March 2021

Essays

Judith Brett

The bin fire of the humanities

Artwork by TV Moore

Casualisation and relentless cost-cutting have destroyed the credibility of Australian universities

I couldn’t wait to start university. Over the summer of 1967 I read and re-read the arts faculty handbook for the University of Melbourne, trying to decide my subjects. I did the suggested preliminary reading for Modern Government A, began reading the novels for English I, and even covered my books, just as I had at the start of every school year. I had worked hard in my matric year at Nunawading High and done well in the exams, so I was planning to do a four-year honours degree rather than a three-year pass. In those days, you enrolled in honours from first year for an extended curriculum in addition to the extra year and writing a short thesis. I planned to do honours in English, but I couldn’t decide between politics and philosophy for my combined degree. As each only required an extra two-hour seminar, I chose to do them both and decide which to go on with at the end of the year. As the evening lectures in philosophy had a different lecturer from those in the day, I went to both of them too. This gave me 24 contact hours in my first year, including seven hours for German language. The university year was divided into three terms and subjects ran for the full year. During the two three-week breaks between terms, I wrote essays and caught up on reading. This added six weeks to the time available to learn, compared with today. I am telling you this not simply to out myself as a swot, but to document how much time universities then made available to students to learn.

I had been dux of humanities at Nunawading High, but I was in a much bigger pond now and thought that the students from the big private schools would have the jump on me. They were certainly more confident in tutorials and seemed to have more extensive general knowledge. So, I worked extra hard to bridge the gap, and read pretty well everything on the reading guides. At the end of the year, I had shared the top mark in politics and philosophy, but received a disappointing H2A in English. I got an H1 in English language but bombed in literature for reasons I couldn’t understand. Looking at my other results, my tutor said, “You must be bright, but…” Perhaps I was too earnest; perhaps I lacked the cultural capital to know what was wanted in those Leavisite days of confident moral judgement. So, I dropped English and embarked on a combined honours degree in politics and philosophy. I also relaxed a little. I didn’t have to work quite so hard. But I still worked steadily. All that reading, note-taking, indexing and summarising of lecture notes; it was like going to gym for the brain, which developed capacities for clear thinking and argumentation I have relied on ever since. Philosophy, now seen as the most impractical and contentless of subjects, was the most useful. In tutorials and seminars, we didn’t so much discuss philosophy as do philosophy. It was here that I learnt how to structure an argument and control its consequences.

First-year lectures were huge, but tutorials were small – 10 to 12 students – and most staff were permanent. There were dull and lazy lecturers, but there were also stars, men and a few women whose knowledge and dedication were exemplary. Teaching is as much about modelling ways of thinking and instilling a passion for understanding as it is about conveying content, and inspiring teachers impress something of themselves onto their students. It’s hard to see how this can be achieved with online learning.

Some of these intensively taught honours students went on to postgraduate degrees here and overseas, and became leading intellectuals, writers and academics: Rai Gaita, Peter Singer, Stuart Macintyre, Graeme Davison, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Robert Manne, Arnold Zable, Patrick McCaughey and Helen Garner were all honours arts students at Melbourne University in the 1960s. Similar stories can be told for other sandstone universities: Marilyn Lake and Dennis Altman from the University of Tasmania; Raewyn Connell, Ann Curthoys and Kate Grenville from the University of Sydney.

Elitist, I hear you say. Yes, it was. In 1967 when I enrolled there were around 95,000 university students, by 2003 there were more almost 830,000, and today there are more than a million domestic students. Many more people can now benefit from a university education, but Australia no longer provides the intensive university education it once did. And it hardly seems to have been noticed, as we live off the capital of earlier times.

As more students began to go to university, honours arts degrees were wound back often to just the extra year, perhaps with a special seminar in third year, and entry depended on one’s marks rather than on preference and financial means. There was some loss here, but an overall gain in equity and access. Subject choices increased markedly during the 1980s and 1990s, as did the overall quality of the teaching staff. If there was a golden age in Australian universities it was from the mid 1970s, after Whitlam abolished university fees, until some time in the 1990s, as the Dawkins reforms transformed the sector. As students started to contribute to the cost of their teaching through HECS payments, the quality began to slowly decline. 

