Australian politics, society & culture

Share

Over Here, Over Fed, Over-Funded

As destitute universities count their pennies, students at one Australian institution count their blessings

 

I am standing in the kitchen of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, worrying whether you can contract diabetes simply by looking at too many sweets. Roy Kirkland, ADFA’s pastry chef, is showing off the desserts he has been making to feed the 100 academic staff and 1,000 students on campus. He begins with a batch of fresh-baked blueberry muffins, followed by an apple tart with calvados (brandy made from apples). Then it’s on to chocolate and orange slice, bavarois au chocolat (a kind of mousse), cheesecake, mixed berry tartlets, custard tarts, raspberry mousse with cream tartlet, apple strudel, mud cake, mixed berry turnover, slab cake, choc and peppermint mousse slice, chocolate eclairs, matchsticks (a jam-and-cream sponge delight!), blackforest cake, orange and poppyseed slice, jelly and mousse and, finally, crème caramel. This supply, Kirkland announces, will last two days. They go through 16 varieties of dessert a day at ADFA.

It is seven years since I finished up at the University of Sydney, where there were 30 times the number of students ADFA has and yet no pastry chef. How times have changed. Or have they? A quick survey reveals that ADFA stands alone as the only university campus in Australia to employ an in-house pastry chef. Staff at the University of Western Sydney’s Blacktown campus report that they don’t even have a chocolate-bar vending machine that works. At a time when most universities are grappling with an array of funding crises, ADFA is whooping it up.

In late 2003 the defence department signed a ten-year contract with the University of New South Wales to continue running ADFA. Once you take away military salaries, the deal represents an average expenditure of $44,552 per student per year. By contrast, on its civilian campus, UNSW spends $28,814 a student. The University of Western Sydney musters only $12,480 a student. And that’s after an operational overhaul two years ago that made ADFA 20% cheaper to run.

Three decades on from the Labor government’s pledge to provide free, quality university education for all, ADFA offers conditions that would make Gough Whitlam proud. Students not only receive a free education, they get paid to study: $17,000 in their first year, rising to $26,000 by the end of their degree. They make no contribution to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. They get free clothes – admittedly it’s camouflage stuff and parade gear, not the sort of clobber you could go to a protest in – and heavily subsidised accommodation. Even the first $300 worth of their textbooks comes free.

Thanks to the existing air force and navy infrastructure, students can make low-cost excursions all round Australia. When they are not doing that they can spend their spare hours splashing away in the 25 x 25-metre swimming pool, or exercising in the free gym with its 11 full-time training instructors. They can play on the indoor basketball courts – or, if the weather’s nice, on the outdoor ones. They can enjoy a game on one of the eight tennis courts, or two hockey fields, or on the rugby, Aussie Rules and cricket ovals. Or, if none of that appeals, they can go for a check-up at the free on-site dentist and physiotherapist.

The fantastic conditions do not stop with the students. The officers’ mess, where lecturers and professors are welcome to hang out, is no ordinary staff common room. Academic staff are treated to a three-course lunch each day. The gadgetry inside ADFA’s lecture theatres, which house a maximum of 300 seats, is legendary in academic circles. A Theatre Commander Electronic System, complete with a whole lot of buttons, is built into the podium. From this podium you can operate the video, the three massive projector screens and the two overhead projectors; you can dim the lights, too, if you are looking to give your lecture a more romantic mood. You can plug your laptop directly into the podium in case you’ve got a couple of powerpoint slides. And there is even a telephone – presumably provided in the event that you want to order in more electronics.

This may seem like small fry to those in the corporate world. But the average visiting lecturer from the average Australian university is likely to be astounded. In an age when most Australian lecturers are limited to hand-controlled overhead projectors, and when many humanities departments still use chalkboards, the laser-like podium facilities at ADFA are from another world.

