‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (2023)

Universities are in crisis and the way teaching staff are being treated is “appallingly unethical”, a senior academic from a leading university has told Guardian Australia.

The academic, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, said the once hallowed institutions have become like supermarkets: they have fired so many staff that students are now like customers at the self-checkout counters, “checking their own goods out”, responsible for their own education.

“They’ve completely lost their sense of direction.”

An undergraduate degree at some of Australia’s most elite educational institutions can cost up to $200,000. But in recent years, cost-cutting, an increase in casual work contracts and a move towards online and reused course content have all contributed to a hollowing out of the university sector. Now, many who work in academia say students are no longer getting what they pay for.

‘The teaching loads are ridiculous’

Ryan Bunney says when he worked as a tutor at the University of Western Australia (UWA) he was not paid for enough hours to read all of his students’ assignments, let alone mark them. The former computer science academic reached burnout and left his job last year.

When he started out, Bunney expected to be a career academic. He loved teaching. But five years into casual roles at UWA, the dedication he had for his students came back to bite.

“The teaching loads are ridiculous … you’re getting paid 20-30% less than you’re working and you take it on your chin.”

He believes the amount of work teachers are allocated shows “how little the university cares about the quality of education students are getting”.

Much of the teaching at Australian universities is done by trainee academics and PhD students, with no formal teaching backgrounds and little training, says Bunney. There is no publicly available data on class sizes or staff-student ratios.

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He says course coordinators in his own department struggled to find staff willing to work the ad hoc casual hours required of tutors, and course materials were often cobbled together during semester. “You’re in fight-or-flight mode – not ‘Let’s do the best job we can’ but ‘How can we get through this next 12 weeks without everything falling off the rails?’”

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In one master’s unit, taught in 2022, Bunney says he was allocated five minutes per assignment for a task worth 20% of a student’s grade, and was given no marking rubric. Students pay anywhere between $60,000 and $80,000 to complete the course.

“It probably goes without saying that five minutes isn’t enough time to read the submission, let alone accurately evaluate the marks,” he says.

“[The university is] constantly trying to balance chequebooks and extract as much as they can from staff.”

A UWA spokesperson said heads of school worked with academic staff to help manage workloads and the university upheld the “highest standards of academic integrity”.

“The university strives to provide a supportive environment for all staff and students,” the spokesperson said, citing a mental health and wellbeing framework for students that would be extended this year to improve support for staff.

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‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (1)

A pandemic hangover

According to the senior academic who asked to remain anonymous, experiences like Bunney’s are common across the country as the effects of cost-cutting and casualisation begin to bite. The issue has been growing for decades but got rapidly worse during the Covid lockdowns.

Staff across the higher education sector are now grappling with a pandemic hangover from major job cuts, restructures and a push towards online content and outsourced courses. It’s leading to burnout, stress and a string of industrial action across the nation.

Around 35,000 jobs were lost during the Covid lockdowns as universities strived to remain profitable amid a massive decline in international student revenue.

In the middle of the crisis, the former federal government introduced its job-ready graduates program which altered the funding model for a range of courses and disciplines, pushing some universities to increase student loads.

The program introduced radical disparities in student contributions, which decreased in some courses including nursing and teaching and surged in humanities other than languages by $7,800 per year – raising the student contribution to $43,500.

Last month, it was revealed universities logged a record $5.3bn surplus in 2021. But 2022 paints a bleaker picture. Of Australia’s 38 public universities, nine have disclosed their 2022 results – ­recording a combined deficit of nearly $850m.

Among them is the University of Melbourne, which revealed an operating deficit of $104m in 2022 – attributed to an increase in student expenditure and return-to-campus spending alongside a decline in revenue from student enrolments.

Meanwhile, just one in three people working in higher education are employed on a permanent basis. A National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) survey of 2,400 university staff found workloads were the number one concern in the job followed by insecure work and governance.

“I’ve had 30 people leave under my watch and around five during the course of a year who’ll have mental health issues to the point they resign or need intensive treatment,” says the senior academic. “It’s absolutely impacting physical and mental health.”