When I started teaching in politics at La Trobe University in 1989 there were four first-year courses and a wide range of second- and third-year subjects. Robert Manne, Joe Camilleri, Robin Jeffrey, Dennis Altman, myself – we all taught first-year courses for years, as well as upper-level courses, and we all took tutorials. In the 1990s, the teaching year was semesterised, replacing the old terms. Students went on holidays in the midyear break and six weeks of learning time vanished. We had to pare back our content and could no longer run large themes across the year or expect students to read during the break. Some universities also lopped a week or two off the standard 13 weeks of teaching.

There were other changes too. As more students were also employed, the pressure was on for flexibility in course delivery. Lectures were recorded, tutorials discretionary, exams abolished. To pass you didn’t really need to do the whole course at all, just to write a couple of essays and assignments on selected topics. I liked to include an exam so that students were obliged to review the whole subject, but there were plenty of exam-free subjects available. Again, the analogy with sport is revealing. Everyone accepts that sport requires commitment and rigorous training, that muscles need to be worked and endurance built. So does intellectual work. I think of all those hours I spent before we had photocopiers, summarising articles and indexing my copious lecture notes, as building my brain’s pathways.

It is 50 or more years since that eager young girl in Nunawading covered her books in anticipation of a new world. Were she starting university today, she would not find the same opportunities to learn. Today, humanities and social-science departments in Australia’s universities are imploding, shedding staff and subjects, teaching online or in large classes with a highly casualised workforce, and expecting less and less of their students. While the public frets about what students will pay for their degrees, the people doing the teaching are as likely to worry about the decline in the quantity and quality of what students are getting for their money, and the poor standard of too many of the graduates.

As universities were forced to compete with each other for funds and students based on ever-shifting metrics, university managers put teaching faculties through restructure after restructure to reduce their costs, diverting teaching revenue to fund research, executive salaries and marketing. Teaching became less valued as progress in an academic career shifted to the measured achievement of specified research outputs. Bizarrely for the humanities, articles read by a few came to count more than books read by many. People competed for grants to “buy out” their teaching, or to win one of the prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowships, which did not permit its holders to teach. This always struck me as a misguided policy, denying undergraduates the opportunity to be taught by academics at the height of their powers. Just how far teaching has slid down university management’s priorities was evident in peak body Universities Australia’s response to the loss of 17,000 jobs in the sector since COVID, with more on the way: the emphasis was on the impact on the country’s research capacity, with not a word about the effect on undergraduate teaching.

As permanent staff slid out of teaching, they were replaced in the classroom by casuals, who have become the underpaid workhorses of undergraduate teaching. Most casuals are dedicated and professional, but they cannot provide the same levels of contact as permanent staff. They are only paid for a minimum consultation time, if at all, and are certainly not available for extended conversations with keen or anxious students, let alone for casual socialising or to organise extracurricular activities. The cost of the casualisation of university teaching, though, is largely borne by the teachers themselves. Permanent staff, many of whom started their teaching career in much-better-paid circumstances, know that casuals are exploited and underpaid, but, restricted by tight budgets, they are rarely able to do anything except apologise a little guiltily.

Once, casuals were mainly postgraduate students taking some tutorials in a course run and carefully supervised by a permanent member of staff. Now they are employed to design and teach whole subjects. The permanent staff member credited as the “coordinator” is often a fiction, palming off their teaching so they can get on with their research. With no job security, casuals are vulnerable to exploitation and most do a good deal of work for which they are not paid, in administration, answering student emails, talking to students after class, and the preparation of material. The hourly rate is high, but the hours allotted to many tasks are unrealistic. For example, a casual is generally paid three hours to prepare and deliver a one-hour lecture. Perhaps that’s reasonable, if a lecture is based on a textbook, or an already existing course, but it took me around 14 concentrated hours, or two working days, to prepare a new politics lecture – and I was efficient. In some disciplines it would take longer; for example, English literature, when one also had to read the novel.

I have often wondered how the three-hour figure was arrived at. Was it based on an empirical study of a sample of academics preparing a lecture? Was it dreamt up by someone in a human resources department who had never written a lecture? I got the answer reading the submission of the Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA) to the Senate economics committee’s current inquiry into unlawful underpayment of employees. Defending the sector’s current practices, the AHEIA sourced the current casual employment payment regime to determinations made by the Academic Salaries Tribunal in 1976 and 1980, which were subsequently included in federal awards. But employment practices were very different in 1980 from today. This was more like an honorarium than payment for work done. Then, a casual lecture was generally a one-off, given by a visiting industry specialist in a course run by a permanent staff member. I would invite a local MP to give a lecture on parliament to my first-year Australian politics class, say, or someone working for a non-government organisation or industry association when we were discussing pressure groups. Casuals were never employed to design and run whole courses, and it would not have occurred to the tribunal that someone preparing and delivering 26 lecture hours might be paid for just 78 hours of work, when at the time this would have represented around two-thirds of a permanent staff member’s work for a semester and they would have had ample time to prepare before teaching started.

