universities futures

A reasonably honest portrait of where the system is now

On Wednesday, the Minister for Education Jason Clare, spoke at the National Press Club on the interim report from the Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, who have been given the job of transforming Australia’s university sector.

The report itself has ambitious long- term goals including parity of participation in higher education between the general population and low SES and regional students with disability. This is a very big ask. The minister himself, in his National Press Club speech, noted that in schools these groups are actually going backward rather than forward. The minister also announced a number of other items, including extension of demand-driven funding to all Indigenous students rather than just students from the regions, as it is now.  

If the interim report’s recommendation is accepted there will be some kind of universal learning entitlement for all students, which essentially means that if they’re academically eligible, the system somehow will find a place for them. It implies that universities and other higher education providers might be obliged to take students rather than just having the choice to take them. This makes it different from the previous demand-driven system, which removed funding caps for bachelor degree students, but did not guarantee a place to all who were eligible. 

There are a number of proposals around research and associated issues. The most contentious one will be the idea of a levy on international student fees. 

How this would work is not entirely clear –  the basic idea seems to be that universities will pay a percentage of their international student fee income into a general fund and that money would be redistributed around research infrastructure and other activities around the university sector. 

A number of universities would be very strongly opposed to that. International students will also be unhappy that the money they’re paying will not be spent in their institutions. 

The minister also revealed some proposed and actual major changes to governance. At the national level the interim report recommends a new body, a Tertiary Education Commission, would advise on costs and writing agreements between the government and universities. 

At the university level an interim report recommendation, which the federal government has already accepted but still needs approval from states and territories, will require senates and councils, their governing bodies, to have different compositions. This would reduce the number of business people and increase the number of people with expertise in higher education. I’ve seen firsthand that sometimes the council members don’t have a deep understanding of higher education as an industry so I  support that recommendation.

The goals here are to deal with some of the staffing problems universities have had, particularly in precarious employment and underpayment of casual staff; and also to deal with issues around students particularly around sexual assault. I believe the Accord panel wants university governing bodies to be more aware of and more responsible for trying to improve the performance of universities on these matters.

But it is important that councils and senates are also not stacked by internal constituencies. There was a problem all those decades ago that governments were rightly trying to address in governance reforms. But having people with real higher education expertise will help, hopefully a number of them from outside the institution whose council or senate they are on.

What’s missing from this report? 

What’s missing is mostly the detail of how we would get from where we are now to where they want us to be. They don’t say a lot on a new system of student contributions, which is one of the most controversial areas they have to deal with. They’ve said that the Job-Ready Graduates package (JRGP) is damaging Australian higher education and has to go, but they have only set out a list of potential alternative student contribution systems. 

The report makes a few asides which hint at their views, which means the panel probably won’t recommend just quickly reversing the charges for art students. Nor do they want a flat student contribution rate, as suggested by some university interest groups. But that still leaves a fairly wide variety of possible alternatives. And so I think we will have to wait until the final report at the end of this year to have an idea of where they’re going on that. 

The main defect of JRGP is that it puts a lot of debt on graduates who have a limited capacity to repay in any reasonable amount of time, particularly the arts graduates who historically don’t earn as much as other graduates. They are being hit with the highest student contribution rate, about $15,000 a year at the moment. My view is that many of them will take decades to repay if they ever do. And while the HELP loan system is designed to allow you to spread repayments over long periods of time, that should be people who are sick or for various reasons don’t work full-time, not for ordinary graduates getting a fairly typical outcome for someone with their degrees. 

The report doesn’t directly mention my proposal for replacing student contributions, which is to link student contributions levels to projected HELP debt repayment times. The goal is that the typical student from different degrees would spent roughly the same number of years repaying their debate, on average. But the minister did mention it in the National Press Club. So that gives me hope. 

Another big political issue, which my student contribution proposal is intended to partly remedy, is the burden of HELP debt. The report mentions ideas which it seems the ATO is already working on, such as taking into account the money students have already repaid that financial year, via the PAYG system, before indexation occurs. 

The Accord review panel are also considering moving the repayment system to what they call a marginal repayment system. This means people with HELP debt would pay a percentage of their income above the threshold, not on their entire income as now. 

The panel does address some long running problems in the system, including not covering the full cost of competitive research grants. I’m not sure that they have new solutions for that, a lot of these issues have been known for a long time. Governments for various reasons have decided it’s too expensive to fix them. 

One potentially complex issue is that the Panel suggests winding back some of the research requirements that were introduced by the Peter Coaldrake review of the regulations for being a university.  That will make it easier for some universities to retain their university status. But there’s always anxiety that universities might be reduced to so-called teaching-only universities, particularly if they are regional institutions. That group will be trying hard to make sure that they get good mission-based funding, which respects the role that their research plays in their local areas. 