The stakes for inaction are high

‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (2)

Over the past three decades, universities have increasingly embraced the ethos of corporate management, says Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell, a sociologist and former chair at the University of Sydney.

It started with “casualisation and outsourcing”, she says. “[And] it opened these gaps we’re suffering from now … with a shift towards profit-making.”

Connell says the corporatised approach has resulted in a growing distrust between university management and staff. “There’s a really remarkable gap between vice-chancellors and the rank-and-file bulk of the workforce.”

The current university model, which relies on an insecure workforce with high workloads, urgently needs to change, she says.

“Most academics love their jobs but they’re under an awful lot of pressure.

“The public sector isn’t a quasi private business. We need to think boldly beyond the parameters of higher education funding we’ve had for the last three decades.”

The stakes for inaction are high, Connell says: if pressure on the workforce continues, the tertiary sector will become unsustainable for growing numbers of talented candidates.

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“Australian universities could lose their creative capacity,” she says.

‘Unspoken pressure’ to pass students

Ruby’s low point wasn’t teaching alone, week after week, in lecture halls designed for hundreds. It wasn’t the Zooms, the late nights or the lockdowns.

It was the lapse of her contract – after more than a decade of service at the University of Sydney on rolling casual and fixed-term contracts – without even an interview for her own position, which had been re-advertised.

‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (3)

Ruby’s name is a pseudonym because she has an ongoing legal case with the university and is looking for a job.

The problems began with the pandemic, when universities were forced to transition, almost overnight, to online teaching, she says.

What began as a necessity borne out of a terrible situation quickly evolved into something of a crutch. She says standards were dropping and workloads were high, but nobody was doing anything about it.

“The percentage of students who didn’t care went through the roof to a really alarming level where I’m pretty certain the vast, vast majority had no engagement whatsoever.”

By 2022, when the undergraduate course was delivered as a hybrid online and in-person model, Ruby says the lecture hall for her unit would often be empty.

The biggest cohort she had was four people. Ruby would stand at the lectern, a laptop screen of blacked-out Zoom profiles in front of her, delivering lectures to the seats.

It was demoralising, she says. There were no participation or attendance requirements for her course, just two pieces of writing to submit. Attendance requirements are determined by individual faculties at the University of Sydney.

Meanwhile, Ruby says there was an “unspoken pressure” to pass students regardless of the quality of their work.

“If I went through and only passed the students I knew had put in a sincere ongoing effort I might have passed [about 2%].”

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She says her complaints that quality was well below passable were escalated but consistently brushed off.

With her contract up, Ruby fears the university will take materials she developed and repurpose them for future courses for which she won’t be paid. Universities own copyright for all course materials staff members create including lectures and assessment designs.

Under the university’s enterprise bargaining agreement, staff must be offered continued employment in their roles if they have been employed for at least 12 months continuously.

Ruby has had rolling contracts but all of them just under 365 days – requiring her to reapply year after year.

Her general protections dispute is currently adjourned under Fair Work Australia. In the meantime, she’s relying on a six-month contract at another university to pay her mortgage.

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“I’m worried,” she says. “I think they feel that they can axe me [and] hire just a couple of casuals [who are] less likely to get whiny like I was.”

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said every dollar the university earns is reinvested back into the institution to support its core activities and students are offered a mix of online learning and face-to-face opportunities. They said the university would end hybrid delivery of courses, which they recognise has been difficult for staff and students, this year.

“We know we can only maintain our position as a leading university for graduate employability through our high-quality academic and professional staff who are the best paid in the sector and receive some of the most generous working conditions.”

They said the university has proposed to “significantly reduce” the proportion of casual academic staff as part of its latest enterprise agreement as well as expanding its continuing academic workforce.

Around a third of casual academic staff are senior professionals, the spokesperson said, while a third are students and a quarter have primary employment at the university and “may be seeking permanent work”.

‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (4)

‘Job losses far outstripped financial losses’

The president of the NTEU, Dr Alison Barnes, believes universities used Covid as a cover to accelerate restructures and job cuts.