Interestingly, the same reasoning is not applied to the salaries of vice-chancellors, which the 1984 Academic Salaries Tribunal recommended be set at 42 per cent above that of a full professor ($72,000 and $51,000 respectively). Following those guidelines, with full professors now averaging around $180,000, today’s vice-chancellors would have salaries around $256,000, not the million or more they now receive. In late January, the education committee of the NSW Legislative Council released a report titled “The future development of the NSW tertiary education sector”, which, among other things, considered the high salaries of vice-chancellors in the context of extensive losses of academic jobs. It commented:

The vast disparity between the salaries paid to senior university administrators and the casual and insecure payments made to so many of the staff who actually conduct the teaching and research in universities is a matter of real concern to the committee. If the role of universities is to create new knowledge and disseminate that knowledge to students then the people who do this critical work need to be valued and respected. The current system that sees University Vice Chancellors paid 25 or thirty times more than many of the people undertaking the core work of universities must be reviewed and the failure to do this by the governing bodies of universities is evidence of a failure of leadership. This is a matter that should be reviewed by the Auditor-General.

The attraction of casuals to the universities is obvious. As the AHEIA submission to the Senate so blithely puts it, the extent of casualisation in the higher education sector has structural reasons relating to “the high costs associated with continuing employment”. From this perspective, it is wage avoidance, rather than wage theft, and perfectly legal.

With no leave entitlements, no research support and often without the need for provision of either office space or equipment, casuals are cheap compared with permanent staff. But even then, some universities have not been able to resist squeezing them further. In a little-noticed case last year, the National Tertiary Education Union took the University of Melbourne to the Fair Work Commission for wage theft with respect to underpayment for marking in the Faculty of Arts. Wage theft! Just like 7-Eleven franchises or Domino’s Pizza! Just before Christmas, the venerable institution sent a letter of apology and a cheque to at least 1500 casuals. The bill was millions of dollars.


The Institute of Public Affairs has just published another of its reports complaining about the takeover of humanities and social-science teaching by identity politics, with themes of class, race and gender pushing aside traditional disciplinary content. Putting aside how you would teach 20th-century history or literature without reference to class, race and gender, the IPA is missing the main story. It is not identity politics but the shrinking of humanities and social-science faculties and curriculum across the country that is the biggest threat to their valued disciplinary traditions, as universities seek to save money on teaching by restructuring faculties, departments and courses. I ended my academic career in 2012 in such a restructure, during which a lively, productive school of social sciences, that was more than paying its way, was dismembered for reasons that are still obscure to me, and for no discernible gain in enrolments or research output. In fact, both went backwards, which made me wonder if that, indeed, was the intention; or perhaps it was just incompetence. But that way bitterness lies, and whatever the circumstances of my experience, and the perfidies of the perpetrators, similar things were happening across the country.

COVID-19 has now turned an incremental decline into an existential crisis. At my old university, La Trobe, already diminished teaching programs have been instructed to reduce costs yet again, which means losing more staff, offering fewer subjects, increasing class sizes and doing more teaching online: Zoom instead of rooms, because that accommodates more students and you don’t have to pay for cleaning. And La Trobe is not alone.

When a university decides to phase out a subject area or a degree – such as when La Trobe announced at the end of last year that it would cease teaching modern Greek and Hindi, or Monash University that it would close its Centre for Theatre and Performance – it draws media attention, and provides an opportunity for the public to respond. Sometimes a subject area is even saved. For example, the Greek community is supporting La Trobe to retain its language studies. But when a university restructures degrees and shrinks subject choices, the public barely notices. And when the next cohort of students enrol, they don’t know what they’re missing.

Across the country, humanities departments are becoming barely credible: minimal language teaching; faculties without philosophy studies; English departments without a subject on Shakespeare, let alone Australian literature; visual art departments studying no art history prior to 1900; politics departments with nothing on America and barely anything on Australia; and so on. You wouldn’t know any of this from online university resources, so it’s hard to build a complete picture. Perhaps the Australian Academy of the Humanities could do an audit. On most university websites it is near impossible to find the actual subjects offered, and a keen student has no chance of discovering who will be teaching them as it will likely be a casual who probably doesn’t yet have a contract. Instead, there is a series of boasts about research achievements, promises about career prospects, and testimony as to why enrolling at this institution will change your life.

