Rise in universities prioritising style over scholarly substance


In recent years, my leading Australian university has opened several landmark new buildings that have received numerous architectural awards and mountains of international press coverage. It has also invested huge amounts in the surrounding real estate, converting countless buildings into collaborative teaching spaces and student lounges. All this has been accompanied by a cinema-quality advertising campaign that could have been commissioned by IBM or Chevrolet.

These developments are part of a widespread phenomenon transforming campuses in Australia and beyond. As public funding for universities dwindles and deregulation of fees looms over the sector, university leaders invest vast amounts of money in marketing efforts aimed at bringing in the students (especially international ones) whose fees can be used to prop up the research activities on which university rankings primarily draw. Such investments are undertaken with the aim of selling the vision of “a world-class educational experience” to prospective students in an increasingly competitive market. Meanwhile, investment in teaching diminishes through cost-cutting measures aimed at catering to the maximum number of students with the minimum resources.

Subjects are now taught predominantly by casual or fixed-contract staff and handballed from one person to the next, with little incentive to update or improve them. Full-time support staff – the people who provide assistance to the growing number of international students – are being replaced by part-timers with lower qualifications. Face-to-face services are being phased out in favour of automated systems that force students and staff to fill out online forms or speak to increasingly overworked administrative staff in centralised departments.

I have witnessed all of these changes in the past few years at my university, but academics anywhere in the world will probably have similar stories. Never has the gulf between the image peddled by university marketing and the reality experienced by staff and students been wider.

This disparity came to the fore for me over the past year as my department undertook an expensive rebranding exercise, culminating in the introduction of a degree with a contemporary-sounding new name. The degree, which commenced at the start of this year, was touted as a “new approach to teaching” in the subject area, with promises of more practical classes, industry engagement and revamped majors. Yet it was poorly planned and executed from the moment of its inception, characterised by a wilful lack of consultation and cooperation within and across departments. What students will get, in reality, is a repackaged and inferior version of the degree it is replacing, which will be “taught out” over several years for its existing students.

The problems began with the announcement of the degree to the general public, which took place at the beginning of the 2016 teaching year (in March) – just after the cut-off date for withdrawal from the existing degree. So those students who had just started on that degree not only got the impression that it was now “redundant” but they were not even given the option to defer and re-enrol. Instead, they would have had to undergo the usual process of (and incur the penalties for) withdrawing from study and reapplying, with no guarantee of a place on the new degree.

Publicly, students were assured by the department’s messaging that they would not be disadvantaged or left with fewer subject choices or career opportunities. Privately, staff were assured that the timing of the launch of the new course had nothing to do with the cut-off date for withdrawal but were also instructed not to describe the new degree as “better” than the old one. Teaching staff were left to reassure students of the validity of their degree at the same time as they were trying to establish a relationship with them in the crucial first few weeks of their course.

From then on, the disconnect between the administrators responsible for designing the degree and the teaching staff and students only grew. Despite promises from the dean that the process of designing the new majors and subjects of the degree would be consultative, it was carried out by a closed, non-transparent steering committee. This is a familiar scenario: university courses are today designed top-down by bureaucrats with little input from the academic staff who will actually teach them. Although the steering committee included a few academics, the content of the new degree was always going to be subject to the competing interests of those at the top.

First, it was announced that the degree would be taught across several faculties, not just the one that had conceived it. This was spun as being in the spirit of the university’s generalist, “multidisciplinary” model for undergraduate courses but was, in fact, the inevitable consequence of many departments vying for a piece of the pie.

Next came the announcement of the structure. Despite vast resources poured into creating a new website and marketing material, the precise content of the new degree remained a complete mystery to staff and prospective students until its publication in August (six months after it was first announced). This occurred after months of damaging uncertainty across my department, with everyone from tutors to senior academic staff having no idea which subjects would be retained and which new ones they would be teaching this year.