According to all the main performance indicators ADFA ranks way above average, even when compared with the so-called Group of Eight elite universities: Adelaide University, the Australian National University, Melbourne University, Monash, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, Sydney University and the University of Western Australia. ADFA’s GTS – Good Teaching Scale – is 54, nearly triple the Go8 median of 20.53. Its SPR – Student Progress Rate, which calculates the ratio of load passed to total course load – is 93.7, compared with the Go8 median of 88. Its OSI – Overall Satisfaction Index – is 72, streets ahead of the Go8 median of 39.1.

If all that isn’t impressive enough, ADFA has the lowest student-to-staff ratio in Australia: 7.9 to one. The national average is 22.1 to one. It is not hard to see why ADFA attracts some of the finest academics and produces some of the best research in the country. In fact one survey, by Thomson ISI, rates the campus’s engineering research among the top 1% in the world. So while other universities are cutting staff, ADFA is flying academics in from around the globe to lecture in its special masters programs, with enough money left over for essential capital works – such as recarpeting the walls of the lecture halls. And employing the odd pastry chef.

But it would be doing ADFA an injustice to concentrate solely on its pastries. Its main courses are also delicious. In a typical week students and staff can choose between schnitzel, roast lamb, southern fried chicken and grilled fish with sautéed tomatoes. For vegetarians there is a chickpea and tomato casserole; or, if that doesn’t tempt your fancy, you can always grab a Hokkien noodle and vegetable toss. This might all seem wonderful, except that new students see the fabulous food and they can’t help themselves. And after two or three months, says ADFA’s executive chef Robert Klose, they tend to “blow out a bit”. Even lavish excess has its downside.

The Australian Defence Force Academy, in the Canberra suburb of Campbell, can trace its roots back to 1967 and has existed in its current form since 1986. It is one of three arms of the Australian Defence College, which oversees the largest chunk of what the defence department calls “non-operational training”. In other words, it is broader education from a military point of view. Or in defence-speak, the department conducted 435,832 student days of non-operational training in 2003–04, of which 380,550 occurred at the Australian Defence College.

By bringing ADFA under the umbrella of the ADC in 2001, the federal government put an end to more than 60 years of haphazard arrangements for educating Australia’s military officers. Previously, separate staff colleges operated for the army, air force and navy. The Australian Army Staff College began in Sydney in 1938 with a one-week course for majors, brigadiers and colonels, and the RAAF Staff College lasted from 1949 to 2000. Meanwhile, in an extraordinary footnote to empire, many naval officers continued to go to the Royal Navy Staff College in Greenwich, England, until the Royal Australian Naval Staff College was established in 1979 at HMAS Penguin, on the prime Sydney real estate of Middle Head, Mosman.

ADFA’s mission is to offer high-quality undergraduate degrees to future military officers. They are lured across by the prospect of free degrees and military salaries. The catch? They are expected to serve in the military for at least one year longer than their degree. This means a three-year arts degree must be followed by another four years serving in the army, navy or air force.

“It’s very different from civilian universities,” says Dr Graham Barwell, a Wollongong University academic who worked at ADFA in the 1980s and maintains academic ties with the campus. “The resources were superb. When I was there the library received quite generous funding, and they were able to build up a very good collection of primary resources in a number of fields. They could vie with the national libraries for manuscripts and purchase the archives of Australian authors, things you don’t usually have in civilian universities.”

But ADFA is not all pastries and primary documents. Annie Francis, a third-year officer cadet who is studying chemistry, says students are required to undergo a full eight hours of military training a week. “It’s a bit of a lifestyle shock at first,” says Francis. “Everyone has to get up at 6 a.m. and you have to keep your room absolutely spotless, so at first it feels a bit like boot camp. I think first-years are in a bit of a shock when they arrive.”

If eight hours of military training sounds arduous to Annie Francis, it compares favourably with a Melbourne University study showing that full-time civilian under-graduates now work an average of 12.5 hours a week in outside jobs, and that 42% work 20 hours a week. And for that, they get no discount on HECS. Francis points out, rightly, that one of the best things about ADFA is the fact that the degree comes with no HECS payment required: “I think anyone would be lying if they didn’t say the HECS was a major factor.”

