OUR UNIVERSITIES IN TURMOIL

Editors comment: An article like this would not normally find a place in a newsletter put out by a prayer network. The COVID 19 crisis however has exposed many issues that has given Australia a unique opportunity to tackle problems within society that had been previously hidden. Many of these issues play a role in shaping the destiny of our nation and which therefore require much prayer. In coming weeks we will expand our coverage to expose some ingrained problems that have been brought into the light by the impact of the virus. We may not always agree with every sentiment expressed by the writers, but issues we cover we believe are in need of much prayer so that change can occur into the future.

These are tumultuous times for Australian universities.  At the University of Adelaide, the vice-chancellor has taken “indefinite leave” and the chancellor has resigned.  In unrelated moves, other Vice Chancellors (VCs) signalled their intent to move on even before the COVID-19 crisis hit.  Michael Spence is leaving the top job at the University of Sydney at the end of the year.  There are departures by other university leaders, including at the University of Queensland.  Is it foolish to hope for different, improved leadership at our major universities?  Certainly, if incoming VCs are smart, they will turn their attention to domestic students who have long been ignored in favour of cash cows in China.

To understand what prevents Australian students from obtaining an excellent university education, one needs to understand the entrenched problems at our biggest tertiary institutions.  This week I spoke to someone who knows first-hand how universities are run, what their motivations are and what has gone wrong in the past 15 years. This professor of media and communications, says Australia’s major universities are run essentially by the worst forms of authoritarianism and the pursuit of money.  Before unravelling that, first understand that this prominent professor says she would normally put her name to what she says. Except for one thing: “I would get sacked,” she says.

“My contract says that I cannot bring my university into disrepute so if I put my name to this, my job would be in jeopardy.  And I have a mortgage to pay.”  Put another way, these are escape clauses for poorly run universities to avoid scrutiny by people in the know.  The authoritarian fist was particularly evident in a tutorial room at the University of Technology Sydney for first-year communications students.  A few weeks ago, a young student, we will call him David, as he doesn’t want to get blackballed by university administrators, decided to quit his communications degree.

He sent a thoughtful and honest email to his lecturer explaining why.  He said he hoped the feedback would be used in a constructive way.  David wrote that he “found the course and tutor extremely prescriptive in opinion, presenting very niche ideological standpoints as absolute objective fact, and this was reinforced by a proactive effort to shut down any opposing point of view.  Anytime I suggested anything that went against the consensus, I was shut down and even laughed at.”  The young law student says he enrolled in communications expecting respectful, philosophical discussions about our political systems.  It didn’t turn out that way.

Going by David’s experience, tutorials should be renamed dictatorials about identity politics, victimhood and shame.  Instead of encouraging students to think, and discuss issues, the tutorial room in David’s communications degree became a place where his different views were mocked and ignored as “inherent ignorance from a white male”.  He said even putting aside the silly politics of the course, what are students going to do with guff about the world being a battleground where every smaller group is oppressed by a “dominant group”?  “Never did I expect to be alienated from class discussion because of my skin colour or my gender.

I cannot believe that in this day and age my identity was held paramount in deciding if I was correct, not what I had to say.  I wonder what the response would have been had I suggested a fellow student’s opinion was inherently invalid purely because she was female,” David wrote to his lecturer.  The lecturer wrote a cursory response, saying she was pleased that he was able to withdraw without incurring course costs. Monolithic thinking is dangerous, particularly at universities.  If tutorials cannot accommodate a genuine diversity of views, including those of David, then universities don’t deserve a dime from taxpayers.

Alas, it’s not just lecturers running dictatorials who are dumbing down a university education for Australian students.  As the professor of media and communications said, the greedy corporatist agenda of university administrators, relying on a gravy train of international students, mostly from mainland China, is also lowering standards at universities that crow about their rankings.  She says chasing fees from international students has been under way for 15 years, with foreign agents acting for our universities to arrange “huge parties and junkets” for potential overseas students and also the “doctoring” of English language tests.

The professor says she has seen hundreds of foreign students arrive with band 6 scores, meaning competent, on the standardised speech, reading and writing tests known as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).  She would give them no more than a band 3, which is “extremely limited” according to the International English Language Testing System.  These results have big ramifications for foreign students who are out of their depth, struggling in a foreign country away from families, without the skills to learn properly.  And the consequences for local students are equally poor.

“Masters and postgraduate students’ programs, which are the money-spinners to attract foreign students, have been dumbed down often to a point where the standards expected are below that of what we expect of undergraduate students,” she says.  While her heart goes out to struggling foreign students, she says students with insufficient English language skills mean “domestic students are frequently irritated, particularly with group assignments.  They are paying a lot of money for a postgraduate course and many definitely feel they are not challenged enough.”

These secrets about foreign cash cows and dumbed-down courses, previously whispered about among lecturers and students, deserve to be exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as the tap of money from international students dries up.  “Without in anyway being xenophobic, reliance on international students is the wrong answer.  It’s an add-on, that’s all.  We should be really focusing on how we educate Australians, and thinking about what we need to build a strong economy and society,” says the professor.  Our best universities could start the post-COVID reform process by treating domestic students better.

One young man recently reapplied to enrol in a full-fee masters’ program at one of Australia’s grandest sandstone universities.  His marks were a tiny fraction away from the entry mark for the course.  Within minutes of sending a thoughtful and polite email seeking admission, explaining special circumstances that would have lifted his score over the threshold, he was effectively told to rack off.  Smart businesses wouldn’t be so brazenly rude and dismissive about new full-fee paying customers when they are running under capacity because of the economic lockdown.  Our small businesses are eagerly trying to attract customers in new ways, adapting wherever they can.

But our cashed-up major universities run by overpaid VCs have grown arrogant and complacent.  They would rather go cap in hand to the federal government pleading for more taxpayer money after they have raked in Chinese money to fund research papers to bump up their rankings to attract more foreign students.  All the while they have dumbed-down standards, leaving local students without a quality education.  It’s a disgrace.  Having worked in Australian universities for 20 years, at very senior levels, the professor says “the level of bureaucracy is insane, the systems are not serving the students.  It’s a plague on our house.”

Prayer points:

* Pray that our Universities would re-consider their current model which relies heavily on the enrolment of overseas students to fund them so as to open up more opportunities for Australian students to undertake tertiary education.

* Pray that our Universities will once again become places where many points of view are able to be discussed and not be limited by ideologies pushed or held by the academic elite.

* Pray that once again our Universities become the source of knowledge and academic enlightenment rather than the source of so much of the ideological pursuits that have invaded our society in recent years.

Source: An article written by Journalist Janet Albrechtsen