Australia's University Crisis

Image: Ben Mack


In Australia, whose higher education model follows the Anglo-American corporate pattern, the covid pandemic was the catalyst for an education crisis

Universities are in crisis in Australia, and the way faculty are being treated is "horribly unethical", said the The Guardian Australia a senior academic at a leading university.

The academic, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, said the once hallowed institutions have become like supermarkets: they have laid off so many staff that students are now like customers at self-service counters, "checking their own goods", responsible for your own education. "They completely lost their sense of direction."

A degree at some of Australia's elite educational institutions can cost up to A$200. But in recent years, cost cuts, increased temp contracts and a shift to course format online reusable materials contributed to an emptying of the university sector. Now, many who work in academia say that members don't get more for what they pay for.

“Ridiculous” teaching loads

Ryan Bunney says that when he worked as a tutor at University of Western Australia (UWA), he wasn't given enough hours to read all of his students' assignments, let alone correct them. The former computer science academic burned out and quit his job last year. When he started, Ryan Bunney expected to be a career academic. He loved to teach. But in five years of tenure at the UWA, the dedication he had for his students has eroded. “The teaching loads are ridiculous. (…) You receive 20 to 30% less than in the professional market and you are knocked out”.

He believes that the amount of work allocated to professors demonstrates “how little the university cares about the quality of education that students are receiving”. Much of the teaching at Australian universities is done by academic trainees and PhD students, with no formal teaching experience and little training, says Ryan Bunney. There is no publicly available data on class sizes or teacher-to-student ratios.

He says course coordinators in his own department struggled to find staff willing to work. and following the best practices on temporary assignments employing tutors, and course materials were often cobbled together during the semester. “You're in fight or flight mode. It's not about 'let's do the best job we can' but 'how can we get through the next 12 weeks without everything going off the rails?'

In a master's class, taught in 2022, Ryan Bunney says he was given five minutes per assignment, for an assignment worth 20% of the student's grade, and was not given any rubrics. Students pay between 60 and 80 thousand to complete the course. “It probably goes without saying that five minutes isn't enough time to read the presentation, much less accurately consider the notes,” he says. "[The university is] constantly trying to save checkbooks and squeeze as much as it can out of its workers."

A UWA spokesperson said course directors worked with academic staff to help manage workloads and the university maintained the "highest standards of academic integrity". "The university strives to provide a supportive environment for all staff and students," the spokesperson said, citing a mental health and wellness framework for students that would be extended this year to improve support for staff.

the pandemic hangover

According to the senior scholar who asked to remain anonymous, experiences like Ryan Bunney's are commonplace across the country as the effects of cost-cutting and downsizing begin to bite. The problem has been growing for decades, but has rapidly worsened during the lockdowns from covid.

Employees across the higher education sector are now facing a pandemic hangover of massive job cuts, restructurings and a push towards content. Online and outsourced courses. This is leading them to burnout, stress and a slew of labor lawsuits across the country. Around 35.000 jobs have been lost during the covid lockdowns as universities struggle to remain profitable amid a massive decline in international student income.

In the midst of the crisis, the then-federal government introduced the project for postgraduate programs to quickly train people to work, which changed the funding model for a series of courses and disciplines, putting pressure on some universities to increase the number of students.

The program introduced radical disparities in fees paid by students, which decreased in some courses, including nursing and pedagogy, and increased in humanities (excluding languages), by A$7.800 a year – bringing tuition to an average of A$43.500.

Last month, it was revealed that universities posted a record surplus of $5,3 billion in 2021. But 2022 paints a bleaker picture. Of Australia's 38 'public' universities, nine have released their 2022 results, posting a combined shortfall of nearly $850 million.

Among them is the University of Melbourne, which posted an operating deficit of A$104 million in 2022, attributed to an increase in student spending and return to school spending. campus, along with a decline in student enrollment revenue.

Meanwhile, only one in three higher education workers has permanent employment. A survey of National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) of 2.400 university employees found that workload was the number one concern in employment, followed by job insecurity in governance. “I've had 30 people leave under my supervision and about five during the year who will have mental health problems, to the point of resigning or needing intensive care”, says the senior academic. "It's absolutely impactful on physical and mental health."

