Inside Australia’s University-land: Unmasking the ‘student experience’*

Inside Australia’s University-land: Unmasking the ‘student experience’*
Richard Hil

9 May 2016

“I saw the sign saying ‘university’ but when I got on campus I couldn’t find it”.

  • Disgruntled second year student at a regional university.

 The Teflon university

As some of you might be aware, I’ve been yakking on about universities for quite some time now, and as you can see, very little has changed. At best I’m an aged flea on a very large elephant’s rear.

Like many other commentators I have over the years observed some very worrying developments in the sector which, among other things, includes the intensification and over-regulation of academic workloads, the aeecedacny of the so-called business model, and what might generously be described as the misleading marketing of educational “products” otherwise known as degrees. Last year we witnessed a withering Four Corners expose and ICAC report, both of which highlighted questionable – possibly criminally corrupt – marketing practices in the international student market. This was followed shortly after by a withering editorial in the SMH and the slow drip of articles about overly “flexible” admissions policies.

There were also rolling complaints about the quality of university education by seasoned observers like Professor Raelyn Connell, Nick Reiner, George Morgan and even specialists in the study of higher education like Professor Simon Marginson. Criticism was also aired in the columns of The Australian, the Australian Universities Review, and less often in the rather anodyne Campus Review. The rise of NAPU and recent conferences like Challenging the Privatized University at the UQ attest to a growing concern among academics over government under-funding, the incursions of corporations into university affairs, and the privatization and commercialization of previously public knowledge.

Yet none of these concerns seem to stick. It’s called the Teflon effect. If any other sector had faced such sustained criticism over the years, there would surely be calls for a Royal Commission or at least a parliamentary inquiry to unearth what’s going on. But no, nothing of the sort. “In fact”, as I recently observed in World University News, “university managers have become so brazenly adept at fending off criticism that they manage to bamboozle even the most level-headed of scrutineers”.

Bamboozler-in-chief, Professor Glyn Davis, the erudite VC at the University of Melbourne recently blogged, in theHuntington Post, that:

In an ideal world, the precincts around Australian universities would already resemble those of Silicon Valley or Cambridge. In time they might. More likely, we will develop distinctive local patterns that reflect the broader realities of the Australian economy — a predominance of small to medium firms, clustered around universities and public agencies, all contributing to the local innovation ecosystem.

This reflects much current thinking in university-land: a sector linked inextricably to the requirements of industry, and a major contributor to GDP and economic growth. On the surface, you might wonder what’s wrong with that? Well, it depends on what you consider to be the purpose of universities. Are they primarily about economic enrichment, growth and personal acquisition or should they, as philosopher Alan de Bottom insists, be attuned to everyday life, citizenship and democracy, and to creating better family life, neighborhoods and communities? Or perhaps you think that universities should remain independent purveyors of something called “the truth” and retain their traditional image as a bastion against tyranny. Whatever your view, we can I think, all agree that universities have changed significantly over recent decades. In my view, they have largely lost their social purpose, and they’ve certainly lost some independence, more often than not resembling private firms rather than public institutions dedicated to the public good. Assuming there’s something to this line of argument, what has led us here?

Enter John Dawkins

The short answer is the neoliberal reforms of the then ALP government of Bob Hawke et al. We have to remember that these reforms occurred in the context of a an emergent worldview fashioned by the likes of Milton Freidman and Frederick Hayek, and operationalized politically by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Hawke’s treasurer, Paul Keating, was both an admirer of Thatcherite deregulation and was in turn admired by her for pursuing such policies in Australia. In the field of higher education, it was education minister John Dawkins who in the late 1980s introduced measures that led to the emergence of the three Ms: marketization, massification and managerialism. Marketization refers to the opening up of the sector to global competition, with today’s 42 Australian universities now competing in an ever expanding student market.

Masification, that is, the growth in student numbers, has been extraordinary: from xx to the current figure of about 1.4 million, a third of whom are international students adding $17 billion to the Australian economy. Managerialism drove a culture of top-down regulatory approach to corporate management in which business principles were applied to brand promotion and increased market share. This was accompanied by the exponential growth of administrators and management consultants and the relative decline of full-time academics and the rise of a casualised workforce of up to 80,000.

