If Australian Universities Are Going To Survive, They Can’t Just Produce “Job-Ready” Graduates

After decades of chalking up record profits, Australian universities are now mired in a deep crisis. But if we’re going to defend — let alone rebuild — the sector, its champions have to reject the subordination of education to the bottom line.

The University of Melbourne. (Geoff Penaluna / Flickr)

“It’s pretty hard to describe to someone outside research at the moment just what the morale is like.” Speaking on ABC’s national current affairs program, The Drum, respected cancer biologist Darren Saunders wasn’t holding back.

I have been doing research for almost twenty years now, and I have never seen morale the way it is at the moment . . . we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and one of the front-running vaccines is coming out of university research in Australia — and here we are talking about the guts being ripped out of the system.

Why would a successful scientist, dedicated to finding cures to deadly diseases, leave science? The short answer is that Saunders is over it. He can’t get a grant to support his work researching cancer.

It’s no secret why morale is bad. Australia’s universities are in crisis.

Higher Education Crisis

The crisis stems from several factors, some internal to the university system itself, others linked to wider trends in Australian politics and society. When Scott Morrison’s government shut Australia’s borders in the early months of 2020, international student numbers dropped dramatically. To add insult to injury, Morrison bluntly told international students to “go home.” Domestic enrollments have mostly held up, but universities are still facing a revenue shortfall estimated at somewhere between $3 and $4.5 billion.

Even so, when vice-chancellors approached federal ministers in March looking for a bailout, Morrison and his cabinet froze them out, specifically excluding them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy and other funds. As a result, most universities have laid off staff on a grand scale — credible estimates put job losses at close to thirty thousand. Inevitably, the quality of education is suffering, as courses are cut, leading to soaring class sizes for those that remain.

Not satisfied with the damage done, Morrison also pushed ahead with funding cuts in October. Although he calls it a “reform,” Morrison’s policy is in fact a deeply contradictory series of changes to the Commonwealth funding levels awarded to various subjects and disciplines. The aim was to foster the production of “job-ready graduates,” according to education minister Dan Tehan. With funding slashed, fees went up for subjects in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts. Meanwhile, courses like science, mathematics, and engineering were made cheaper for students, although their funding was also cut.

Nothing about the “job-ready graduates” law makes sense. If the aim was to train more employable graduates, why raise fees for courses with high graduate employment rates, as is the case for many of the social sciences? If the aim was to encourage enrollments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, why cut their funding?

Despite having whole faculties of political scientists at their disposal, universities did not see the assault coming. This is partly because, for the past two decades, senior managers and vice-chancellors at Australian universities have embraced a kind of bien-pensant neoliberalism, trumpeting the economic value of tertiary education, while downplaying its social and cultural importance.

Universities Australia (UA) is the peak body representing the sector. Headed by Catriona Jackson, UA’s response to Morrison’s legislation gives us a flavor of the lukewarm arguments favored by VCs:

While we welcome the policy intent of the package, we remain concerned that failure to protect key elements in legislation puts the policy objectives at risk.

Of course, privately, vice-chancellors were horrified at the funding changes. But they were politically disarmed. After a series of backroom deals with independent senators in South Australia, the government secured the votes needed to pass the funding reform bill in October. As a result, total Commonwealth funding to universities will actually decline in 2021.

Universities have responded by laying off even more staff. After the first big midyear wave of layoffs, a second round was announced at many universities in October and November.

Some universities are already preparing for their “job-ready” future. On November 30, higher education gossip column Campus Morning Mail carried a story reporting that Curtin University plans to get rid of lectures:

The final draft of a blended-learning model proposes no more lectures by the end of 2021. They will be replaced by “Curtin talks,” “ten to 15-minute videos based on a single topic or concept” with students required to watch two-three a week.  While 70 per cent of a unit will still be “class time, specialised labs, specialised teaching spaces,” the university proposes using Curtin-created packaged content; micro-credentials and MOOCs and micromasters available via edX.

As the column explains, “it’s all part of a plan to focus on graduate outcomes.” Assessments, new “learning technologies,” and the slow death of in-person teaching are supposed to “reflect the practices of the discipline or profession the course is designed around.”

The Idea of the University

Universities were not always so deeply subordinated to the logic of profit-making. For decades following the Second World War, they enjoyed bipartisan favor and few public critics. It was a Liberal prime minister, Robert Menzies, who embarked on a massive university-building spree in the 1960s.

Menzies was a genuine believer in the “idea of the university” articulated by the English Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman in a famous series of lectures given in Dublin during the 1850s. Newman argued that the point of a university was “teaching universal knowledge.” All branches of the human intellect should be represented, to help students achieve a “real cultivation of mind,” rather than develop a narrow technical skill set. Newman hoped that this would mold students with the intellectual capability “to have a connected view or grasp of things,” who would exhibit “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, and steadiness of view.”

Of course, Robert Menzies also hoped that universities would produce more of the middle-class professionals who, in his era, were reliable Liberal voters. Later, in the 1970s, Labor’s Gough Whitlam plowed more money into universities, expanding their enrollments and making student tuition free.