The downside is there is always a possibility that graduates might be called up for active duty once they have finished their studies. “It’s one of the frightening things,” says John Baird, the rector at ADFA. “Many of them are deployed very soon after they graduate.”

Not everyone agrees that graduates are in imminent danger. As I hopped into a taxi after taking a tour of the ADFA campus, the driver noticed how impressed I was with what I had just seen. “Fucking scum,” was his comment. But they put their lives on the line, I offered in their defence, don’t they? “Yeah, they go downtown on a Thursday and Friday night. Anywhere where there are cheap drinks. But they’re all cowards – they’re all going to be in desk jobs one day. You ever seen an officer lead from the front? In my 25 years’ driving taxis, every time they get into a fight in town they always lose.”

So while ADFA undergraduates are losing fist-fights in cheap Canberra pubs, the rest of Australia’s universities are reeling from funding cuts totalling $2.5 billion over the past decade. At Sydney University’s government department, where five years ago 12 face-to-face tutorials were provided per course per semester, there are now only three. The remainder are conducted as “e-tutorials”. Students are given the impersonal and pointless task of writing 250 words and submitting them to a website – a fine substitution for the Socratic dialogue. No doubt they stole the idea from E-Socrates.com.

And that’s at one of Australia’s prestigious sandstone universities, one that runs a viable sideline in charging large fees to visiting non-English-speaking students in return for authentic-looking transcripts. Other institutions such as the University of Western Sydney, only 30 kilometres but a demographic canyon away, are not nearly so lucky. According to Peter McGregor, who lectures in media and communications at UWS, more than 30 students sit in on the average tutorial. “Face-to-face teaching contact time has dropped from four hours per week in 2000 to two hours now,” he says. UWS has been converted into what McGregor calls a “second-rate, vocational training factory”. Research, which 20 years ago constituted half an academic’s time, is these days impossible without outside assistance. Academics must get grants to buy themselves out of teaching, which is now essentially a full-time job.

 

One of the many things that strikes you when you visit ADFA is the way virtually all the support staff wear badges labelled “Eurest ESS”. Occasionally an “ESS Defence Shuttle Service” bus will pass by. ESS, it turns out, is a top-of-the-range military contractor, formerly known as Eurest Support Services, and it runs the catering, accommodation, clothing supply and pretty much everything else on campus. It is part of the world’s largest food conglomerate, The Compass Group, and 8% of the parent company’s revenue comes from military contracts like this one. It’s a perfect fit. ESS focuses on its core business of supplying food, accommodation and clothing so that the soldiers can concentrate on their core business of killing people.

On this campus, a model for tomorrow’s universities, there is no debate about voluntary student unionism. Instead private contractors provide a stunning “best in class” service. And you can bet they are much easier to deal with at a political level too. ESS, through its subsidiary Regency, caters at a dozen US military bases in Iraq; with those sorts of credentials, it’s hard to see ESS leading too many pesky anti-war protests on campus. Among its duties is the task of running the cadets’ mess, said to be the largest officers’ mess in the southern hemisphere. The PR spokeswoman tells me it fosters “communal living” and a “team environment”, and I sense there is more than a hint of nostalgia for Sparta. But the mess is anything but Spartan. The carpet is new and everything is freshly painted and renovated. That’s what ESS means by its commitment to “best in class”. You pay a little bit extra – but you get a little bit extra.

Chalmers Johnson, in his latest book The Sorrows of Empire, focuses on the creeping lavishness of the US military elite. Johnson paints a picture of a military with its own airline, its own set of Club Med-style bases serviced by ESS contractors, who offer only the best-in-field service to officers and soldiers. With civilian politicians virtually falling over themselves to give resources to the defence of the realm, those in the military have become accustomed to demanding only the best – whether in the style of education their kids get, or in the choice of pastry chef at the local captain’s club. During their time in the military they grant big contracts to private military logistics firms, and when they leave the military they take up consultancies – often worth millions of dollars – with these same firms.