Many of these issues have received considerable critical attention. However, I want to focus here on an area of inquiry that has hitherto been rather neglected – the so-called “student experience”. But before doing so let me say three things: first, I do not advocate a return to the elitist, patriarchal dark ages. Second, I believe in the democratization of high education at the same time as cautioning about overly flexible entry policies. Third, we do not have to go down the current path of fee deregulation and accumulated student debt. There are viable alternatives to this approach. Fourth, there is excellent teaching and research going on in our universities, and no-one can doubt the commitment of academic’s staff to delivering the best education they can to their students, but this is often achieved inspire rather than because of current institutional arrangements.

Walking ATMs

These days university education is an expensive business. A few years ago a well-known higher education commentator suggested that when students finally graduate they should be presented with receipts rather than degree certificates. Nowadays, before considering enrolling in one our universities you have to do the math. Unless you’ve inherited a fortune and don’t need to care, you’ll need to calculate how much you’ll be indebted as a result of your studies as compared to what you’re likely to earn following graduation. This fiscal calibration assumes that upon graduation you’ll land the job of your choice.

Unfortunately, as those with degrees in engineering, psychology, speech therapy, teaching, accounting, business and commerce studies and law can attest, a prolonged stint stacking shelves in Coles and Woolworths is the more likely outcome of their expensive tertiary education. Some of course do land jobs, but as the evidence suggests, waiting times have stretched out on average to five years or more. Many more students are finding that an undergraduate degree is no longer sufficient to get them employed, hence the rise in postgraduate courses along with more debt. Understandably, students who find work after graduation difficult are not the happy campers depicted in university marketing brochures.

And it’s even worse for international students who fork out up to three times more in upfront fees than their domestic counterparts. They arrive on these shores with high hopes of either obtaining a permanent visa or heading back home to a plum job. Neither possibility will necessarily eventuate. You really do have to sympathize with this band of tertiary consumers – after all, about twenty per cent of them come from impoverished families in developing countries for whom an Australian higher education is seen as a passport to a better life. It might not be. To add insult to injury, many international students during course of their studies have to endure rundown, overcrowded housing in distant suburbs or inner city hovels, and have little or no access to legal, welfare and social services. Significant numbers report feeling isolated, lonely and estranged from their institutions and many fail to make friends with domestic students, often because of language difficulties and various cultural issues. To get through their studies a lot of international students have to work, often long hours in low paid, casual and illegal jobs in the shadow economy.

But it’s all worth, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly worth it for universities and the Australian economy with international students now contributing billions to the nation’s coffers. But do students get value for money? University chiefs will of course promise them the earth – career paths leading to senior management positions and chunky salary packages. The reality however, is a little more complicated. For those heading back to China, for instance, many will find those sought after jobs hard to come by, mainly because domestically educated graduates – those with degrees from ‘world class’ Chinese universities – are getting employed ahead of their Australian educated peers. Why? Well, partly because they posses better English language and other job related skills, and more realistic career expectations. To make matters worse, there are already too many graduates in certain fields in China and the unemployment rate of Chinese degree holders is on the rise, so it’s a much more competitive job market.

The sense of disappointment experienced by international graduates is replicated among domestic students. As numerous employer surveys are telling us, Australian bosses are often bitterly disappointed by the quality of graduates emerging from our tertiary institutions, with many lacking some of the most basic job skills, but certainly not without lofty expectations of a fast tracked career. So disillusioned have some employers become that more and more of them have, if not entirely given up on graduates, sought instead to broaden their recruitment policies by focusing on demonstrable skills and aptitudes rather than qualifications per se. They seek to recruit graduates who can communicate effectively, relate well with others, think outside of the proverbial box, work in teams, make independent decisions, and generally do the right thing. Apparently, such commendable qualities are not, as you might expect, the universal stuff of our newly credentialed graduates.

Selling the university experience

Over the past few years I’ve been interested in the obvious gulf (chasm might be a better word) that exists between the marketing hype and the reality of university education for our increasingly indebted students. I’ve spoken to hundreds of students – under- gradates and post-graduates, on-campus and online, domestic and international, men and women, young and mature-aged. What I’ve learnt is that if you were to rigidly apply the provisions of the 1974 Trades Practices Act, and/or set the ABC Checkout team to work, you’d soon come across a significant number of cases of – let’s call it ‘misleading advertising’. Some universities are extremely economical with the truth when it comes to the nature and quality of university education, and all of them actively seek to sell what are now regarded as ‘products’ and ‘services’ to ‘consumers’.

