The Crisis In Education Isn't Looming, It's Here


If it ever even was the case that universities were once "hotbeds of leftists", that time has well and truly passed.

The managers of our universities have been inured to the ethical, cultural and political implications of a refusal to pay fair wages for labour, instead reducing remuneration to a purely economic rationale. This is nowhere so apparent as in the situation of casual academic staff in universities, where exploitation is rife and examples of under-paid or even unpaid labour are abundant.

In Australia even senior academics are now working 50-hour weeks on average while faring poorly in salary comparisons with average weekly earnings. Melissa Gregg has already eloquently detailed the reasons why academia is no longer a smart choice, and Australia’s leading higher education institutes have released a full report on challenges facing the academic workforce.

As a generation of the academic workforce approaches retirement and the emerging workforce is disenfranchised, speculation about a "looming crisis" belies the crisis that is already upon us.

Australian universities, by and large, are systematically exploiting their employees, from overworked senior academics to the burgeoning population of casual staff who receive little or no training. If you are an undergraduate student — or indeed the parent, partner or friend of one — you should know that university tutors have probably received no training as teachers, no office space, no pay to attend meetings with subject coordinators or sit in on lectures, and — in the worst examples — no pay to mark assignments. Across Australian universities approximately 50 per cent of teaching is now carried out by casuals.

As higher education expert Simon Marginson said earlier this year in a talk in Japan, "Governments use funding scarcity to control and shape the institutions." And while this may be true, it’s too easy to simply blame the government, which now provides just 44 per cent of higher education budgets.

Ultimately, we must ask university leaders to account for the ways in which they are prioritising their — admittedly limited — funds. Given that Australia sits near the bottom of international comparisons of both staff and student satisfaction levels in company with China and Portugal, we have a serious problem — and it’s not just the economy (stupid). If our managers aren’t addressing the moral, cultural and political consequences of systematic exploitation of their workforce, and the government refuses to dig any deeper, where else can we look for leadership?

Once upon a time, university councils might have helped its managers with such questions. But as the sector becomes increasingly corporatised, its governance bodies are focusing more on the bottom line and risky commercial ventures than on strategic oversight of universities’ educational philosophy and integrity. Councils are charged with the direction and superintendence of their universities, yet many seem to interpret this merely as financial and risk management, leaving educational vision to the "expert" management team.

The central role of governance in maintaining an ethical vision as well as practical constraints is too often ignored amid the buck passing. There is surely something wrong when a university council excitedly debates the commercial and reputational risks of involvement in a proposal for a community-based childcare consortium — and defers discussions of the importance of providing subsidised childcare for students to the senior executive?

Australian higher education institutions must learn to distinguish between sustainable governance and the governance of contingency, where risk is distributed as a new form of hierarchy. Currently, casuals bear the most risk: literally, will I have a job next semester? Professors and other senior academics carry a lesser, but nonetheless notable, load: will I get another research grant? Managers, on the other hand, have more or less permanent positions. Sustainable governance would mean investing in people to help them become world class academics — not using academics and young scholars as a resource to sell the corporate brand image of a university.

Let’s not underestimate the challenges facing university management: leading large institutions academically, financially and pastorally is an enormous task. Key responsibilities include maintaining a balanced budget, meeting government targets, and ensuring a university is internationally competitive in research — and, to a lesser extent, teaching.

The purpose of a governance body needs to be distinguished from the day-to-day demands of management: the role of university councils is to oversee the work of management from a slight distance such that the view of the bigger picture is not impaired by direct involvement in operations. If the system was functioning healthily, both governance and management would be concerned with, but not overly determined by, good fiscal management. Better, they would have robust debates about their ethical responsibilities to and for all members of the university community, from undergrads and postgrads through to casual, junior and senior academics, and including non-academic staff.

This is hardly the case now: students are paying increasingly high fees based on the reputations of universities. These reputations are largely earned by the research output of senior academics — who in turn are using grant money to buy their way out of teaching in order to focus on maintaining their international reputations built upon research portfolios.

As a consequence, many students will never be taught by Australia’s leading intellectuals, and will more often be taught by passionate and intelligent — but pedagogically untrained and dismally paid — casual staff. Many postgrads and early career academics would be happy simply to receive a few extra hours’ pay in recognition of their labour. They would also relish opportunities for greater involvement with their institutions via access to basic resources like offices and printing facilities as well as research materials. And those disenfranchised, isolated research students and early career academics would surely benefit from enhanced collegiality within the departments and faculties in which they work.

While we wait for a transformation in university administration, let every member of the academic community consciously choose to engage ethically with one another. If you’re in a position to hire casual staff, surely it’s not unreasonable to insist that your staff be paid for all the hours they work. Many, but certainly not all, senior academics already do this, or pay for the shortfall in central funding through their grants.

Instead of allowing our collective disenchantment at this untenable state of affairs drive us further into cynicism and disengagement, it’s time we radicalised our participation in the academy. We will never see change at the highest levels if we do not begin to "talk up agency, collectively and individually", as Genevieve Kelly urged at the recent State of the Industry conference. As we make our voices heard, our governance bodies may eventually find the political will to reengage with discussions of ethical and democratic participation in higher education.

Until they do, students and staff alike can expect little change to the status quo.


New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.