From Where I Sit - Corridors of uncertainty

August 2, 2012

At a symposium I attended recently, a senior academic apologised in advance if the paper she was delivering wasn't up to scratch. She'd had a harrowing week, she said, as sweeping cuts had been announced at her university, resulting in the loss of many academic jobs. Her faculty was in disarray, she continued, and it was awful to see scholars "weeping in the corridors".

Although we in Australia are constantly told we are the "lucky country", the one that escaped the global financial crisis, in reality there is a lot to weep about, particularly in the academy.

Despite widespread reports of academic cutbacks, people outside tertiary institutions seem unaware of the realities. My husband has had a secure full-time post in the media for many years, but everyone in his industry is nervous as thousands of jobs will be lost in the next few years.

He was discussing the situation recently with a colleague, who said to him: "But you'll be all right whatever happens - your wife's an academic working at a university." Hah!

There still seems to be an impression that academics sit in their ivory towers with lifelong tenure, insulated from the world's problems. People are shocked when I tell them that about 60 per cent of their children's university lecturers and tutors are sessionals or short-term contractors fighting for work like everyone else.

Do cuts to full-time academic posts result in more work for PhDs forced to exist on sessional hourly rates? Well, not necessarily. La Trobe University in Melbourne, for example, plans to hire more postgraduates because the pay rate for tutors without doctorates is lower.

According to a report in The Australian at the end of June, La Trobe also proposes to reduce the number of units available in the humanities and social sciences from 913 to 400. Indonesian studies, art history, linguistics and gender studies, among other courses, will be scrapped. This will cost 45 academic jobs.

The technical and further education (Tafe) sector is also suffering. Swinburne University has announced that its Lilydale campus will close, with thousands of students having to move on and 240 job losses. Courses in hospitality, leisure, recreation and tourism will cease. Long term, Swinburne plans to merge its Prahran and Hawthorn campuses.

Other Tafe institutes will suffer as the state government cuts $A290 million (£192 million) from the sector in 2013.

And yet at various institutions I visit, I see spectacular entrance halls with polished floors and in-vogue light fittings, a sort of marble and chandeliers (read, smoke and mirrors) hotel-lobby approach that looks impressive but hides a multitude of woes: many academics have to work in offices that are not air-conditioned, for example.

So now we have universities with shiny lobbies, glittering reception halls and sparkling (and expensive) coffee shops, plus campus hubs with hairdressers, restaurants and designer gift shops.

Beyond all that glamour, though, is a picture of discarded academics weeping in the corridors and wondering what will become of them in this lucky country of ours.

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