The Truth About The Uncapped University


Apart from the odd compulsive student, like me, or the odd obsolete teacher (also like me), few people know that what now passes for a university isn’t a university.

More than a decade ago, philosopher Raimond Gaita reported an exchange between UK philosophers and a Minister for Education about the closure of university philosophy departments. The philosophers said that no institution that lacked a philosophy department could rightly call itself a university. The minister — described by Gaita as a cultured man — listened carefully but finally replied, “In that case, we will call it something else!”

They haven’t had to bother. Penny pinching by federal governments has destroyed everything but the name. By 2007, compared to public university education in the rest of the OECD, Australian students paid amongst the highest tuition fees in the world and their governments contributed less than half the amount they once did per student. Over the decade to 2005, student fees increased by 70 percent and resources per student fell, saving the government the equivalent of $1 billion.

Staff cuts and student increases have forced universities into a two-stream system in which islets of senior academics supervise shoals of research students, while a sea of casual staff — desperate to make landfall before they hit retirement — carry the vast bulk of the teaching load. As a university teacher last century, I learnt to teach while treading water, and also on dry land, but nothing prepared me for my experience as a student in the uncapped system.

I enrolled in Masters-level courses at two self-exulted Australian universities because I wanted to choose the one that better suited me. I didn’t realise I’d entered the academic equivalent of a chockers London Underground lift. For the first tutorial, 25 students sidled into a 35-degree, airless closet. I scored a seat at a back table, straddled the corner, balanced a notepad on my knees, wedged my pen and specs on the table between my neighbours’ clipboards — and waited. My joy of joys is a new course brimming with the promise of passionate intellectual engagement.

As in the petri-dish question on biology exams, within five minutes the class had doubled. The latecomers sat on the floor, backs against the walls, knees jammed into the behinds of the lucky sods who’d scored chairs. Just as any semblance of humanity was long gone from the London lift, so all vestiges of teaching had fled the uncapped classroom.

The airless closet was a taste of things to come. Since 2012, the Australian government has funded universities for as many students as they can enrol (excepting postgraduate and medical students). In the three years prior to the uncapping, Australian universities increased their enrolments by 20 percent. At RMIT in 2012, places reportedly increased by 1343 while the cut-off scores for admission to some courses plunged. For one business course the score fell from nearly 70 to 50; for one civil engineering course, 79 to 62; and for one psychology course, 81 to 68.

As enrolments skyrocketed and cut-off scores plummeted, many universities slashed staff numbers — and played the old blame tune. Announcing cuts of 340 at Sydney University, Vice-Chancellor Dr Martin Spence said the university could no longer carry those staff members “not pulling their weight”. In the university context, “not pulling their weight” is executive-speak for “publishing fewer papers than Canberra wants”. To Canberra, only numbers count. It doesn’t matter to an auditor that one timely, substantial paper might contribute more to scholarship than four light-weight pieces put together.

Muttering “not pulling their weight” in the general direction of academics keeps them treading water. The slogan taps into community suspicions — already trained by the tabloids — that university teachers don’t have enough to do. But on Canberra’s publish-or-perish showboat, the survivors try to keep the sharks at bay. Sometimes against their better academic judgment they publish prematurely or turn one paper into several. After all, why feed Jaws a single prey when tossing him two halves has him behaving as if he’s twice as full? Under-the-knife and under-published academics join forces, set up new journals and publish each other. Meanwhile, in vain, scholars scour the literature for something that’s still breathing.

Back in the airless closet, the Masters-level subject comprised a series of unpaid visitors ad-libbing on “What I do to earn a buck in this industry”. At both universities the justification for the absence of teaching was that we Masters students were already proficient. What we’d get out of the course was the know-how to sell our wares in the marketplace. So why wouldn’t we just do a marketing course? “Indeed,” said one lecturer, “some of our best students have”.

In his article, philosopher Raimond Gaita mourned the loss not only of a serious conception of the value of learning for its own sake, but also of the very language with which to articulate such a conception. He quoted Hazel Rowley: ‘Never has there been so much talk of “excellence” and “quality assurance” and never before … so little concern for either’, and added, ‘For a long time we did not notice what we had lost’. Not that it’ll worry the auditors; they’ll just call it something else.

This article was first published in the Australian Universities’ Review.

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