​A light-up sign outside of a university lecture
A light-up sign outside of a university lecture / Blair
Australia Today

The Demise of Australian Universities

In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, university students disappointed with their education are questioning if studying is worth the struggle.

Australian universities have been a hallmark of equal opportunity since the Whitlam Labor government abolished fees in the 1970s. The aim was to allow the growing population of young Australians to get a higher education – based on their merit over their money – and without the threat of financial ruin. 

“We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education,” Whitlam told parliament, and the economy for a period gained a highly skilled workforce unencumbered by debt. 

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But university enrolment growth has slowed, and degree completion is the lowest it’s been in almost a decade. 

According to National Union of Students education officer, Xavier Dupe, students cannot juggle studying full-time while supporting themselves during a cost-of-living crisis – and the exorbitant profits made by universities are not trickling down to student learning.

“Most students are going through this right now,” Dupe told VICE.

“We’ve seen that university management has cut hundreds and hundreds of jobs, using the excuse of the pandemic, which has resulted in worse conditions for students and job losses for staff. At the same time, the universities have made huge surpluses, and the vice chancellors have six or seven-figure salaries.” 

21-year-old Bachelor of Civil Engineering student, Celine Gironda, has a dream to one day work in sustainability consulting in the mining industry. She moved from her home in Mudgee, in central-west New South Wales, to study at the University of Newcastle in pursuit of a career and the formative university experience Australia’s older generations were fortunate enough to have.

Paying all this money to go here, and we’re getting far less of an education than what I was getting in high school.

But despite being told by her parents and teachers that university would be “everything you wish for and more”, her experience has not matched up.

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“As much as I love engineering, the way that university is structured has made me contemplate if it’s worth going through all of this,” Celine told VICE.

Celine said she has been surprised by the lack of support at university. There was rarely time to go over questions, tutors didn’t respond to emails, and assignment feedback has seldom been useful. She often loses sleep trying to teach herself content outside the classroom.  

“It makes going to those classes unbearable and not really wanting to continue with it or put 100% effort into it,” she said.

“There’s no relationship between course coordinators and students.”

Kieran Hill, 21, moved from Port Macquarie to study at the University of Newcastle as well, hoping to become a maths teacher. The rising cost of living forced him into part-time study, rather than full-time, so he had enough time to work and pay his bills. But in his fourth year he decided to defer indefinitely.

“There was one semester I did where I kept the full four courses as well as working 20-plus hours a week and I just couldn’t balance having a healthy social life and keeping up with friends, keeping up leisure activities and other commitments,” Kieran told VICE.

Man looking out.jpg

Working as a bartender to support himself at university, Kieran plundered through weekend shifts and late-night work hours to balance his classes during the week. But the low pay – and unreliable roster – meant he still struggled to make enough to cover rent and groceries.

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“It makes me feel quite disappointed and quite irritated really,” he said. 

“Paying all this money to go here, and we’re getting far less of an education than what I was getting in high school, which I think is very disappointing for a higher education facility.”

Kieran is among many students who have decided to delay, protract, or pause their studies due to the rising cost of living and diminishing appeal of tertiary study.

“I don’t know anybody here who’s [teaching] at their best”.

Federal data from 2021 showed more than half of students did not complete their degree within their first four years of study – despite the vast majority of undergraduate degrees being four years or shorter. 

Meanwhile, university profits soared during the pandemic and haven’t budged during the current economic strain. The vice-chancellors at some of Australia’s top universities are paid more than double the salary of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – who is the world’s fifth highest-paid world leader

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Deborah Terry, received a salary of $1.195 million last year.

But university students say such exorbitant salaries are not worthy of the slipping quality of the education these institutions provide. 

“[The University of Queensland] is one of the top 50 in the world, and the quality was just not there… Like, the resources were pretty good, but as a student, you couldn’t really get any help,” Mei Yee, a 21-year-old former UQ student, told VICE. 

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Mei decided to leave UQ after her first year studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Linguistics because they said it was not at all what they expected from their tens-of-thousands-of-dollars degree. 

“I learned more at TAFE than I did at university, and that’s saying something,” Mei said.

“Going into those classes and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to learn anything today, again, and I’m paying like $1,000 for this shit’”.