Some existing subjects were scrapped entirely, with astonishing alacrity. One first-year subject, which had more than 700 enrolled students in 2016 and had been newly created only the year before, will be taught out this year because its coordinator was unceremoniously told it did not fit the vision of the new degree.

However, it was immediately apparent that the promise of new subjects designed from the ground up was not to be realised. The programme consists almost entirely of the same content, taught by many of the same staff. At most, the courses have been broadened out a little to encompass the theme of the new degree alongside its existing content – but without any of the investment in planning and redesigning that this requires. Proposals for new subjects submitted by some of my colleagues were ignored.

Nevertheless, a directive required that every subject must have a new title. Hence, coordinators of existing subjects simply incorporated the name of the degree into them, making minimal other changes to the wording, except, perhaps, replacing singulars with plurals. So, despite the immense marketing campaign around the new degree, students will simply be getting old subjects crudely rebranded and sold as new ones.

Academics in my department now find themselves in the inglorious position of working in a glamorous new building at one of Australia’s top-ranking universities, teaching a “new degree” that is little more than a marketing exercise.

The result has been a crippling breakdown in communications between administrative and teaching staff, leading to a dispiriting malaise among the academics. I have heard stories of high-level staff responsible for the design of the new degree literally turning on their heels in the corridors to avoid running into senior academics and having to explain that they don’t know what is happening with their subjects.

Of course, I understand and accept that this is how universities operate in an increasingly uncertain global market. Government austerity measures, rhetoric from the political right and neoliberal economic policies mean they can no longer rely on public investment as they once did. The rollout of this new degree at my university is a microcosm of the economic imperatives driving universities globally, and is their logical outcome.

And, doubtless, students will flock to the new degree, precisely because it has a savvy-sounding name and is taught at a university with a prestigious reputation and an extensive marketing budget. Even if they soon discover that the content of their degree is more often than not second rate, they will be able to trade on that prestige and branding in their subsequent careers. Pity the students at worse-off institutions, who do not even have high-profile buildings or trendy study spaces to comfort them when they realise how flawed and under-resourced their departments are.

As academics, we are trained to be self-reflexive, critical thinkers, analysing events, ideas and data with rigour and precision in order to come up with often radical new ways of interpreting or solving the world’s problems. Yet when it comes to our own profession, we are among the most conservative, ineffectual and disorganised of workforces.

It is not that we don’t see straight through our leaders’ and marketing departments’ rhetoric. Nor is it that we fail to apprehend the policies and bureaucratic decisions that are fuelling it. But at every cutback, restructuring and nonsensical directive from above, we passively toe the line. When I talk to colleagues about the absurd outcomes of economic rationalisation – whole subjects run by casual staff barely paid for half the work they do; opaque policies for dealing with students and assessment – I am met with apathy and resignation. When I ask senior academics why they don’t speak out against the bleeding of their department’s funding or simply ignore the more nonsensical directives, I am told that it is because doing so would be tiring and never-ending. They quickly realise that they would be fighting the administration and its policies day in, day out. So they become more cautious and choose their fights, deploying what little sway they hold only when it most matters for them personally.

Yet if the system is so broken and dysfunctional, why not organise and protest against the policies that are to blame? The answer is simple, and it is one I am all too familiar with: our jobs. As an early career academic, I know that to put my name to this article, for instance, would risk my position and diminish my already slim chances of getting a tenured position. So I haven’t, knowing full well that academics at all levels are in the same boat.

With academics in most disciplines told from the very day of their PhD induction seminars that jobs are scarce and ruthlessly competitive, we know that acting against the system will only make the struggle harder. Meanwhile, established academics are conscious that they are among the fortunate few, so they rock the boat as little as possible for fear that that will no longer be the case come the next departmental restructuring and round of forced redundancies.

Redevelopment, redundancies and inflated marketing spends are all the result of the same forces of economic rationalisation that are eroding our educational system. And the bleak irony is that those same forces are also responsible for our inability to speak out against it.