consequences of Australia’s fraught encounter with ‘quality’’ 53(1) Australian Universities Review (2011) or Margaret Thornton’s Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (London: Routledge 2012). 

Hil goes beyond those theoretical and empirical narratives by providing a cascade of comments from senior academics and early career researchers/teachers in the leading institutions and in the smaller universities. Their descriptions of increasingly powerful (and increasingly numerous) administrative staff, a proliferation of forms and user-hostile databases, and an emphasis on numbers rather than deep learning (reflected in pressure to meet production targets by passing students, if necessary at the expense of quality) appear to be consistent across Australia and across disciplines. The book is worth reading to hear those voices, which appear to come from conventionally successful academics rather than from embittered practitioners on the margin.

Does Hil offer a way out of the administrative morass? Regrettably no. He offers some hints that tertiary education in Australia will be fixed through institutional attrition and through a formal recognition by government of a two tier system in which an enlarged G8 will be rewarded for research excellence and the institutions outside the sandstone club will concentrate on teaching.

Overall however his message is deeply pessimistic, quoting senior G8 academics as warning enthusiastic novices not to enter the profession and encouraging survivalism’ (disengage from students, streamline the curriculum to facilitate marking, don’t stick out and of course publish publish publish). Survival includes subversive performance: being seen to be ‘busy’ is a useful defence. Hil accordingly echoes academic classics such as Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica, suggesting that administrators can be lulled by embracing a breathless appearance and props such as a bulging briefcase, the academic equivalent of the clipboard. Make sure to rush, rather than wearily stagger, along the corridor when sighted by the beancounters. Beware of fashionable glass-walled offices. Engage in diversions during meetings that are destined to go nowhere, and pretend to be reading agenda papers on your laptop while really answering the flood of email from needy students or drafting the next journal article.

What’s missing from Hil’s report from the front line? 

One absence is the camaraderie: the endangered academic species survives through a sense of vocation and through mutual support. 

Another absence is a recognition that ‘renewal’ in universities has not been entirely negative. Hil assails senior academics for a disengagement from governance, an abdication that created a void filled by managerialists whose values are antithetical to scholarship. Regrettably all Australian universities contain dead wood. Hil rightly alludes to resentment among ‘achieving’ academics who are caught between aggressive bureaucrats and colleagues who don’t share the workload and whose performance in some instances is risible.

Regrettably, new students will be turning to Wikipedia rather than Whackademia as they enter university. That is unfortunate because student engagement with learning and with their teachers might be more effective if the ‘consumers’ had a greater sense of how the education factory operates.