Acta, non verba
Revealed preferences are what matter
A colleague challenged me on my previous piece, on the power of student complaint, to remind me that there has been a very significant public complaint regarding my own university, where disabled students struggled to get access to the practical support they needed, and despite complaints, nothing changed.
Some students have now gone to the media. I can’t say that I blame the students.
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Apparently the process of applying for support is burdensome:
Many students with a disability at Melbourne University say that the process of applying for and managing their adjustment plans creates a bureaucratic burden that in and of itself is discriminatory: it makes uni harder.
I am afraid that this doesn’t surprise me either. I should disclose here that I am disabled, and have intimate familiarity with burdensome bureaucratic processes, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Bureaucracy tends to beget more bureaucracy, until one is in a never-ending recursive loop of forms and processes. The exhaustion of having to deal with these processes is immense. And as the unfurling revelations of the Robodebt Royal Commission disclose, sometimes bureaucratic processes can become inhumane, with people being treated as numbers, not humans.
It also raises an important point which I didn’t make in the previous post: sometimes students’ complaints have genuine bases. Not all complainants can be dismissed as “squeaky wheels”.
The problem the students have is the same one as I outlined in the previous post: the principal-agent problem. The bureaucracy (the agent) is supposed to be working for the benefit of students (the principals). From what the students recount, it is not. This will be, in part, because the feedback loops are broken: there are no incentives for the university to deliver what the students need, until, that is, the students go to the media.
There may be other reasons why the students may not be getting the support they need. The first reason is that the requests are not easy to respond to. It’s not simply a question of making a decision, and passing the decision on to someone else to action. If you are disabled you need practical adjustments. Practical adjustments cost money, and take time and effort. The Latin title of this post, Acta, non verba, means “Deeds, not words.”1
Words are cheap. It’s easy to say something. But often, our words don’t match our actions. There’s a difference between our stated preferences (what we say we do to others, which often shows us in the best possible light) and our revealed preferences (what we actually do, when given a choice). Humans are great at self-deception and seeing themselves in the best possible light.
In other words, actually supporting disabled students is far more difficult than making grand statements about supporting a diverse cohort. It may not surprise you, given my own disability, that I regard grand symbolic statements with a good deal of suspicion. Acta, non verba.
A second explanation is that, as I have outlined in another previous post, my university gutted the support staff available for both students and academic staff:
…[I]n 2017, my university underwent a so-called “Business Improvement Program,” involving a “spill and fill”. Those who’d held administrative positions at the university had to reapply for their own position anew, at a lower level of pay. Some positions were made entirely redundant. Along with several other colleagues, I stood against it at the time, and I believe strongly that we were right to do so.
In practice it meant that we lost years of institutional wisdom, that some loyal employees were totally crushed, that others went and found jobs elsewhere, and that those who remained out of loyalty were overworked and burned out. It was so entirely predictable. The echoes still resonate through our administration, six years later.
Therefore, I suspect that the people who are supposed to help disabled students are severely under-resourced and overworked. I suspect also that the beginning of the problem goes back to the “Business Improvement Program” (oh, the ironies of that name, they threaten to overwhelm me).
Again, it’s a principal-agent problem, of a different sort. If marketing people tout us in glossy brochures as an inclusive university, able to cater for disabled students, and students come to our university, the marketing people don’t suffer the flak when we fail to live up to that promise; not until we end up in the papers as a scandal. The people who suffer are the students. Disabled students have therefore had to press the “nuclear button” option for the feedback loop to work.
And don’t even start me on the notion of students as customers. I have to save that for a later post, but be assured, I have things to say.
Attributed to Julius Caesar by the historian Suetonius, and later adopted by the Stoics, who also used the maximums res, non verba (“the thing, not words”) and facta, non verba (“facts, not words”).