I think the report paints a reasonably honest portrait of where the system is. It highlights the problems around staffing. But these exist for reasons which are deep in the funding system. There is no easy way out of the basic structural problems – universities can have better payroll systems that stop the underpayment of casuals but that won’t remove the underlying reasons why they have so many casual staff in the first place. 

The panel and the minister are encouraging critique and alternative ideas. Whether or not we agree with all the ideas presented, that is a good approach to public policy. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at andrewnorton.net .au  Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton 

Header image of the Minister for Education Jason Clare speaking at the National Press Club from the minister’s Facebook page

Universities are investing in teaching at the expense of research. Here’s why we should fight it

The will and vital capacity of Australian universities to support academics to combine teaching and research is under grave threat. Intensifying workloads—much of it kept invisible in workload models—short-change time and opportunity for research. And governing forces—within and beyond universities—have been moving to restructure investment in university labours towards teaching at the expense of research.

The Australian Government and university governing bodies are introducing policies to split research from teaching and expand teaching-only academic positions. If this trend persists, it won’t just be careers of younger academics that suffer. Disconnecting research from teaching, we argue, severely challenges how universities can contribute to sustainable social futures for Australian communities and globally.

We see need for collective political response to this crisis. In this post we diagnose what is happening and consider ways to fight back.

What is happening

The role of the current government

Federal Government policy is forcing this cultural change in our universities. Along with freezing funding to universities overall—pressuring university budgets and leading to fewer funded places for students—it has reduced funding for research by moving some of those funds to pay for additional student places in regional universities.

At the same time the Federal Government has introduced measures that rank each university’s scholarly outputs, fostering an environment of hyper-competition, and fateful choices, based on rankings. Universities are induced to strategize options for sustaining their reputations within tight budgets. Decisions are being made on where to direct reduced research funding: whether to employ fewer but ‘higher-producing’ researchers; and whether to cut down on domains of research focus: in effect, shifting some universities towards ‘teaching institution’ status.

Government typically justifies pressures towards teaching focus with simplistic rhetoric that student fees fund the lion’s share of university budgets, and ‘students need training in skills for knowledge economies’. We argue that our universities are, and need to be, much more than training centres for job seekers. Nor should universities be political footballs that governments kick, ideologically, at students facing insecure work futures: a problem that deserves complex and substantive policy and cross-sector efforts.

The role of consultancy firms

External consultancy firms currently play a political role in generating rationales for university Councils and Managements to invest more in teaching and less in research. Thus KPMG’s Reimagining Tertiary Education report, led by Stephen Parker, former University of Canberra Vice Chancellor, argues that, since the late 1980s Dawkins reform that created greater numbers of universities, not all have shown they can shine in both teaching and a range of research, and therefore some should focus more on ‘teaching excellence’. Similarly, a paper from the Nous Group proclaims:

Sooner or later we will need to face the issue of separating the cost of research from the funding of teaching places … [to] reduce the cost of teaching at bachelor level … [while] valuing great teachers within universities … The contemporary challenge is to provide great training, credentialing and educational service at an affordable price to the great middle of the post-school education population. The current system [provides to]… most of its participants based on the needs of the outlying 15 per cent and the experiences of their parents.

Such whistling-up of class distinction between a ‘great middle’ versus an elite ‘15 per cent’ fails to recognise that all university students, across their diversities, need researchful capacities to engage meaningfully with work and life challenges for their, and their communities’, futures in a precariously changing world.

The role of University Councils and Managements

There is no doubt universities feel the budget–pinch imposed by government policies. However, this does not justify how university Councils and Managements redistribute funds, labour and other resources away from the core university work of academic teaching, research and service, and into HR, Marketing, Legal and other offices.

They then try to turn ‘budget necessity’ into ‘pedagogic virtue’, as did the Vice Chancellor of Flinders University, Colin Stirling, in a radio interview by proclaiming:

Teaching specialists are a marvellous new opportunity for the very best educators to be in front of our students in our classrooms ensuring our students get the very best education possible.

Stirling gave no rationale for why teaching-only means ‘very best’ teaching, compared to academics whose teaching is informed by deep research/scholarship in disciplinary areas. Similar flimsy rhetoric has been reported from senior managers at Murdoch, Curtin and Victoria universities where restructures to replace many teaching-and-research academics with teaching-only staff have already taken place.

Why splitting research and teaching is a bad idea

We suggest that all university students need to graduate with researchful capacities to analyse and act in relation to emergent-future challenges that they, with others, face in spaces of work and wider community life. Indeed, many professions now require student research projects in order to accredit relevant university programs. Students thus need teachers who themselves engage in research.

Removal of researchers to isolated havens, away from teaching-only staff, debilitates both the research and teaching cultures of universities. Academics need healthy communities of teaching informed by research/scholarship, in which they partake, in order to model and impart the knowledge capacities and passions that university graduates need for navigating work and social futures.