“At some institutions, job losses far outstripped financial losses,” she says. “Cuts to full-time and casual staff have had a big impact on course content and teaching delivery.

Earlier this year, the NTEU uncovered more than $100m in wage theft across the sector since 2019. Barnes says casual and sessional staff have been the greatest victim of underpaid wages.

“Cut-price learning structures deliver poor educational outcomes, especially when the focus is not on the quality of education but in generating profit,” Barnes says.

“Universities must return to their core functions of teaching and research and not act as investment corporations focused on income generation and profit growth.”

The chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said: “Government investment in our institutions has been stagnant for some time but universities cannot do more of what the nation needs with less.”

The federal government’s Australian Universities Accord, which is the most significant review into the sector in 15 years and is due to be released by December, needs to deliver changes to policy and funding that will “enable universities to continue serving Australia’s interests”, she said.

“More jobs in the future will require a university degree while demand for research and development, to guide national priorities like the energy transition and our acquisition of nuclear submarines, is only growing.”

No paid leave

When Emma had to attend a funeral during work hours, taking the day off didn’t occur to her. Instead, she taught a tutorial in the morning, made it to the funeral in the afternoon and returned for a class in the evening.

Casual staff receive no annual leave and no paid sick leave. Apart from extreme exceptions – the life-threatening illness of an immediate family member, for instance – “unless you’re on your deathbed”, you have to show up.

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Emma is also using a pseudonym for fear of losing her contract.

She says rampant casualisation in the sector is having a direct impact on teaching standards as well as being a source of extreme anxiety for academics.

The PhD student at the University of Melbourne lives with chronic fatigue but feels she “can’t say no” to teaching roles due to her financial insecurity.

In seven years of teaching, she’s been living from contract to contract, forced to reapply for gigs twice a year – even for subjects she’s taught the past seven semesters.

“As a casual worker, you’re trying to build enough diversity in teaching practice to secure permanent positions,” she says. “You probably won’t get hired if you push back.”

Last year, she agreed to teach three subjects in one semester and is teaching two this year while juggling research commitments and her health.

“You’re thinking: ‘How do I play it so I don’t have a total nervous breakdown while guaranteeing I’m employable?’” she says.

‘Appallingly unethical’: why Australian universities are at breaking point (5)

A survey conducted by the NTEU’s University of Melbourne branch in March heard details of casual tutors being let go at no notice, being unable to pay rent, going into debt and being forced to cancel holidays due to the uncertainty of hours and structure of casual contracts. Just 23% felt they were paid fairly for their work.

A University of Melbourne spokesperson said the university recognises that relying heavily on casual employees is neither “desirable nor sustainable” and a “comprehensive program of work” is under way to significantly reduce its dependence on casual contracts.

They said structural changes are being made to casual management and payment, including new roles focused on compliance and better transparency of casual work schedules, timesheets and payment.

“Health and wellbeing is and always will be a major priority.

“The university is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment for all staff and students and offers a range of free and easily accessible support services.”

‘Industry buzzword factories’

Ryan Bunney heard so much corporate speak in his time at UWA that he now refers to universities as “industry buzzword factories” – and the term he dislikes the most is “teaching efficiencies”.

In the name of efficiencies, faculty positions are cut and replaced with streamlined, multidisciplinary courses, he says. Or a “flipped” classroom model replaces humans with reused lecture materials, fewer tutorials and more videos. Meanwhile, students pay the same fees.

Midway through semester one last year, Bunney lodged an official complaint with UWA and left his teaching position – citing “ethical concerns”. The complaint was met with “disappointment” from the faculty and no formal steps for resolution, he says.

“I spent last year trying to manifest changes. It affected [me] and my relationships … but the people who lost out the most are those with the least power – the students. Ninety-nine times out of 100 they’re very motivated and doing an awful lot with limited time but they’re being failed by the university. I just had to leave.”

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A year after quitting, Bunney is still completing his PhD while he works part-time in his field. He checks in with UWA sometimes and asks about the status of his complaint. He’s met with platitudes and more industry speak, he says.

“It’s enough to make anyone anxious. But at the same time, I’m far less stressed not working at the university.”


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