Recently a number of early career academics met at a conference in Sydney to discuss the state of Australia’s universities. One of the conference organisers, Dr Gregg of the University of Sydney, wrote a thought-provoking piece of commentary in New Matilda bemoaning the corporatisation of Australian universities and identifying the increasing number of hurdles facing young academics.
Many Australian academics are concerned about the growth of a corporate culture within our universities. Much has been written about the intensification of workloads, the increasing demands of students, the perceived general lack of funding and the corresponding rise in stress levels of academic staff. While I agree with many of the points made by these academics in their writings I fear that some of their concerns are misplaced.
The corporatisation of Australian universities is not necessarily a bad thing. After the Hilmer Report and the Dawkins reforms of the late 80s Australia’s university landscape was set change. The implementation of the reforms lead to a change in the institutional mindset of most Australian universities. Some of the more notable results are:
- that the goal posts for academics have shifted;
- that more students are coming into the tertiary sector;
- that standards have dropped in some areas; and
- that profit is a greater concern for university managers.
It is understandable that junior academics would be disappointed with the shifting goalposts. But the reality is that as Australia’s labour market has become better educated the qualifications needed to gain an entry level academic position have lifted. So too have the requirements for tenure track positions.
It is hard to see what is confronting about having more highly qualified staff providing tertiary education. The better trained the staff are the more likely they are to have higher level research and teaching outcomes. Academia is facing much the same issue that other industries have faced; greater competition means rising standards.
The Dawkins reforms led to the creation of new universities. For example, there are now 38 Australian law schools providing legal education to undergraduates. A university education is now available to more Australians than has ever before been possible in our nation’s history. It is very hard to begrudge anybody a tertiary education. Particularly in law - where the bachelor of laws degree (LLB), is fast replacing the bachelor of arts degree as the generalist degree of choice - greater access to information results in a greater capability to participate in the social, cultural and economic life of our society.
But the increase in the number of students coming into the tertiary sector does not mean that those students are better prepared for university. What has been disappointing has been the failure of successive state and federal governments to greatly invest in high school and primary education. When students come through to university level they are largely reliant on the skills that they developed during the 12 years of primary and secondary education to give them the base from which to develop. No amount of scorecards for schools and other managerial tricks will compensate for the fact that poor remuneration discourages intelligent graduates from taking up a career in teaching.
While this may be a controversial point the fact that standards have dropped in some areas is not a cause for concern. It will rarely result in a diminution of a university’s reputation. Where a drop in student quality is most likely to manifest itself is where students who would otherwise fail a subject are being granted passing grades. This can happen legitimately through supplementary exams and conceded passes or less legitimately through lax marking. But either way, the students that fall into this category are likely only to earn a mark of between 50-52 per cent and this is a score that is routinely dismissed by prospective employers in a more competitive job market.
Whereas in previous decades such students might have failed a subject, they might be scraping through today. However, the outcome mostly remains unchanged, a student with a transcript full of scores between 50-52 per cent is very unlikely to get a job interview at either the mid-level or top of the graduate employment market. These students are all too easily left behind by their better performing counterparts whose performances invariably maintain the reputation of the institution.
But still, it is worth considering who is actually failing here - the sub-standard student or the society and education system that failed to equip that student with the knowledge base to succeed at university level. It is disappointing that so much of the public debate on school education gets wasted on hobby horses such as ideology and bias in the curriculum with little thought to the recruitment of quality teachers. Particularly with the semesterisation of units it is difficult for an academic to fix in six months the deficiencies that have been created by 12 years of neglect. It is heartbreaking to see that a small group of mostly poorer students will be almost permanently left behind by their more well-heeled classmates.
It is true that Australian universities are now run with a more corporate mindset. It is unfortunate that education is no longer seen as a public good. But this perception shift emanated from the federal government and not from the universities. Increasing the number of universities but not correspondingly increasing the level of funding was always going to cause the universities to look elsewhere for funds.
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