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‘Teflon’ universities need closer public scrutiny

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 20, 2016 7:32 pm    Post subject: ‘Teflon’ universities need closer public scrutiny Reply with quote

If it were any other industry there would be calls for an urgent public inquiry. But not when it comes to universities. If ever there was a sector that demonstrated the 'Teflon effect' it would surely be Australia’s system of university education. Yet nothing seems to stick.

In fact, vice-chancellors have become so brazenly adept at fending off criticism that they manage to bamboozle even the most level-headed of scrutineers.

Take the recent stoush over Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, policies. A few weeks ago, the New South Wales Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli expressed concern over low ATAR entry ranks among students entering the state’s universities.

To any reasonable observer it would seem eminently sensible to at least consider the consequences flowing from what look like excessively generous admissions policies, with some university entrants possessing ATARs as low as 30.

But alas, no. On the contrary, the ever outspoken vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University or ACU, Professor Greg Craven, came out with all guns blazing, arguing that Minister Piccoli was deliberately putting up barriers to the admission of marginalised social groups.

Worse, Piccoli was accused of trying to return to the old elitist days when higher education was the preserve of the upper crust. Ironically, as the Fairfax press pointed out recently, Craven’s own university, the ACU, boasts some of the nation’s most “flexible” admissions policies, including over 100 students with ATARs below 50 and down to as low as 19.

Soft marking

Admittedly, the ATAR metric is a rather crude measure of potential academic performance – kids may simply hate school, live in the wrong postcode or may not be able to wait to be treated like adults at university. On the other hand, how do university administrators know that this is the case?

The actual process of assessing students’ abilities is not always as rigorous as we’re led to believe. Sure, some low-performing students go on to do well at university, sometimes outdoing their more illustrious ATAR counterparts. That said, high drop-out rates among low ATAR entrants suggest there are grounds for concern.

Additionally, although universities with flexible entry tell us that 'at risk' students get inordinate amounts of support, this varies in quality and duration, with many institutions stretched to breaking point when faced with large numbers of remedial students.

Teaching staff – many of them precariously employed casuals – struggle with ridiculously heavy workloads and find the demands of high maintenance online and in-class students difficult to manage. The inability of many students to write simple prose makes assignment marking onerous and in many cases staff have abandoned essays in favour of easy-to-administer quizzes and multiple-choice examinations.

To make matters worse, it is common knowledge that there is institutional pressure to pass students as a means of containing attrition and drop-out rates. In effect, this means that assessment thresholds are being constantly compromised.

We’ve also heard of 'soft marking' when it comes to international students, as noted in a recent Four Corners report. The international intake is, of course, a highly lucrative source of income for many cash-strapped universities, hence the increasing number of overseas entrants coming through the turnstiles.

As one of Australia’s leading 'export industries' it’s all too apparent why there has been such sectoral reluctance to question recruitment practices in the international student market. Quite simply, these students are the financial lifeblood of most institutions. That’s partly why to raise concerns over international students is to run the risk of being accused of insularity, racism and elitism.

Tip of the iceberg

The above problems are the tip of the iceberg, which includes bloated class sizes, endless fees and charges, inadequate facilities, questionable marketing and student alienation and disenchantment.

Surely Minister Piccoli was right to ask whether there should be a limit on those degrees where there are few, if any, job opportunities following graduation? Predictably, this proposal was viewed by many university administrators as tantamount to financial heresy.

But tell that to Barry who recently graduated with a law degree from a university in New South Wales, having accumulated a A$90,000 (US$68,600) debt with close to zero prospect of ever becoming a lawyer, as he once hoped. We’re told that law is the 'new arts degree', but that’s not how it was sold to Barry.

One could repeat stories of this type over and over in fields like engineering, nursing, teaching, dentistry, psychology – to name but a few.

Yet none of this seems to have stickability. Instead, university chiefs offer promises of internal reviews and more surveys, investigations by the national ‘quality’ agency (the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency), and more resources for struggling students.

At the same time, they continue with the usual mantras of excellence, innovation, creativity, opportunity and engagement, as well as constantly affirming the importance of universities to the national economic interest.

In light of low ATARs, high drop-out rates, high fees, poor facilities, soft marking and precariously employed teachers, surely there is a case for closer public scrutiny of the inner workings of most universities? Then we’ll find something that sticks.
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