Home World Business We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students

We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students

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Of the many stuff-ups during the now-finished era of economic reform, one of the worst is the unending backdoor privatisation of Australia’s universities, which began under the Hawke-Keating government and continues in the Senate as we speak.

This is not so much “neoliberalism” as a folly of the smaller-government brigade, since the ultimate goal for the past 30 years has been no more profound than to push university funding off the federal budget.

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The first of the budget-relieving measures was the least objectionable: introducing the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, requiring students – who gain significant private benefits from their degrees – to bear just some of the cost of those degrees, under a deferred loan-repayment scheme carefully designed to ensure it did nothing to deter students from poor families.

Likewise, allowing unis to admit suitably qualified overseas students provided they paid full freight was unobjectionable in principle.

The Howard government’s scheme allowing less qualified local students to be admitted provided they paid a premium was “problematic”, as the academics say, and soon abandoned.

The problem is that continuing cuts in government grants to unis have kept a protracted squeeze on uni finances, prompting vice-chancellors to become obsessed with money-raising.

They pressure teaching staff to go easy on fee-paying overseas students who don’t reach accepted standards of learning, form unhealthy relationships with business interests, and accept “soft power” grants from foreign governments and their nationals without asking awkward questions.

They pressure academics not so much to do more research as to win more research funding from the government. Interesting to compare the hours spent preparing grant applications with the hours actually doing research.

John Howard continued the Hawke-Keating push on universities. John Howard continued the Hawke-Keating push on universities. 

To motivate the researchers, those who bring in the big bucks are rewarded by being allowed to pay casuals to do their teaching for them. (This after the vice-chancellors have argued straight-faced what a crime it would be for students to be taught by someone who wasn’t at the forefront of their sub-sub research speciality.)

The unis’ second greatest crime is the appalling way they treat those of their brightest students foolish enough to aspire to an academic career. Those who aren’t part-timers are kept on serial short-term contracts, leaving them open to exploitation by ambitious professors.

A total of eight Australian universities have been listed among the top 100 in the QS Graduate Employability Rankings. A total of eight Australian universities have been listed among the top 100 in the QS Graduate Employability Rankings. Photo: Ryan Osland

However much the unis save by making themselves case studies in precarious employment, it’s surely not worth it. If they’re not driving away the most able of their future star performers it’s a tribute to the “treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen” school of management.

But the greatest crime of our funding-obsessed unis is the way they’ve descended to short-changing their students, so as to cross-subsidise their research. At first they did this mainly by herding students into overcrowded lecture theatres and tutorials.

An oddball minority of academics takes a pride in lecturing well.

Lately they’re exploiting new technology to achieve the introverted academic’s greatest dream: minimal “face time” with those annoying pimply students who keep asking questions.

PowerPoint is just about compulsory. Lectures are recorded and put on the website – or, failing that, those barely comprehensible “presentation” slides – together with other material sufficient to discourage many students – most of whom have part-time jobs – from bothering to attend lectures. Good thinking.

To be fair, an oddball minority of academics takes a pride in lecturing well. They get a lot of love back from their students, but little respect or gratitude from their peers. Vice-chancellors make a great show of awarding them tin medals, but it counts zilch towards their next promotion.

The one great exception to the 30-year quest to drive uni funding off the budget was Julia Gillard’s ill-considered introduction of “demand-driven” funding of undergraduate places, part of a crazy plan to get almost all school-leavers going on to uni, when many would be better served going to TAFE.

The uni money-grubbers slashed their entrance standards, thinking of every excuse to let older people in, admitting as many students as possible so as to exploit the feds’ fiscal loophole.

The result’s been a marked lowering of the quality of uni degrees, and unis being quite unconscionable in their willingness to offer occupational degrees to far more people than could conceivably be employed in those occupations.

I suspect those vice-chancellors who’ve suggested that winding back the demand-determined system would be preferable to the proposed across-the-board cuts (and all those to follow) are right.

The consequent saving should be used to reduce the funding pressure on the unis, but only in return for measures to force them back to doing what the nation’s taxpayers rightly believe is their first and immutable responsibility: providing the brighter of the rising generation with a decent education.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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