The stakes on inaction are high

Over the past three decades, universities have progressively embraced ethos of corporate management, says Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell, a sociologist and former president of the University of Sydney. It started with “the precariousness and outsourcing”, she says. “[And] opened these gaps that we are suffering now (…) towards the profit objective”.

Raewyn Connell says corporate management has resulted in growing distrust between the administration and university staff. “There is a really notable gap between vice presidents and the core mass of the workforce.” The current university model, which relies on a precarious workforce and high workloads, urgently needs to change, she says:

“Most academics love their jobs, but they are under a lot of pressure. The public sector cannot be like a private business. We need to think boldly beyond the parameters of higher education funding that we've had over the past three decades."

The stakes for inaction are high, says Raewyn Connell: If pressure on the workforce continues, higher education will become unsustainable for a growing number of talented applicants. “Australian universities may lose their creative capacity,” she says.

Tacit pressure to approve students

What got Ruby down wasn't teaching alone, week after week, in classrooms designed for hundreds. It wasn't the apps like Zoom, the late nights or the lockdows. It was the end of his contract, after more than a decade of service at the University of Sydney, on temporary and fixed-term contracts, without even an interview for his own role, which had been re-announced.

Ruby's name is a pseudonym because she has an ongoing lawsuit at the university and is looking for a job.

The problems started with the pandemic, when universities were forced to make the transition, almost overnight, to teaching online, she says. What started out as a necessity arising from a dire situation quickly evolved into a crutch of sorts. She says standards were dropping and workloads were high, but nobody was doing anything about it. “The percentage of students who weren't interested reached a really alarming level, and I'm sure the vast majority had no involvement at all.”

In 2022, when the undergraduate course was taught in a hybrid model online and face-to-face, Ruby says her unit's classroom was often empty. The highest frequency she had was four people. Ruby was at the lectern, with a screen of laptop with darkened Zoom profiles in front of them, lecturing to chairs.

It was demoralizing, she says. There were no participation or attendance requirements for their course, just two texts to submit. Attendance requirements are determined by each of the University of Sydney colleges.

Meanwhile, Ruby says there was “unspoken pressure” for students to pass, regardless of the quality of their work. “If I took it seriously and only passed students that I knew had made a sincere and sustained effort, I wouldn't have passed more than 2% of them.” She says her complaints that the quality was far below acceptable were progressively escalated, as well as consistently dismissed by management.

With her contract terminated, Ruby fears that the university will take the materials she has developed and reuse them for future courses that she will not be paid for. Universities own the copyright to all course materials that staff members create, including lectures and assessment projects.

Under the university's business bargaining agreement, employees must be offered continued employment in their role if they have been employed for at least 12 uninterrupted months. Ruby had back-to-back contracts, but all of them were just under 365 days, which required her to re-apply year after year. Her labor lawsuit is currently stalled at Fair Work Australia. Meanwhile, she takes a six-month contract at another university to pay off her mortgage. “I'm worried,” she says. “I suspect they believe they can let me go [and] just hire a few temps less likely to complain than I am.”

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said that every dollar the university earns is reinvested in the institution to support its core activities, and students receive a hybrid of teaching online and face-to-face activities. He says that the university would close the offer of hybrid courses, which they recognize to have been difficult for servers and students this year. "We know that we can only maintain our position as a leading university in graduate employability through our high-quality academic and professional staff, who are the highest paid in the industry and receive some of the most generous working conditions."

He also said the university has proposed to "significantly reduce" the proportion of temporary professors as part of its latest corporate agreement, in addition to expanding its permanent academic workforce. About a third of the temporary academic staff are senior professionals, the spokesperson said, while a third are doctoral students and a quarter have a primary job at the university but "may seek permanent work."

“Job losses far outweighed financial losses”

The president of the NTEU (National Union of Higher Education), Dr. Alison Barnes, believes universities used covid as a cover to accelerate restructuring and job cuts. “At some institutions, job losses far outweighed financial losses. (…) Cuts in permanent and temporary staff have had a major impact on course content and teaching quality”.

Earlier this year, the NTEU uncovered more than $100 million in salary misappropriation across the industry since 2019. Alison Barnes says temporary faculty were the biggest victims of underpaid wages. “Chevvy learning structures deliver poor educational outcomes, especially when the focus is not on the quality of education but on generating profit,” says Alison Barnes. “Universities must return to their core functions of teaching and research, and not act as investment corporations focused on generating income and increasing profits”.

