The title says it all: Australia’s university system is under review. The review will lead to what is being called the “Universities Accord”.
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. Most universities in Australia are publicly funded by the federal government. That’s 36 public universities—plus four local private unis, and three international private unis (according to Wikipedia). Australian citizens pay tuition fees to attend public universities but PhD program tuition for citizens is covered by the government.
The system of publicly funded universities means that decisions by the Australian federal government have a direct impact on universities, academics, students, and staff.
Now, I’m not getting all party-political here. You can relax. But it is fair to say that when the review is finished in 12 months’ time, there could be big changes at universities.
So, what does this mean for you?
I’m guessing that you’re part of the Research Whisperer community because you care about universities. I’m also guessing that you have insights into how Australian unis could be improved on many levels. You can have your say.
During the review process, there will be several calls for submission from the public. You can submit in many capacities: including as an individual academic/researcher, staff member, parent, current student or research candidate, or more formally representing a research team or organisation. You can also submit as an interested member of the public in a broad sense.
The first call for submissions closes on 19 December 2022. This first call is designed to collect views and further clarify priorities among seven key priority areas. You can share your views through an Accord submission (basically preparing a letter and submitting it online), or the Accord stakeholder survey (the survey took me about 5 minutes).
Gwilym Croucher has published a primer to the Universities Accord, which is useful for getting an overview of what is at stake.
WHY AM I EVEN WRITING THIS POST?
For me, universities have three strong connotations:
- a way to contribute to community,
- places where you can develop yourself, and
- environments in which to meet treasured friends.
First, for me, universities are about community. I’ve been fortunate to have many different roles. I have lectured undergraduates and written curriculum for some years, and have also been a program manager. Whether I’m shaping curriculum, standing at the front of the lecture theatre, or making the magic happen in management, I’m motivated to strengthen student experience. There’s something very human about what happens at university. People come here to learn, and we help them to do so. That’s the immediate community I connect with: the community of learners.
Many of those students graduate and go out to contribute to their own communities, locally and globally. To be honest, that’s what gives me a thrill. In the first lecturing role I held, some students in my classes were enrolled in the teacher education degree. After four years, it was incredibly satisfying to see this small group at graduation, and hear their excitement about becoming secondary school teachers. They were going out to contribute to their communities and keep the wheel of learning turning.
Second, universities have offered me a way to follow my interests and shape who I wanted to become. I’ve been in Masters and PhD research programs where I’ve deepened my understanding on various topics, just as I needed to at the time. My own Masters program was in a regional location, meaning it was in a university in the country side. My supervisor supported me to follow a research agenda fueled by social justice and critical race studies. She was also an exemplary human being, who passed away too early due to cancer. Looking back, I see that my connection with my supervisor and research were a lifeline in my growth as a person and a scholar. Later in my life, moving to the city, I was fortunate that my PhD research also enabled me to grow. I’ve often thought of that phrase you hear novelists say: “I wrote the novel that I needed to read. Simply, it didn’t exist, so I wrote it.” Likewise, I wrote the thesis that I needed to read. At PhD level, I shifted to an interdisciplinary approach and explored questions of wellbeing that intersected with my lived experiences. The thesis allowed me to develop in the ways that I need to, even if I couldn’t always see it at the time.
Third, university has been about weathering change with friends. I’ve forged friendships in happy circumstances and stressful circumstances. I’ve made friends in research partnerships and co-teaching, curriculum development and grant development, and in tiny meetings and massive conferences. At times, it’s been tough. I’ve been in university units that have been variously merged, dispersed, relocated, or dissolved. I’ve been employed sessionally, in management, in teaching-research roles, and in a research-only role. I’ve supported myself in a casual role where the university didn’t pay me for 10 whole weeks. I’ve been in financial stress while supporting two children. I’ve lain in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how to keep the kids in that house with unreliable university work. Yet, through all these stressful times, I’ve had excellent friends. We’ve checked in on each other, messaged and phoned, caught the train together, and gone for walks. We’ve been there for each other and we’ve made the change and stress bearable.
HOW DOES ALL THIS CONNECT WITH THE UNIVERSITIES ACCORD?
I’m not qualified as an economist or an expert in higher education policy so I’m going to answer this from direct personal experience. It’s an answer right from the heart.
I’d like to see an Accord where universities can afford to treat people as human beings. For me, that means realistic funding for teaching that does away with sessional (zero-hour contract) roles. It means hiring academic teaching staff all year round with sick pay and holiday pay. Because – bear with me, I know it’s a crazy idea – but casual staff need to feed their kids and pay the rent even between semesters. This would not only be beneficial for staff who are currently on sessional payments. It would benefit the numbers of academic staff who are overwhelmed and labouring under enormous workloads. And it would benefit students, who would be able to access staff outside narrow class hours and with continuity across multiple years. In addition, and perhaps this is a pipe-dream, but I’d like to see this increase in funding come from public money and not simply be an increase in the tuition fees leveraged against individual students.
So, these changes are what I’d like to see from the Universities Accord. This is the view that I’m sharing through the public consultation. Our views can make a difference. Will you have your say?