‘It’s time’ to Fix Higher Education - Australian Fabians
23 February, 2024

‘It’s time’ to Fix Higher Education by Dr Alison Barnes



“We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer — a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste.”  — Gough Whitlam, 1969 policy speech 

Equality of opportunity is one of the great Australian values, one that the Australian Labor Party has advocated for all Australians. Now is the time for Labor to make it a reality.


The importance of higher education 

Access to higher education has become a major determinant of one’s opportunity and success in life. The federal Department of Education has reported that, in 2020, higher education graduates earned 65 percent more than persons without post-school qualifications and 23 per cent more than those with certificate III or IV qualifications. For the individual, over a lifetime the difference adds up. But, of course, what is not measured is the broader social impact of the presence or absence of a well educated citizenry and a highly skilled workforce. 

In his July address to the National Press Club to launch the Interim Report of the Universities Accord, Minister Jason Clare correctly said that almost every new job that’s created in the years ahead will require a TAFE qualification or a university degree. The number of students studying in Commonwealth-supported university places will double from today’s 900,000 to 1.8 million by 2050, i.e., our existing system will double in size. This poses the question — how can we upsize our currently stretched system while maintaining the quality of teaching and the value of Australian university degrees? 


Quality of education in the current system 

At present the higher education system produces about 200,000 bachelor level graduates each year, 30 per cent of whom are international students. The completion rate, however, for our domestic students is falling: 67 per cent of Australian students who began a bachelor degree in 2005 completed their degree within six years of commencing; but for those students who commenced in 2016 the figure has dropped to 63.6 per cent.

At the same time, student satisfaction with the quality of the education they have received has also declined. In 2015, 80 per cent of students said they were generally happy with the quality of their educational experience; seven years later, in 2022, the figure was 75.9%. These trends are not surprising given that university class sizes are growing while the front-line staff that universities deploy to teach and support students are increasingly likely to be casuals, who generally are not well resourced nor provided with professional support and development by their employers. In 2006 there were 20.4 equivalent full-time students per equivalent full time teaching staff member. By 2020 this ratio had worsened to 24.3, a 19 per cent increase. These trends are symptomatic of a system that, in the pursuit of growth, has de-valued teaching and the research and scholarship that underpin it. 


The rise of the high-volume, low-cost model 

Over the last 15 years, universities have adopted a low-cost, high-volume student strategy. The harsh reality is that higher education workers are among the most likely in the economy to be insecurely employed, with just a third of the workforce in public universities employed on a continuing basis. 

The higher education academic workforce is becoming increasingly specialised with growth seen in roles that are either teaching or research focused, but these more concentrated roles are also highly insecure. Around half of the workers in the sector are employed on casual contracts, and the remainder on fixed-term contracts. The latter abound in research and are usually deployed back-to-back over many consecutive contracts. The systemic insecurity of research careers in Australia was identified by the recent review of the Australian Research Council as a serious barrier to attracting skilled workers into research.

Earlier this year NTEU published a report into wage theft in Australian universities. The total figure of confirmed underpayments in Australian universities uncovered since 2020 now stands at well over $100 million. But this figure merely scratches the surface because it covers only clear, explicit breaches of employment law that have so far been proven or admitted to. It does not cover the routine, unpaid work staff know so well. 

Data from NTEU’s surveys of university staff indicate that casual teaching staff are on average paid for 60 per cent of the work they perform. The unpaid 40 per cent includes responding to student emails, supporting students who need extra help outside of the classroom, and providing drop-in office hours for students. These support functions are not guaranteed services provided by Australian universities but are supplied on an ad hoc basis by low-income casual staff out of a sense of duty to their students and a (legitimate) fear that, if they fail to provide them, they won’t be employed the following semester.

Universities have systematically taken advantage of this donated time to salvage the student experience while at the same time diverting resources away from teaching into research and their own savings accounts. 

The cynicism of sector leaders has been particularly confronting in the international student sector — it is now considered good industry practice to charge an international student around three times the cost of teaching their program to generate a surplus that can be used to fund research, infrastructure, and retained institutional equity (which is ballooning into the billions in funding in the big international student meccas). Infrastructure and improved research rankings are in turn used in aggressive marketing campaigns to attract more high-paying international students into low-cost courses. It is not unusual for an international student to pay $200,000-$300,000 for a four-year degree mostly taught by underpaid casual staff. 

Notwithstanding the ethical and quality concerns this raises, COVID-19 starkly demonstrated that our universities are relying on a risky business model. It is time to take a serious look at this run-away train and ask whether the model that has emerged is in the public interest.  


A vision for the future  

Universities need to be restored to serving their communities. We can start by using mission-based compacts — agreements that outline what a university should be achieving in the public interest. Just as important, as Jason Clare has said, is the need for our universities to be ‘exemplary employers’ — for the benefit of staff, students, and all Australians. Casual arrangements are clearly not suitable for the bulk of ongoing teaching work in our public universities, just as they are not suitable in our public schools. 

A straightforward way to improve practices would be more transparency — students should be able to readily discover, before they apply, what percentage of teaching an institution conducts using casual staff. If transparency and casualisation are not able to be resolved using State legislation (as proposed in the Universities Accord Interim Report), the federal government needs to use its powers to ensure that public funding supports quality jobs and quality education. 

The government also needs to address the poor institutional governance that has beset our universities: excessive executive remuneration, the removal of staff and student voices in institutional governance, lack of transparency and accountability in institutional decision-making and processes, poor workforce planning, and issues of safety on our campuses. Our institutions need an urgent overhaul if they are to be ‘exemplary employers.’  NTEU is not alone in saying this — the Fair Work Ombudsman was scathing in its submission to the Universities Accord review, citing a lack of workforce planning, structural inefficiencies, and poor management that had resulted from poor governance.

It is also in the national interest for research to be properly supported. The vast majority of Australia’s research and development (R&D) is undertaken by researchers working in higher education, yet the highly competitive but limited funding covers only part of university research activities. The Universities Accord Interim report called for universities to be fully funded for research, which must include the infrastructure needed to carry out research grants. This will help solve the problem of public money being redirected away from teaching and will have the added benefit of reducing the sector’s over-reliance on uncapped international student fees. 

We caution, however, against shrinking the pool of research-active institutions as an alternative solution to increased research funding. While specialisation of the higher education sector into research-active and teaching-only institutions may sound appealing to those looking for ways to expand the sector to meet future needs, it will create a multi-tiered system — with the richest, best resourced, research-supported institutions reserved for the usual elites. If research is redirected away from institutions in the outer metropolitan and regional areas, the impacts on their communities will be profound, lessening not only the quality of education and research training opportunities, but also access to expertise and infrastructure.

When Bob Hawke introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme in 1989 as a way to fund a much larger and more accessible system, he did not dream of a system where cost cutting and poor employment practices would be seen as the only path to institutional success. Our current government has shown great initiative in undertaking a monumental review into the sector. Now it’s time to act. 

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