University Is Not Just For The Rich


There I was happily sipping a beer last night with a couple of mates talking about whether Sonny Bill Williams will have a injury free season for the mighty Roosters when one of them asked me if I had read Richard Hil’s article about the falling standards at universities. As both a contributor to and a reader of New Matilda, the answer was obviously "yes".

I was then asked if I agreed with the general thrust of the argument. My answer was, "no".

"Let me get this right", ventured my drinking buddy, "you think that ATAR is not an indicator of outcome?"

"No", I responded, wiping the excess beer off my top lip. "There is no single measure or predictor of how well someone will do at university or how well they will end up doing at life. To simply look at the ATAR scores is deterministic."

I had stumbled over Hil’s article while preparing for a lecture that day. I teach a subject called Contemporary Society with some 1168 students, and as such, I re-draft my lecture notes at the last possible moment to ensure that the course material adequately reflects the title.

Hil’s article reminded me of a panel discussion I had attended at another university. The interstate guest gave an outstanding lecture about the relevance of class theory in the contemporary world — arguing that although class relations are alive and well, this "c-word" is never spoken outside a small group of academics.

The media rarely, if ever, use the word, and the only time a politician mentions it is when they accuse someone of promoting "class warfare". As expected, the various academics, who happened to be left-leaning, nodded in agreement, made agreeable noises and asked all the right questions.

I am not sure if they picked up on the hypocrisy of it all when, during the afternoon break, a number of them sat around and complained about the "falling standards" of the new students. The discussion ended with the statement that soon "they’ll let almost anyone in".

Class politics, it seems, is great in theory, but when the great unwashed enter the hallowed halls of academia, we tend to shuffle our feet uncomfortably.

I would like to offer four responses to the "falling standards" debate.

The first is that Australia’s population is increasingly diverse. The 2011 Census revealed that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of Australia’s population was born overseas. Twenty per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. Australian-English is changing and this is reflected in the language skills of our students. Despite this, academia insists on a very specific type of language for written and oral communication. That is fine — most students eventually get there — but it also explains why the average first year essay is not perfect.

The second is the link between ATAR scores and class background. The proposed Gonski reforms have prompted debates about the advantages that prestigious private schools have over poorly funded public schools. If we simply use the ATAR then it is no better than using an IQ test: it is a culturally and socially specific measure that will perpetuate class divisions. At worst, it can discriminate; at best, it’s a guide.

This obsession with scores as the be all and end all emerged over the weekend. The NSW Government is reportedly pushing for a minimum ATAR for entry into teaching degrees. This fixation with ATAR fails to take into account the transformative potential of university.

The third issue is the need for academics to adopt a more innovative and relevant teaching approach to today’s changing population. I have worked with colleagues who use the same lecture notes for 10 years, set the same assignments, and drone on and on much like their lecturers did. They then complain that no-one turns up to their lectures and that the students are all going to fail miserably because they have not kept up.

It is important to acknowledge that there is a current institutional bias towards publishing and chasing grants, with teaching often neglected by some universities. Prestige and success is often measured in such terms — but this does not excuse poor teaching.

Many students are not innocent here. But it’s time that we, as academics, better understood the needs of our students. Most of them now work part-time jobs and do not have the privileged position to sit around and read "the classics" like we did "back in the day". There are many students for whom English is a second language, plenty who have caring responsibilities and others who are changing their career direction. Rather than asking why are they are not turning up, we should reframe the question: how do I engage them?

This certainly is possible — something I have written about previously.

But for many academics, this appears a little too hard and takes too much work. These are the same academics who have the time to fly to exotic locations all over the world to attend conferences, deliver papers to other academics and complain about the paperwork they needed to fill in to get there. (I am not innocent here, having spent quite a bit of time overseas last year.)

Meanwhile, the professional and administrative staff who process these forms and have to put up with all the complaining (while earning half what we do) would love the opportunity to fill in a form for the right to travel to Paris.

The final point is that universities are at a point of flux much like the newspaper industry found itself 10 years ago. Technology and different stakeholder demands — students, their parents, the various communities we deal with, industry and government — have placed universities at a crossroad. The rise of free massive open online courses means many are beginning to question the worth of a university degree.

Universities are more than institutes that prepare graduates for work or produce a new generation of scholars to undertake the next round of PhDs. At their best, tertiary education institutions are about promoting an active and engaged citizenry both within and beyond the walls of the university. Students should not not simply learn the skills to be an accountant, teacher, nurse or doctor, but also learn to ask "why" and challenge established power structures.

Many academics spend their time complaining about standards but are too busy to employ strategies to make improvements. But more than working on standards, what we are really working on is developing the next generation of community leaders who are going to be confronted with the problems we have helped create — including global warming and increasing wealth disparities.

Like it or not, over the last 10 years, the broader community, like my drinking buddies, have come to think of academics as a bunch of inner city, merlot drinking wankers. They are too often right. It’s lucky I drink beer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.