Glossy brochures, impressive websites, glitzy open days, expos and social media campaigns are used to entice shoppers into the fold. The tag lines, slogans and messaging are breathtaking in their scope and unintended hilarity. These are the same sorts of marketing gimmicks employed by companies to sell condoms, corn flakes, brake fluid and floor cleaners. Take for example the following advertising nonsense recently culled from a number of websites and newspapers: ‘Are you reaching your potential?’ (Australian Catholic University); ‘Join the most wanted list’ (University of New South Wales); ‘Bring ambition to life’ (Bond University); ‘When you’ve gone as far as you can go’ (Curtin University); ‘Curious about your true potential’ (Charles Sturt University); ‘Shaping futures’ (University of Newcastle); and, ‘Dream large’ (University of Melbourne).

Whether or not such idiotic one-liners would persuade someone to enrol in a diploma, masters or doctorate program is open to question, although the hard sell at expos and open days, the lure of scholarships, countless inducements (like free I-pads and shopping discounts), or of becoming one of Australia’s ‘top CEOs’ (as promised by the University of New South Wales), or having the opportunity to ‘supercharge your career’ (as marketed by the University of Western Sydney), may well do the trick.

Elastic entry

Given that universities are still heavily reliant on enrolments for their revenue you can understand why they are so desperate to snare prospective students. This is particularly the case for the regional and inner city redbrick universities who go to extraordinary lengths to enroll students, especially ‘walking ATMs’ from overseas. Many institutions, like Southern Cross in regional NSW, pride themselves on having the nation’s most flexible entry schemes, while others open their doors to students with bargain-basement ATAR scores, claiming that these scores are nothing more than an indicator of supply and demand. ‘What’s education got to do with it’ you might well wonder! Many of these same students entering higher education have serious literacy problems, the result of which is that universities have to provide all manner of support services to ‘at risk’ students, and lecturers are faced with the burdensome task of having to mark assignments in ancient Greek. Many academics rightly attribute this to the world’s most elastic entry policies.

Take La Trobe University in Melbourne which, from what I can tell, has entry policies so flexible that just about the entire adult population of Australia is eligible to enroll. The university offers special entry schemes access programs, pathways, and various ‘alternative’ entry routes for those under 21 years of age and those over 21 years of age. If you’ve experienced ‘disrupted schooling’, have ‘home environment responsibilities’, a ‘medical condition’, or are ‘mature-aged’, from a rural and regional area; or if you face ‘difficult circumstances’, or are from a ‘disadvantaged financial background’ then you can apply for special consideration.

While these and many other entry points have been around for some time, they are now supplemented by a bevy of highly creative points systems which enable institutions to inflate ‘selection rank’ scores.

For example, at Macquarie University in Sydney, bonus points are granted to prospective students on the basis of proven socio-economic disadvantage, or to ‘elite athletes and performers’ who believe that their performing, training and/or competitive commitments have affected their studies. Intriguingly, ‘elite’ candidates have to prove their academic performance has been ‘impeded’ by their devotion to sports or performing arts and, if successful, are granted four bonus points.

No-one of course is suggesting that entry should be restricted simply to those who gain a decent ATAR score, but the degree of flexibility demonstrated in university entry programs is probably driven as much by financial considerations as by concerns over equity. It’s perhaps not surprising that dropout rates among students with low ATAR scores and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are often higher than other student cohorts.

Hard up

There’s no doubting that poverty, and ‘disadvantage’ do have an important bearing on the student experience. As noted in a 2012 report by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, more than half of full-time undergraduate students in ?? experienced ‘income deficit’, meaning that expenditure exceeded income. How could it be otherwise when more than two-thirds of full-time undergraduates received $20,000 or less per annum, while just under a quarter pulled in no more than $10,000? Equally worrying, three out five international students were surviving on just $20,000 or less a year, with many having to seek on-going support from their families. Sixty per cent of international students in employment worked 11–17 hours per week during semester, often in illegal and low-paid work. Many were also drawing from their savings just to get by.