Today’s Australian universities promise their students a world-class education, but what they offer is not world class. Though Australian universities do remarkably well in world rankings, these can be seriously misleading. For example, in the QS World University Rankings, English language and literature studies at the University of Melbourne are ranked 18th in the world, between Canada’s University of British Columbia and Cornell in the US. Drill down and you find that English and theatre studies at Melbourne lists 15 faculty members (excluding those in ARC-funded research-only positions), most of them professors who will be doing little or no teaching. By contrast, English at UBC has 49 faculty listed on its web page, and Cornell has 51. English at the University of York, in the United Kingdom, which is ranked 22nd, has 45 faculty members, and in all these overseas universities theatre studies are in another department to English, with its own staff. Given that staff–student ratios are one of the six performance indicators used to determine the QS rankings, it is hard to know how the Melbourne department did so well. Perhaps it listed all the casual staff? Other universities would not regard 15 full-time faculty, no matter how highly regarded their collective research, as sufficient to teach the discipline – so why do we? If I had a child now contemplating a liberal arts degree, and I had the money, I would send them to Canada or the United States, crossing my fingers that they wouldn’t fall in love and not want to come home.

The situation may be better in subject areas outside the humanities and social sciences, with which I am less familiar, and those requiring external accreditation, such as psychology, law or social work, are protected from university cost-cutters. But in humanities and many social sciences it is a serious crisis with far-reaching implications for the country at large – for the education available to our young people, and for our shared cultural life. It has always puzzled me why the perennial discussions about problems in secondary education and declining standards do not also consider what is happening in universities, not just in the education faculties but in the arts and science faculties that provide many teachers with their disciplinary knowledge. If the teachers are less well-trained than in the past, is it surprising there is less rigour in our secondary schools? In January it was reported that only 38 per cent of Year 10 students who took the most recent national civics and citizenship assessment demonstrated proficient knowledge of Australia’s system of government and the workings and values of democracy. Might this not have something to do with fewer Australian politics subjects being available for prospective teachers to study than a decade ago?

As universities have taken over from dedicated institutions the teaching of art practices such as painting and sculpture, acting and directing, instrumental music performance and creative writing, the historical and theoretical subjects that provide their context have declined: art history, musicology, literary studies, theatre and drama studies. Much of this decline is disguised in re-packaged “creative arts” courses, but decline it is. Since COVID, La Trobe, Newcastle and Monash universities have announced the closure of their theatre and drama programs. Monash will no longer offer musicology and ethnomusicology streams. Emphasis is on careers in the creative industries, such as performance and curation, in line with a pragmatic focus on graduate job outcomes. The implication is that unless you are aiming to be an arts practitioner, such disciplines are of little value to you.

Does this matter, beyond its production of an oversupply of people who believe they are trained for an artistic career? I think it does, and not just because we will lose expertise and again become dependent, as we were before the 1960s, on knowledge and ideas produced in the northern hemisphere. Coupled with the general decline in our study of humanities and social sciences, Australia’s broad cultural literacy will gradually diminish. Fewer people will want to watch a performance of Hamlet, or a new play, or know how to appreciate them if they do. Fewer people will be able to appreciate the wonderful collections in our galleries or read a challenging novel. Fewer people will know anything at all about the cultures of Asia, or Africa, or South and Central America, or the Pacific. Fewer people will know how to unpick flawed logic or construct a compelling argument. Add to this our current federal government’s parsimonious support of the arts, and the annual efficiency dividend whittling away our cultural institutions, and Australia is well on its way to becoming the most philistine country in the West.

At the heart of Australian universities today are two morally compromised relationships. The first is with their casual underpaid staff. The second is with their students, and beyond them with their families and future employees who are made false promises of a world-class education but delivered much less. There are many causes of the erosion of teaching and learning at Australian universities over the past decades, and for the mendacity that has crept across the sector. Some are due to government policies and some to actions of the sector itself: the reforms by Labor Education Minister John Dawkins at the end of the 1980s, changes to university governance, shameless vice-chancellors, the Liberal Party’s hostility to intellectuals, to name but a few. They are for a different essay. This one is about effects, not causes. Our degraded tertiary sector needs to be seen for what it is so we can start to repair it – for the sake of eager young people hungry to learn.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

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