Reports from one university recently that all tutorials in a particular faculty had been re-badged as demonstrations were met with outrage amongst the few casuals and activists from the sector who heard them. Yet another penny-pinching measure by a university under financial pressure from years of underfunding by government, and one that universities are accustomed to getting away with as casuals are all too often isolated and unable to organise collectively (the ‘silent underclass’). So your pay goes from $100/hour to $35/hour – I guess you just stop preparing for classes or consulting with students? Yeah, right.
At another university, we learn that a faculty has eliminated tutorials altogether and is now calling its lectures ‘seminars’, with 50-100 undergrads in each 2-hour class. Who loses from such a move? Everyone. The undergrads who no longer have any small class interaction for discussion, the postgrads and other early career academics who no longer have tutorials to teach, and the permanent staff who no longer have the support of tutors and will bear the extra workload on their own.
The first case above is one we’ve all seen far too often, and goes hand in hand with other exploitative measures such as non-payment for required lecture attendance, department or subject coordination meetings, student consultation and marking. The second fits neatly into a neoliberal paradigm where anything can be made affordable by so-called economies of scale – bigger class sizes are just the tip of the iceberg. At the Universities Australia conference 2-4 March this year, a ‘futurist’ suggested that as well as bigger class sizes, universities should simply put more online, as he runs a transnational company and the board meetings go very well on Skype. If that’s the future, I want out.
It’s hardly a secret that universities are coping with funding pressures with increased casualisation, as highlighted again recently by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland Paul Greenfield at the UA conference. And while casuals have never been particularly well supported in the sector, increased class sizes are making their jobs harder. The much-awaited results of the National Research Student Survey survey conducted last year by ACER and the CSHE for DEEWR indicate that only 14% of research students who have worked as tutors or lecturers report having received any teacher training. And as numbers of casual academics increase, there is a concurrent negative impact on permanent academic staff workload, and none of this can possibly be benefiting undergrads.
A quick aside on the question of shifting to more online learning – aside from research over the past 20 years that in most cases it is not an ideal replacement for face-to-face learning opportunities, but can work well as a supplement – it is disingenuous in the extreme to suggest it decreases workload. The amount of unpaid labour to maintain websites, respond to student emails, participate in and moderate forums, etc places enormous burdens on staff, much of which is borne by underpaid casuals.
Because student staff ratios contribute 20% to QS World University Rankings, vice-chancellors are paying attention, but many of them are proposing to uncap student contributions to make up for funding shortfalls. The incoming head of Universities Australia, Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis was quoted in The Australian arguing for just that, citing concerns that the Government won’t make appropriate public contributions and therefore universities should be able to charge students more. And yet if the student experience is worsening, on what grounds would society presume to ask students to pay more?
Parallel to the Base Funding Review is the ongoing work to establish the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA). Although there have certainly been teething problems with early drafts of the legislation, the idea of an ‘AUQA with teeth’ is exciting. If an audit finds that a certain university’s class sizes are compromising quality, TEQSA will (or should) have the authority to demand improvements in its role as protector of the integrity of a publicly-funded higher education system. It simply remains to be seen whether some who will confuse autonomy with unaccountability will manage to dilute the legislation so that staff and students see no real QA benefit from the new body.
But will the Government step up and address the many issues plaguing the sector by providing appropriate public funding to create a vibrant knowledge economy? It’s rather inauspicious when our Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans addresses the sector and assures us the Government is open minded about the ‘very important independent review of base funding’, but hopeful the findings will preclude recommendations to increase government expenditure on higher education. It is especially worrying given the Bradley Review, Research Workforce Strategy and countless other reviews and inquiries have repeatedly emphasised the dangers to the system posed by increasing casualisation and higher student staff ratios. We don’t need any more reports to tell us these are problems, we need to throw some public money at them.