Perhaps the main concern for our budget-conscious universities is that financially stressed students are more likely to drop out. As the report notes: ‘The concern these students express about their financial situation is not unjustified and has real, negative outcomes for them: they are around three times as likely to have had to defer because of finances at some point than are others. And, most tellingly, one in four of those who often worry about finances … indicate that they regularly go without food or other necessities because they cannot afford them.’ Rent, travel, food and various incidentals accounted for most students’ expenditure, although increasingly, the costs of textbooks and various course-related fees and charges also contributed to their financial woes.

Drive through

But that’s not the end of the story. First year experience surveys tell us that about a fifth of these student’s report feeling lonely and isolated and haven’t made a friend since the start of the year, and that over a quarter cannot identify with their institutions. The reasons for this are complex but are to do with the fact about 80 per cent of student’s work, travel into campus from long distances, cannot afford to live on campus, increasingly undertake their studies online, and have ‘work-life balance’ challenges. They also find themselves in bloated classes with teacher-student ratios in tutorials varying from anywhere between 20 up to 60. Lecturers are often too stressed/busy/preoccupied to talk to students outside of crammed consultation times. In short, being at university can feel like a drive through experience, typified by fleeting relationships and lack of space and time.

Universities like to sell the idea of a vibrant campus life, but it’s more of an illusion than reality. As a survey of 6,500 students conducted by the National Union of Students revealed, the majority of respondents had serious gripes about the quality of teaching, poor facilities and general lack of support. Overcrowded lecture theatres and bulging tutorials were also common concerns, as were lack of adequate feedback from lecturers, and insufficient learning materials. Many respondents also noted that the technology wasn’t always up to scratch (much of it antiquated, in states of disrepair) and that lecturers were often unfamiliar with the latest techno-gadgetry.

Equally concerning were things you might not expect in one of today’s, upmarket institutions: flooded classrooms, leaky roofs, cracked windows, uncomfortable wooden seats, dingy and rundown rooms with inadequate ventilation, cramped space for large classes, poorly sound-proofed and cold lecture theatres, obsolete or broken equipmentlack of laboratory equipment and insufficient or poorly trained supervisory staff, and dirty and hazardous laboratories.

Other students talked of loneliness, lack of campus life, financial problems, expensive and unobtainable textbooks, and a limited range of units, ‘patchy’ and ‘average’ teaching, and poor course delivery. Difficulties in staff communication between campuses, lack of interaction between teaching staff and inadequate support also figured among the students’ complaints.

Not that you’re likely to hear much about any of this in the marketing brochures which are full of references to excellence, flexibly, opportunity, innovation, world class education, and so forth. But you will hear a lot about jobs and careers, endless amounts thereof. The link between job aspirations, business requirements, the economy, productivity and GDP could not be more pronounced in the modern university. These are core elements of the architecture of the neoliberal university and much about its curricula reflects this orientation – the emphasis on job readiness, graduate attributes, and overly rigid learning objectives, performance outcomes, etc.

The business ethic is also reflected in the organisational cultures of universities in which our million-dollar vice chancellors – most of whom received free education on campus – are like corporate CEOs presiding over institutions more like private firms than centres of higher learning. Nearly all our VCs – apart from one notable exception – supported (indeed advocated for) the Coalition government’s attempt to deregulate fees, and most are huge fans of online education because of its potential for access to lucrative global markets and low infrastructure costs. University Inc might claim educational excellence as its primary motive but it’s really the financial imperative that tends to run the show.

That’s the problem in a policy environment that looks to the US (with its trillion dollar plus student debt and woeful higher education offerings) for its example of excellence and turns away from counties like Sweden and Germany with free access to higher education. The latter simply do not fit the neoliberal agenda, even though it seems to work in some of the world’s richest nations. Education minister, Christopher Pine, places great faith in the hidden hand of the market to resolve all the problems faced by universities while turning a blind eye to the grotesque consequences that come from a lack of planning and the creation of a generation of debt slaves.

Take a peek beyond the marketing hype and you’ll soon find that the neoliberal university is failing most of the tests it sets itself, and its graduates and society in general that pay the real price.

*Article based on a public lecture delivered at the University of Sunshine Coast, Queensland, 7 April 2004. Sections of this article are drawn from Hil, R. Selling Students Short – Why you won’t get the university education you deserve, published by Allen and Unwin, 2015. Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

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