From where I sit - Second-class scholars

May 6, 2010

There are frequently stories in the Australian media about the diminishing standards of tertiary education. The problems include weak literacy skills (many students emerge with degrees but are unable to construct grammatically correct sentences) and student-to-staff ratios (among the highest in the industrialised world, according to Universities Australia, the industry body representing the sector).

In an attempt to address these problems, Julia Gillard, the federal education minister, is planning to introduce a MyUniversity website in 2012, similar to Australia's new MySchool website, which publishes statistics about individual school performance in national student tests.

If Ms Gillard has her way, there won't be much chance to object to the scheme. She is not fazed by teachers objecting to the testing, nor by the Australian Education Union's decision to boycott the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy tests in May. Teachers claim that the results will be used to construct a league table that will brand some schools as failures, thus leading them into a downward spiral.

In an extraordinary move for a Labor government, Ms Gillard has vowed to smash the boycott by bringing in non-union workers, including parents, to administer the tests.

This used to be called "scab labour", but even the union, while condemning Ms Gillard's plans, is backing away from terminology it says is, well, old school.

So, to the plan for a MyUniversity website. Ms Gillard says she will work with the academy to decide how performance will be assessed. I think she's missing the point. In all of Ms Gillard's media interviews, I haven't heard her once address the problem of the increasingly casualised tertiary workforce.

In a story in The Age newspaper on 22 March, Paul Kniest, policy and research coordinator at the Tertiary Education Union, acknowledged that 50 per cent of the teaching in Australian universities is carried out by casual staff, and that this caused problems because casuals were not always available for student consultations.

But it is worse than that. Australia is supposed to be a classless society, but there is certainly a two-class system among its university staff. On top are the continuing staff researcher-teachers, whose upfront teaching is limited so that they can conduct research and write publications to fulfil funding quotas. Fair enough.

Then you have the second-class citizens: casual staff, a large percentage of whom have their PhDs and are desperate for staff positions and time to prepare teaching material properly and conduct research. Instead, they often teach a different unit every semester, so the work they did for the last unit is wasted, they have to start again, and there's no time for research.

Australia is squandering some of its best-educated brains in this senseless way. Tutors and lecturers are often not hired until the last minute - perhaps only one or two working days before the semester starts. At the end of each semester, a new scrabble begins.

This is one of the core problems of the academy here. All educators should be employed as valued staff members. They are equally deserving of good workplace conditions, including regular salaries, sick leave and paid holidays. I thought we had sorted all that out in the 20th century, but apparently not.

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