If you go to the upper campus of the University of New South Wales on virtually any given day of the academic year, you will see bright young things wandering around in caps and gowns: new graduates. Someone, somewhere on campus, is always graduating. This is because the modern university is an enormous, tightly-run corporate machine, churning out graduates faster than McDonald’s makes hamburgers.
UNSW’s recent choice to kick out almost all formerly-union-held newsagents, cafes and shops on campus, considerably increase the rent of these spaces, and bring in big chain stores instead (reneging on a promise the university made to increase affordability of food on campus) is just another step towards the triumphant Westfield-isation of this university. And why should we be surprised? Our Vice-Chancellor, Fred Hilmer, is on the Board of Directors of Westfield. This is the new reality. But mixing tertiary education and big business has dangerous implications for the future of Australian universities.
Education is one of Australia's most profitable export industries. International students make up 20 per cent of enrolments (the comparable figure in the USA is 3.5 per cent). Some analysts predict the sector will grow by up to 30 per cent by the end of the decade to a $19 billion industry. But seeing international students solely as customers conceals other problems.
Not least of these problems is poor English language skills that leave international students vulnerable to scammers, especially in the housing market. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 27 per cent of international students lived in overcrowded properties in 2006, but a dearth of up-to-date figures on this issue means we rely mainly on anecdotal evidence. The lack of current data in this area is telling in itself. Under-resourced community legal centres usually end up dealing with exploitation.
For international students with fluent English who choose to become permanent residents, a degree is often little more than an entry into the Australian job market. A friend who works in a recruitment agency gets regular requests from employers to stop sending “any more CVs from Asians”. Such an account is largely confirmed by a study conducted by the ANU, which found that “to get the same number of interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, a Chinese applicant must submit 68 per cent more applications [and]a Middle Eastern applicant must submit 64 per cent more applications”.
Universities must know that these students often wind up in low-paying admin jobs, or driving cabs. They may return to university to get more qualifications, or return home unfulfilled. No wonder international student enrolments have dropped off in the last couple of years.
Campus life has also become Westfield-ised, as formerly union-subsidised services are turned over to the market. Once, students didn’t work during the semester; they were campus-based and would participate in the various offerings of student life. Acknowledging their inevitably limited income, unions would step in to subsidise the resources that students would otherwise not be able to afford.
Now, it is understood that students will be working, often part-time and sometimes full-time, while completing their degree. In fact their degree may be seen to be of secondary importance to income generation; therefore student unions become redundant. The consequences are an overworked student cohort and a decline in the standard of work submitted.
The effect on student life is stunning. You wouldn’t know UNSW has elections every year; there is almost no campaigning and very few people vote. There is a campus newspaper, Tharunka, although I don't know anybody who reads it regularly (even though its most recent cover has been generating wider attention). Clubs and societies may meet regularly (when I joined the Amnesty International club in first year, there were three members), but there is nothing else keeping students on campus, including their shiny new buildings and state of the art facilities.
A great deal of the impetus behind this change in the university environment obviously comes from the students themselves, who don't want to compromise their “lifestyles” when they go to university. Living in one of the most expensive cities in the world necessitates part-time work. But there is also a great deal of expectation from the job market that a degree is not enough upon graduation; graduates are increasingly expected to have proven ability in the workforce as well.
It is difficult to know how to address this growing demand, and the greater competition for graduate-entry positions that results from higher university attendance. Nonetheless, corporatisation is not favouring the needs of the university, only the needs of the marketplace. Universities should be finding ways to encourage students to concentrate on their learning, stay on campus, participate in academic and student life, and become richer, more interesting graduates and human beings as a result.
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