This is what has, and should, distinguish university culture: a teaching-research nexus, embodied in a goodly number of teaching-and-research academics.

If the portion of university academics who combine teaching with research continues to shrink, this threatens futures of younger-generation academics who want research as part of their careers, which in turn threatens re-generation of the university sector. We already see numbers of promising academics who quit universities due to pressures, in early years, either to produce at ‘alpha’ research rates while handling large teaching workloads, or face relegation to non-research and insecure employment categories.

The combination of research and teaching is a unique way that universities contribute to social advancements. Research is an invaluable connector between academics, students, and local-global communities, which need sustaining so that all can benefit.

The way our universities work matters to all of us

We do not argue for a romanticised ‘collegial university of the past’. We want academics, students and communities, in connection, to imagine and create universities that best serve local and planetary futures. We believe splitting research from teaching does not advance university contributions to social futures, but is a backward step, breaking connections at a time when building them is vital to futures.

Social futures currently face many broad-based crises including un(der)employment, environmental damage, refugees fleeing chronic wars, governments losing purpose and effectiveness, and more. Universities, in mutually informing dialogue with students and communities, can play crucial roles in helping all to understand and pro-act as citizens able to address big-picture crises and associated local-life problems.

To do this, universities need to foster methodological approaches that connect research, teaching and community service, so as to expand the abilities of diverse social groups to work with an informative range of knowledge in defining and pursuing their needs and aspirations. Robust teaching-and-research academic cultures are needed to fit this purpose.

What can we do about it?

This is a critical historical juncture for university futures. We suggest four fronts for academic political action.

First is research-and-teaching practice in which academics collaborate with students and their communities on projects that matter to all involved. In this process, we can consult widely about what kinds of universities diverse Australians need and desire for their futures.

Second, in connection with the first, is to mobilise students and communities to join us in challenging governance constraints on how universities can inform and serve their best interests. We should work with our constituencies to recognise undue political machinations and communicate to wider publics how the quality of both research and teaching in Australian universities is under threat.

We need to encourage informed publics that join us in defining social purposes for Australian universities. These purposes are too important to be steered by politicians for political gain, or university Managements caught up in saving budget or competing for advantage in unfortunate market-competition with other universities.

Third is to pursue an inter-generational politics of academic bodies, with especial care for early-career academics who embody the future of university disciplines, institutions and the sector. Those of us who have had research opportunity need to stretch beyond small-scale things we do for younger colleagues, such as taking a few ‘promising’ early scholars under our wings in research projects. We need to challenge governance across the sector to expand early-career research time and opportunity within fair workloads. Older academics need to learn from younger colleagues about how they experience changing university cultures, so that, from multi-generational standpoints, we can build stronger analyses and answers to shifts in academic work and governance.

Fourth is to spur our research organisations, in this case AARE, to help us take action. Within universities, academics are at significant risk of reprisals if vocally critical of workforce restructures. We need support from organisations of mass membership, such as the AARE, which are not subject to control by university Councils, Managements or party politics.

We are heartened that, at an AGM at the 2017 AARE annual conference, those attending overwhelmingly endorsed a motion for the AARE to become politically active about threats to futures in education research per se, and reaching out to organisations representing other academic research fields. The AARE followed up by supporting a working party that organised a special session at the 2018 AARE conference, where participating members discussed ideas for next steps. The working party will report to AARE members about this session, and a survey stemming from it, in the near future.

We encourage AARE submission to the current Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards, led by Peter Coaldrake (former Vice Chancellor at Queensland University of Technology), articulating membership concerns about university research futures. Submissions to the Review are due by 5.00pm on 8 March 2019.

Finally, we encourage greater media savvy, and stronger academic connections with students and wider publics, towards making an effective case for expanding rather than contracting research, and the teaching-research nexus, in Australian universities.

Lew Zipin is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education at the University of South Australia, and Extraordinary Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Lew’s research focuses on developing curriculum that ‘does justice’ by engaging the knowledge, intelligence, and future-oriented aspirations of students from power-marginalised communities. He is also a critical analyst of university governance in relation to democratic ethics. Across three Australian universities, Lew has been an activist for academic workload models that measure work honestly, sustain work-life balance and extend research opportunity to more staff.

Marie Brennan is an Honorary Life Member of AARE, Adjunct Professor at the University of South Australia and Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She worked as a humanities teacher, curriculum researcher and senior administrator in the Victorian Department of Education in the 1970s and 1980s. After gaining her PhD, she moved to the university sector in 1991, with stints at Deakin, Central Queensland, Canberra, University of South Australia (where she had a five-year term as Dean of Education) and Victoria University, Melbourne. Now ‘retired’, she remains active in research, covering all sectors of education, with particular emphasis on questions of injustice.