The chief executive of Universities Australia (the private association that brings together the vice-chancellors of Australian universities), Catriona Jackson, in turn, says: “Government investment in our institutions has been stagnant for some time, but universities cannot do more of what the nation needs with less.” The federal government's Australian Universities Agreement, which is the most significant overhaul of the sector in 15 years and due to be launched in December, needs to promote changes in policy and funding that "will enable universities to continue to serve the interests of Australia", she said.

"More jobs in the future will require a university degree, while the demand for research and development, to drive national priorities such as energy transition and the acquisition of nuclear submarines, only grows."

No paid leave

When Emma had to attend a funeral during working hours, taking the day off was not an alternative. Instead, she took a tutorial in the morning, attended the funeral in the afternoon, and returned in the evening for a class. Temporary employees do not receive annual leave or paid sick leave. Aside from extreme exceptions – life-threatening illness of an immediate family member, for example – “unless you are on your deathbed”, you must attend.

Emma is also using a pseudonym for fear of losing her contract. She says rampant informality in the sector is having a direct impact on teaching standards, as well as being a source of extreme anxiety for academics. This University of Melbourne PhD student lives with chronic fatigue but “can't say no” to teaching duties because of her financial insecurity.

In seven years of teaching, she lives from contract to contract, being forced to reapply for each of the two annual calls, even for subjects she taught in the last seven semesters. “As a temporary worker, you're looking to produce enough innovation in teaching practice to secure a permanent position,” she says. "And you probably won't get hired if you back off on that."

Last year, she agreed to teach three courses in one semester and is teaching two this year as she juggles research commitments and her health. “You think, 'How do I not have a total nervous breakdown and at the same time make sure I'm employable?'” she says.

A survey carried out in March by the NTEU office at the University of Melbourne heard details of temporary teachers being let go without notice, unable to pay rent, going into debt and being forced to cancel time off due to the uncertainty of their timetable and contract structure. Only 23% felt they were paid fairly for their work.

A spokesman for the University of Melbourne said the university recognizes that relying heavily on temporary staff is neither "desirable nor sustainable" and a "comprehensive program of work" is underway to significantly reduce its reliance on such contracts. He said structural changes are being made to the management and payment of temps, including new features focused on compliance and better transparency of temp schedules, timesheets and pay.

He says: “Health and well-being are and always will be a top priority. (…) The university is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for all staff and students and offers a range of free and easily accessible support services”.

“Fashion Business Buzz Factories”

Ryan Bunney has heard so much corporate talk in his time at University of Western Australia (UWA) which now refers to universities as "fashion business buzzword factories". And the term he least likes is “teaching efficiency”.

In the name of efficiency, faculty activities are cut and replaced with streamlined, multidisciplinary courses, he says. Or, a “flipped” classroom model replaces humans with reused course materials, less tutorials and more videos. Meanwhile, students pay the same fees.

In the middle of the first semester of last year, Ryan Bunney filed an official complaint with the University and resigned from his professorship, citing “ethical concerns”. The complaint was met with “disappointment” by management, and no formal steps were taken to resolve it, he says. “I spent the last year trying to voice the need for change. It affected me and my relationships… but the people who lost the most are those with the least power, the students. Ninety-nine times out of 100, they're very motivated and doing a lot, even with limited time, but they're being ruined by university. I just had to go.”[1]

A year after leaving, Ryan Bunney is still completing his PhD while working part-time in his field. Sometimes he contacts the University and asks about the progress of his complaint. He says that he has only come across banalities and more business platitudes. “It's enough to make anyone fearful. But, on the other hand, I feel much less stressed about not working at the university anymore”.

*Caitlin Cassidy is an Australian journalist specializing in higher education.

Originally published in the Australian edition of the newspaper The Guardian.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Translator's note

[1] Unknowingly, the doctoral student in Computer Science at University of Western Australia interviewed by Guardian ends up reiterating the same buzzwords that govern the liberal academic logic: (i) that everything boils down to a question of “power” between subjects endowed with “agency” – and that, therefore, everything is resolved with the “empowerment” (of individuals) –; and (ii) that the university exists only to serve its “clients”, the students.

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