Staff and student testimonies reveal the brutal reality of “degree factory” education

“When staff get kicked in the teeth, so do students”

With the University of Adelaide announcing that about 200 professional and academic staff will disappear in the next few years, “degree factory” has never seemed more apt to describe what places of higher education are turning into.

The transformation is taking place slowly — almost imperceptibly. You can trace a line back to numerous economic policies within the last 30 years. But it took the devastation of COVID-19 for university managements to wake up and smell the roses. When borders closed and international enrollments dried up, it was like pouring petrol on a fire that had been kindling for years.

University administrations quietly let go over 17,000 staff last year (yes, you read that correctly, that’s 3 zeroes). Or, to put it into perspective, 13% of the pre-COVID workforce.

These cuts were barely reported in the media, and if so, in passing. They happened right here, when UofA staff were forced to take a 3.5% pay cut and postpone their annual pay rise to save 200 fellow workers’ jobs.

But it wasn’t just professional staff being thrown on the kerb. We know for a fact that thousands of these cuts were made up of teaching staff and academics. We just can’t put an exact number on it.

Right message, useless approach

But at least we can rely on our student representatives to take a stand — right?

The “apolitical” Student Representative Council President, Oscar Ong, recently penned an open letter to the Education Minister calling for the Federal government to pour more money into universities.

“I recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed unprecedented strains on the budget,” Ong writes, “but increased support for our universities is more important than ever during this period of severe financial stress.

“Wise investment now will pay off later in the nation’s economic, scientific, social and cultural development.”

If the SRC President wants this letter to be worth the paper it was (proverbially) written on, he needs to put his money where his mouth is. If the financial strain on this university is truly “unprecedented”, and “wise investment” is a cornerstone of a strong nation, explain to students why no one in the SRC has yet called for the university’s executive team to take a pay cut, least of all you.

How has it become that all of a sudden, out of nowhere, 200 staff (5% of our workforce) have been deemed unnecessary to deliver a quality student experience? What exactly changed in the time between the beginning of the pandemic and now? Was the university just happy to give money out like a charity to anyone who would accept it?

Come on. You and I both know better than that. When staff get kicked in the teeth, so do students. But maybe “apolitical” just means you identify with corporate interests more than those of staff and students.

Tweets from Wednesday’s SRC meeting.

“Class sizes have grown larger and larger…”

But we can let them speak for themselves. On Dit has obtained a score of testimonies collected by the No Adelaide University Cuts campaign. They put a suspicion that we’ve all had into words — something is rotten in the state of higher education.

What is most demoralizing is that none of these accounts are shocking or surprising in the least.

“During my five years at UofA,” writes one disabled student, “I’ve watched my class sizes grow larger and larger. My lecturers have become more and more overworked, and tutors in my classes have all but disappeared…”

It’s a familiar story. Gutted of government funding, universities have opened their doors wider without proportionally increasing the level of teaching support offered.

“…The people I used to consult for advice and support at this university are either gone or too busy to help. I went from being able to have a personal chat with faculty about my studies and future career to receiving automated study plans by email. My lectures, which I had religiously attended in person as an aspiring academic, have all been rendered online-only…”

Degree factories are all about quantity rather than quality. How many students can we fit through the door, and how cheaply can we do it?

“…My course choices have been gutted. My undergraduate program, once limited and specialised, is unrecognisable… If it is this hard for able-bodied students, what hope do the rest of us have, when we need more support?”

What hope indeed?

Another curious thing about degree factories is how they always try to do the the same with fewer resources. Another student, enrolled in law, illustrates this all too clearly:

“Enrolling in courses (even mandatory ones for my degree) has become increasingly difficult. With a mass exodus of lecturers from the law school in 2020, many elective courses were no longer being offered.

“In two of my online tutorials, I have 28 other students, and 38 others students respectively enrolled. Some of these classes also have a participation mark awarded. It has become increasingly difficult to engage with tutors 1 on 1, and it feels very disconnected a lot of the time. 38 other students in a tute is beyond obscene, and absolutely unacceptable.”

“Overworked and unfair”

As class sizes grow, and teaching staff are spread even thinner, the relationship between students and lecturers becomes more and more transactional .

“Honours courses, which should have provided students with strong foundational support for research methodologies, have become bloated with an excess of students studying degrees ranging from politics to environmental science. This excess of students in a single class has produced overworked academic staff, which has led to difficulty in contacting staff, and less feedback on assignments.”

Of course, teaching staff have their own complaints about being overworked. It should be said being overworked and underpaid often go hand-in-hand, but are not the same thing. Underpaying workers is a serious offence; overworking them is profit maximisation. The difference is nominal.

“As a casual staff member, my frustrations with the university grew. Casual academic staff are underpaid as a matter of policy. We are paid on the basis that we mark 5,000 words and provide sufficiently thoughtful feedback per hour.

“Frankly, this is impossible. I have never met anyone, including long-time casuals and permanent staff, that can mark assignments that quickly. In practice, casuals end up earning far less per hour than they do on paper.

“In my experience running tutorials, underpayment remained the norm. Tutors are paid a slightly higher rate for their first tutorial of the week and a lower rate for additional tutorials.

“Supposedly this higher rate is meant to account for additional time worked (like time spent preparing for tutorials, responding to student emails, going to marking/tutoring meetings with the course coordinator etc.). Except in practice, most tutorials take at least an hour to prepare for and many course coordinators expect their tutors to attend regular weekly/fortnightly meetings.

“The fair way to account for these additional hours worked would be to allow staff to insert them in their timesheets, not to pay them a slightly higher rate for their first tutorial of the week (which doesn’t even add up to one hour’s worth of pay).”

The story in the Business School is even worse:

“Casual tutors in the Business School do not get paid extra to mark. The school insists that it is covered by the 1hr tutorial rate. Other schools in the Faculty (Law and Economics) are able to pay for making. The Business School argue that with the amount of casuals they have they don’t have the budget to pay extra for marking.

In some cases this results in poorly designed assignments (e.g. 100% MCQ assessment for some courses — I know this as a fact for some upper level finance course)... In addition, with many full-time academics leaving they have been replaced with casuals making the situation worse.”

Fight like you mean it

There are many more stories like these, and we could run off the whole list. Instead, have a look at some of the worst and contribute your own, but — as I mentioned before— they sound achingly familiar: electives being discontinued; unresponsive, overworked tutors and course coordinators; pre-recorded lectures continuing to be used despite the fact that face-to-face learning has been authorised, just to save on the utility bills .

Things will get worse until we say “enough is enough.”

This isn’t downsizing, or rationalising, or whatever term corporate interests use to make their agenda palatable. Call it what it is: death by a thousand cuts.

While the SRC “campaigns” — and I use that term very loosely — for more government funding, it must also call out our Vice-Chancellor’s ridiculous, almost seven-figure salary (if not higher — the official figure is not publicly known).

Its representatives should be in the streets, on the media, on the very steps of parliament to not only demand more funding, but bring attention to what has been one of the greatest public sector rorts in recent Australian history: the fact that Vice-Chancellors — public servants — are paid more than double our State Premier, while their institutions bleed jobs.

After all, actions speak louder than words and now, more than ever, the SRC needs to fight like hell. That’s what good student representatives are supposed to do — because if politics doesn’t belong in the SRC, it belongs nowhere.

The No Adelaide University Cuts campaign will rally outside the Mitchell Building on Monday 23 August, where the University Council will vote on the fate of staff, and on merging five faculties into three.

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