The university system in this country is dying. The government used the pandemic to destroy the places for critical conversations; and university management mostly rolled over. Mass redundancies, both voluntary and forced across the sector, have left big gaps in teaching staff. In some places that led to decisions to close down subjects, courses, departments. Right now, nearly every university is considering merging faculties.
It is hard to pin down exactly why this government decided to sacrifice public universities (all excluded from JobKeeper unlike private universities). I can only guess, it must be because the concept of critical thinking is anathema to the Coalition, which resents criticism of any kind. But it became clear in last Tuesday’s budget that universities were not going to be saved, not by this government, not any time soon and maybe never.
The National Tertiary Education Union’s president Alison Barnes says funding for the sector in the budget was reduced by nearly 10 per cent; and of course that sugar hit of a billion dollars to save research, the pandemic panacea issued last year, will not be extended. No hope either of the return of international students. Borders still clamped shut. We won’t let Indian students in and it’s unlikely Chinese students will be encouraged to return to disrespectful Australia.
Barnes says the sector is devastated. The Centre for Future Work’s Dan Nahum calculates 35,000 jobs lost in education to November 2020 and estimates most were in the tertiary sector. And ANU’s professor in the practice of higher education policy Andrew Norton says the impacts of the lack of international students will only multiply: the ones who never came as well as the ones completing who will never be replaced.
That’s the big picture. But here’s a tiny snapshot of what is happening to students, who are at the core of the great higher education endeavour. You are in a class with 30 others but your tutor can’t see you and neither can the other students because the internet sucks and video makes it worse. Having an actual conversation with other students or even with your tutor is unlikely.
This isn’t how it is for every single university student in Australia. At Sydney, a number of classes are now face-to-face.
At UTS, where I both studied and worked for decades, class time has been slashed in my old faculty. A week or so into the teaching period, students complained but it was mostly too late to fix the problem. Some are only seeing their teachers half a dozen times in a semester.
At UNSW in one computer science course, students had just one hour a week of face-to-face and everything else online. No one is encouraged to turn on their cameras.
Classes in every university around Australia are more likely to be online; and more likely to be shorter. That means teachers are forced to take more classes to fill out their workloads. That has direct implications for the kinds of connections academics have with students.
As for lectures, some are online, some have turned into little video clips to explain key concepts, some have disappeared altogether. Those moments when 500 kids were in a lecture theatre asking questions and demanding answers are mostly gone, so too is the opportunity to shag the person you are sitting next to. That, the shagging, might seem minor in comparison but university was never just about the credentials, it was about socialisation. For some of my fellow students, I was the first Jew they’d ever met. Back in 1979, I met Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims. Also, the odd Catholic. (Mostly they were up the road at Sydney but some wandered down to do the more practical courses at UTS’s forerunner.)
The stories shared over the past few days by distraught academics have been utterly awful but by far the worst is what’s happening at Macquarie University, where the Hunger Games are played out this way. Staff are notified if they are “in scope” for retrenchment, in the rank and department where cuts are planned. Individuals must write a three-page document selling themselves hard. If the sales pitch works, the academic is saved. All will be revealed in June and those retrenched will leave just before Christmas. Staff tell me it’s all about their research record and anything older than five years doesn’t count. At Macquarie there is also a researcher performance dashboard which ranks staff against each other.
In an email to some staff, former top bureaucrat Martin Parkinson, Macquarie’s chancellor since 2019, defended the softly-softly lobbying approach of universities by writing: “[My] experience has taught me that working quietly, behind the scenes, with well-marshalled arguments is the most effective way of influencing change at the decision-making level of any level of government. Megaphone diplomacy is almost always a pathway to failure.” Yet softly softly isn’t working either.
Stephen Matchett, publisher and editor of the widely-subscribed Campus Morning Mail , says in April and May last year he was running a dozen announcements of cuts a day – but as he says, there were many who are never acknowledged, the professional staff and the casuals. In a report to be released today, the Sydney University Casuals Network reveals the terrible way in which casuals have been exploited and then cast aside as soon as the pandemic hit. Its audit found 90 per cent of participants performed unpaid work during Semester 2, 2020. The mean underpayment was $4130 a person, with one participant owed $19,065 in what the report calls stolen wages. On average, for every hour for which a casual was paid for, another 28 minutes was unpaid.
Universities should be about teaching undergraduates and postgraduates. They should be about research and innovation. They should be about engaging with the community and with industry. But good teaching is expensive so we are ending up with students, even in crucial degrees such as medicine, getting less hands on time than before. We don’t currently have a minister for industry, science and technology in any real sense of the word because Christian Porter, apparently appointed to that role, is too frightened to front the media and indeed the public. He should be out there advocating for the sector instead of cowering in his office.
And in the meantime, the next generation of graduates is getting much less than it is paying for and far less than it deserves.
Editor’s note: Jenna Price’s article was first published in The Sydney Morning Post on 18th May 2021. Asia Sentinel on 2nd April 2020. Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Source: Australian universities are dying and no one is coming to save them
#RobertReview: 9 | 10
Published: 24th May 2021.