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Conflicting pressures on academics in Australian universities

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By John  Lodewijks

The relative decline in government funding of Australian universities has forced those institutions to become more entrepreneurial in obtaining funding. This and increased student numbers may have led to a fall in the quality of education and a reduction in assessment standards. Productivity improvements and cost efficiencies are constantly expected in an environment characterised by the increased commercialisation and managerialism of universities.  The rapid expansion in university enrolments places extra pressure on university infrastructure, management and an ageing academic staff profile. Vigorous recruitment campaigns are needed to moderate the expected further increases in student-staff ratios. The collective effects of these pressures appear to be taking their toll in the workplace where ‘restructuring’ always seems to be on the agenda.

Academics face increased accountability for the volume and quality of research outcomes (Excellence in Research for Australia, Round 1) as well as quality learning outcomes (the Australian Universities Quality Agency and now the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency). Educational theorists, who advocate the explicit recognition of the learning process, and university administrators, who must appear to be proactive in educational development within their institutions, are pressuring staff to change the way they teach.  The changes involve criterion-based assessment, curriculum design and quality assurance. Academics are required to do assessment mapping and scaffold learning outcomes throughout programs and courses and relate these to graduate attributes. In turn course outcomes need to be externally benchmarked to discipline academic standards. One would expect that, if these approaches to teaching were effective, students themselves would insist upon their adoption. However, the pressure from them is quite different. They are more concerned about teacher characteristics and managing time pressures of study plus part-time work.

The onus seems to fall completely on academic staff when it comes to achieving quality outcomes. In truth, when it comes to learning outcomes there is only so much even the most dedicated and well-meaning staff member can do in an environment where students are spending less time on the campus and more hours in paid employment and where their studies are being increasingly compartmentalized in a hectic schedule of non-study activities. Moreover the attitudes and motivations of students often appear antithetical to traditional concepts of scholarship (note the incidence of plagiarism) and the scholarly purpose of universities to broaden one’s mind and to explore ideas in a critical and creative way. Many students seem solely employment focused and view a university education as a paper-chase at minimalist effort and with modest targets where bare passes are satisfactory.

Academics perceive that the students they are teaching have changed. They lament falling standards and declining attendances in lectures. Blended learning approaches are increasingly foisted on staff, and it is not at all clear that it saves any time or effort on the part of the academic. Anecdotal evidence exists that it consumes more time than traditional chalk and talk in the pre-electronic age. Many academic staff appear perplexed about the new student landscape and the extra demands being placed on them in a continually changing learning environment. The additional students often lack basic literacy and numeracy skills so that their preparation to enter higher education is deficient. The additional pressure on academics undermines rather than enhances the quality of core services that academics can offer students: the teaching of discipline-based content.

The presently evolving situation is unsustainable. The quality of university education is being eroded on multiple fronts. From the student perspective it is being eroded because students’ motivation to learn is being significantly undermined. Students must work to be able to afford a university education and this work is mostly in casual, unskilled employment that adds little to their intellectual development. As a  consequence, students are withdrawing from face-to-face engagement with their classes and with the university environment more broadly except for experiences they perceive (correctly or incorrectly) to enhance their ‘work-readiness’. This reduction in engagement is reducing the development of the intellectual skills they once would have been able to take into the workforce. From the perspective of academics,  the acutely conflicting demands on academic time, already limited more by sheer physical capacity rather than any sense of what is a fair workload, is undermining the quality of what academics can deliver in the class room. 

The cumulative nature of pressures being placed on academics is considerable. So what can be done? At one level it is a matter of resources and funding.  A related aspect is the shifting of the cost of higher education from the state (and taxpayers) to students. The solution then is more generous funding that leads to more academic positions, lower student-staff ratios and more tailored support for students that have literacy or numeracy skill deficiencies. That will ease some of the pressures, but the prospects of this outcome occurring are not high.

[Editors note: A fuller and most entertaining discussion of these issues appears in Lodewijks, John (2011) ‘The Elephant in the Room: Conflicting Demands on Academics in Australian Higher Education’ Australasian Journal of Economics Education, 8(1), pp.17-40]

From: P.7 of World Economics Association Newsletter 2(2), April 2012


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