Why Australian Universities are struggling

Jenny Stewart

My adult son has recently suggested that he might like to become an academic. I am doing my best to dissuade him. The reason? He would be joining a profession that has lost its way. I am not alone in this feeling – surveys of academics regularly show that most would not want their children to follow in their footsteps.

Australian universities are struggling with the effects of poorly thought-through change. Governments have mined the sector for votes and for export dollars. But in their eagerness to conform, university managers have paid insufficient attention to the effects on the academic profession, and even less to the impacts on administrative staff.  

Too many academics are struggling with impossible expectations in institutions that do not value them as people. Too many administrators are caught in low-paying, dull jobs that are way behind federal and state public services in terms of sophistication.

The universities of the 1970s needed to change. But instead of becoming better-run and more human places, they have been overwhelmed by the perceived need to make money. All have become dependent upon attracting large numbers of international fee-paying students. The days are gone when Australian universities focused on teaching overseas students on scholarships. It is not surprising that, as consumers in a marketplace, many international students see an Australian education as an investment in getting to Australia, rather than as an investment in the improvement of their own countries.

Instead of focusing on their common interests, the universities have become divided among themselves. The Group of 8 (the longer-established, research-oriented universities) are obsessed with prestige and international rankings and the need to boost research, almost at any cost. Other institutions pursue students whenever and wherever they can get them, while also trying to build their research.

The universities argue, with some justice, that governments have forced these strategies upon them, because they have not funded the growth that is expected of them.  But Vice-Chancellors could have done more to question reforms that are devaluing Australian tertiary education. The impression they give is that they are uncritical implementers of the worst that ill-informed politicians and bureaucrats are inflicting upon them.

The most recent raft of reforms, flowing from the Bradley review, will further deregulate the sector while imposing ill-conceived social justice targets upon it. University managers must know that admitting more and more poorly prepared students to what is supposedly post-school study will place impossible burdens on their staff while doing little for the students themselves. Yet none has been brave enough to say anything about it.  I wonder when was the last time a Vice-Chancellor fronted an undergraduate class at one of our less-selective universities, or a ‘soft-option’ (non-quantitative) class at any of them? He or she would find a good proportion of their students either struggling with English, and/or lacking the basic skills of reading, writing and comprehension.

Vice-Chancellors pursue growth, oblivious to the costs of their activities on staff. Class sizes rise, and casualisation increases. At the same time, believing they are building prestige, they rush to implement foolish research targets that sideline excellent teachers.

Some universities have ‘teaching only’ staff that do nothing but teach. Research, scholarship and teaching are all necessary for sound academic practice. And students – the people who bring in the money – want good, intelligent, unpressured teaching. The obsession with research and in particular obtaining competitive research grants is wasting huge amounts of time that could be better spent in teaching-related scholarship, or doing community-related work.

Why have universities done so little to advance the practice of university management and administration?  Too many middle managers are poor leaders, with little capacity to deal with the constant pressures placed upon them, both by those above them in the hierarchy and by their own staff.

At a personal level, universities can be risky institutions in which to build a career. If a young academic starts in the wrong place, at a university that has poor-calibre management, there are few protections. University bureaucracy remains heavy, costly and obsessed with small risks. Former colleagues who go into the public service report much more sophisticated management practices.

The staff union, the National Tertiary Education Union is a doughty industrial fighter. But in its eagerness to fight to the death in enterprise bargaining, it has not realised that the decisions that most affect its members’ lives are not taken in this arena, but by senior managers who alternate between megalomania and panic.

University budget and financial systems remain formulaic and short-term in their focus. Governing bodies, in the mistaken impression that they are being businesslike, have pruned out the very people – staff representatives – who actually understand what is going on and care about the consequences.

It is the great tragedy of the Australian tertiary sector that it has become a plaything of politics. We cannot do much about governments that are hasty and lacking in knowledge. But universities can and should, stop competing against each other, and unite in their determination to become better places to work and to learn.

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