But it was the Hawke–Keating government that set Australian university policy on its current path when it reintroduced student fees in 1988, in an attempt to defray the rising cost of growing tertiary enrollments. Bob Hawke’s education minister, John Dawkins, also amalgamated many of Australia’s most successful vocational and trade colleges into existing universities, creating bigger and less diverse institutions. In higher education studies, the term used to describe the result of these policies is the “massified” university.

By the time John Howard’s Liberal government took office in 1996, the conservative attitude to universities had also changed. Many Liberal parliamentarians had suffered bruising defeats as right-leaning student politicians and were in no mood to enable ever-growing public universities. Howard cut funding, attacked student unions, and hiked fees, establishing the pattern for conservative governments in Australia ever since.

The Conservative Assault

By the 2010s, Australian universities found themselves on the horns of a difficult dilemma. Big research-intensive universities have become a central part of the postindustrial economy. They are also huge generators of relatively high-wage jobs: in regional cities such as Newcastle, Wollongong, and Armidale, universities are among the biggest local employers.

Simultaneously, sociopolitical forces gradually undermined public support for universities. In the 1980s, when fewer than a tenth of school leavers went on to university and professional employment was expanding at a steady clip, a university degree was an excellent investment. But massification has created a surfeit of graduates, steadily eroding the income premium university graduates can command.

This is not to say university graduates are losing out — far from it. Relative to high school leavers, they still do much better by nearly every metric of economic advantage.

At the same time, growing social and political alienation created a rising resentment of the knowledge class and the universities that produce it. It’s not that Menzies’s calculation has been reversed — there are still plenty of conservative voters with university degrees in medicine, business, and the law. Rather, what has changed is the way that voters without university degrees perceive those with. At the 2019 federal election, among voters with a non-tertiary qualification, the Liberal Party outpolled Labor by a full ten points — 42 to 32 percent — according to the Australian Election Study.

This increasing hostility to universities mirrors declining conditions for researchers and academics. The salad days of earlier decades are long gone, replaced by growing job insecurity and grinding levels of overwork characterized by a swelling tide of teaching and research metrics. Frustration with the false promise of the ivory tower has produced a whole genre of disillusionment writing called “quit lit.”

Many academics are, quite simply, miserable. Secure, tenured academic positions are increasingly rare, while the bulk of the teaching is typically carried out by an immiserated class of exploited casual academics, who are in some cases not even paid what they are legally owed. At least nine Australian universities are currently being investigated for wage theft, and the problem of underpayment in the sector is now the subject of a Senate inquiry.

Students are also unhappy. Encouraged by parents and lured by glossy marketing, many students find the modern mass university to be a lonely and isolating place. Promises of invigorating tutorials cultivating the life of the mind are all too often replaced by a more prosaic reality of crowded libraries, recorded lectures, disgruntled casual tutors, dysfunctional IT systems, and impenetrable university bureaucracies. Academic Richard Hil called it “selling students short” in his 2014 book of the same name.

Highly Paid Vice-Chancellors

Presiding over the system is a class of vice-chancellors who are among the best paid in the world, appointed by boards of directors modeled on listed corporations, and often drawn from the same small coterie of elite plutocrats. Politicians and senior Canberra bureaucrats tell bemusing stories of vice-chancellors on more than $1 million a year turning up for private meetings, chauffeured in private cars, with entourages of retainers. One level down, there is a dense upper canopy of deputy vice-chancellors, executive deans, and provosts, who model themselves on hard-charging corporate managers and who command salaries that often overmatch.

For years, VCs gorged on international student revenue, plowing it into shiny buildings, glossy marketing brochures, and exorbitant management salaries. Huge revenue flows from teaching were used to cross-subsidize research costs, particularly in STEM disciplines, which are favored by international university ranking systems.

This period of turbocharged growth was especially noticeable at the largest and most prestigious Australian institutions, known as the Group of Eight, a self-selected cohort of large established universities that models itself on the British Russell Group and the American Ivy League.

The universities themselves are not obviously hard up, at least to the untutored eye (or perhaps, to the casually tutored eye). Ministers invited on to campuses are ushered respectfully to bespoke chancellery buildings staffed by softly spoken security guards; looking out the window, they may see busy cranes erecting sparkling new libraries of glass and steel. The grinding poverty of a casual tutor paid for just a handful of hours a semester is hidden well out of sight — the tutor may not even make it onto campus, if they are teaching a so-called blended learning unit.

Yet one thing is missing from the equation shared by VCs and the Liberal government: any residual idea of education as a public good. While Cardinal Newman’s “idea of the university” may have been an influence on the politicians of previous generations, in Scott Morrison’s Australia, higher education is seen as a dangerous incubator of leftist progressives, valuable only for whether it makes university graduates “job-ready.” It’s a nasty, brutish, and shortsighted education policy, perfectly in tune with Morrison’s worldview.

Universities, particularly the modern research-intensive sort that ascend international rankings, are creatures of the Enlightenment. Perhaps this is ultimately the reason for their newfound vulnerability. In the postwar years, as technological advances drove a huge economic expansion, universities seemed like a safe bet.

But today, in a world of ubiquitous conspiracy theories and widespread public antipathy toward experts, the future of the university looks clouded. As universities abandon lectures and lay off teachers, the idea of university education as a good in itself seems more utopian than ever. But if universities become little more than corporate diploma-issuers or skills certifiers, what will be left of “higher” education for us to defend?