As you walk around the bushland setting of the ADFA campus, you start to realise that ADFA is not investing money only in education. It is spending a lot of cash on its service contracts with ESS too – about $40 million a year, in fact. The whole campus is a testament to the sort of opulence that only something with the word “defence” in its title can afford. The roads and walkways are spotlessly paved. The curbs are painted. The internal mail van is an electronic golf cart, painted military grey, with a flashing siren on top. A cannon sits on the front lawn. You get the feeling that there are no dope smoke-ins, no hippies, no Trots on this campus – or if there were, they have all been shot. In short, the story of ADFA is not simply about providing a quality education. The campus is a glittering advertisement for the sort of lifestyle future officers can expect now that they are on the receiving end of the military contracting spend-a-thon.

In recent years in Australia, the distinction between the defence force and private military contractors such as ESS has become increasingly blurred. Nowadays one of the main reasons for becoming an officer in the military is the lucrative private consultancies on offer once you resign your post. Nick Hammond, former head of SAAB Systems, a military contractor specialising in software engineering, told a 2003 Senate inquiry into defence material: “We take about 30% of our staff from ex-military and ex-defence people.” Hammond, who died later that year, was himself a former navy rear admiral. And SAAB and Hammond are no exception. Vice Admiral (Rtd) David Shackleton, ex-head of the Australian navy, took up a consultancy job last June as an adviser with Austal Ships. Air Marshal Errol McCormick, since resigning as head of the RAAF, has had jobs with EADS (the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company) and General Electric Engines, which builds engines for F/A-18 fighters and Black Hawk helicopters.

In other words, even though it is the Australian public that is paying officer cadets to get the best education they can, the skills they learn at ADFA are likely to end up in private hands. Last year, ADFA introduced a Bachelor of Business course. Spokeswoman Jo Button says these degrees help people with “operational projects”: stuff like running the military’s accommodation, or clothing stores, or organising the logistics of feeding the troops in Iraq. But as we now know, those parts of military business are outsourced these days to private military contractors.

The Australian government appears to have asked itself: who should get the best education? Its response seems to be: the people who really like guns. It is comforting for people to know that our nation’s warriors are highly trained. But people would feel even safer knowing that the engineers who build bridges are also studying at universities as good as ADFA. The benefit of an ADFA education, now more than ever, is not only for the public good. Like all tertiary education in Australia, it has a personal, private benefit too. It is the recognition of this personal benefit to education that guides the civilian HECS system. Logically, if the government can fork out the cash for officers who will benefit at both a public and private level, then it should be prepared to stump up the funds for civilians too. And unless the government is prepared to bankroll all other universities to ADFA-like levels, then it should at least let civilian undergraduates get a slice of the ADFA action.

The philosophy underpinning ADFA is sound. As its sales brochure says: “ADFA provides you with an environment to achieve the very best you can by giving you the opportunity to concentrate on your studies with minimal outside distractions. By paying you to study, you won’t be dividing your time between study and a part-time job, thereby providing you with a sense of financial independence.” This invites several questions. Why does that principle apply only to the military? Why, if the government truly believes ADFA’s funding is not excessive, shouldn’t civilians get the same level of resources for their study?

And is ADFA over-funded? I ponder this as I munch on a blueberry muffin I lifted earlier from the pastry kitchen. Perhaps officer cadet Annie Francis sums it up best. “A massive part of why you study at ADFA,” she says, “is because it’s so easy. You might sit in class worried about something you’ve got to do … so you go up to your lecturer and say: ‘Can you see me for half an hour in three hours’ time?’ And they’re always willing to help. They always make time to help. You wouldn’t find a single person who hasn’t had that experience. I’ve got mates from Sydney University who say: ‘I didn’t understand a single thing I learnt today.’ So I think in that way we’re lucky at ADFA.”

Very lucky indeed.

About the author Charles Firth