Mei said she attended tutorials with more than 60 students to one teacher. There was no one-on-one time, and if you had questions, emailing was also not an option because you’d never get a response.

Mei also found it hard to learn and improve, as assignment feedback was rarely constructive.

“The best feedback I got was three question marks behind a sentence of mine.”

Although Mei is applying to get back into university to study a different degree, she said it was for career prospects over anything else.

“There’s not much to experience at uni, to be honest. To me, it all felt quite drab. You go to your lectures, you sit, you leave. You don’t really make any memories”.

Staff Troubles

Although students are increasingly disappointed with the education on offer, the teaching staff say they are doing the best they can under current forms of management. 

University building

University of Newcastle

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Across the industry this year, university unions have been striking in protest of the poor staff conditions and lack of job security for staff in an increasingly casualised workforce.

But Dr Alan Libert, a senior lecturer who has taught at the University of Newcastle for 28 years, said after months of protests little progress had been made to alleviate the “pressure” staff were under. 

“We took a pay cut, effectively with inflation, and we didn’t get the equity for the casuals. So I’m wondering, why did I go on strike? Why did I lose a day’s pay?” Libert told VICE.

“I don’t know anybody here who’s [teaching] at their best”.

“If I’m worried about the future of my job or my discipline, I’m not going to sleep as well, and I’m not going to be as sharp as I could be, whether I’m marking or lecturing or whatever”.

The enterprise agreement secured at the University of Newcastle will see staff receive a 13 per cent pay rise over three years – a mighty win in the face of what was viewed by those who were striking as a management tactic to drive down wages.

But Libert said the key problem was bigger than that. 

“I think one of the problems is the university is being run like a business, and it’s not a business, or it shouldn’t be. And that’s true of most Australian universities and around the rest of the world,” he said.

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“I voted ‘no’ on the agreement, and I wish more people had voted no because even if more people voted no and it still passes, the uni knows that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction.

 “Students might think that lecturers are powerful relative to them. And I guess we are, but in terms of affecting the way the university goes, we have no power whatsoever”.

Government policies have slowly eroded our university system

The government’s priority of free tertiary education was short-lived. Just 15 years after university fees were abolished, they returned with the introduction of the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS). 

Then the Howard government gutted university funding; setting up the decline of public university funding.

I was paid only for the two hours of lecturing. Which was actually less than the dole I was getting before.

Although these policies led to the expansion of enrolments, universities now rely on high tuition fees and outsource their funding. 

In 1995, Dr Stephen Haley applied for a job as a tutor at universities in Melbourne, but was instead given a position as a sessional lecturer. With only two weeks until classes started, he had to prepare an entire semester of lectures.

This chucked-in-the-deep-end approach has been the common experience for casual workers for the last couple of decades.  

“[We’re] expected to do a huge amount for very little. And, in fact, I was paid only for the two hours of lecturing. Which was actually less than the dole I was getting before,” Haley told VICE.

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Casuals are given huge workloads and, in Haley’s case, run entire courses but are only paid for a fraction of the hours they work.

“So they would give you, I don’t know, 10 hours of marking to mark like 70 essays or something. So, you know, realistically, you’ve got about 10 or 15 minutes to read and mark an essay”.

The pay-by-the-hour arrangement for casual staff members explains why students struggle to get email replies, quality feedback, or developed course content – they simply aren’t allocated the time.

Still, this doesn’t stop staff from trying to help students. 

Haley said he feels universities exploited the goodwill of casual workers who work outside their paid hours to their detriment. But after years of repeating this pattern, something’s got to give. 

Haley attributes the decline in the quality of university management to government policies that have consistently underfunded higher education. 

“The university aren’t just evil fuckers, I mean, there’s quite a few, but they were also caught in this bond,” Haley said.

“Since that kind of early ‘80s period … where they introduced fees and HECS and so forth, increasingly universities had to act as a business”.

“It’s really not the teaching that’s the issue. It’s the funding”.

University or survival 

The pressure from the cost of living crisis is forcing students to choose between making enough money for the essentials or getting an educationFor Celine, the first in her family to go to university, the reality has been a far cry from her optimistic high school expectations.  

“It makes me have the most unhealthy lifestyle in terms of sleep, routine and sanity. That’s a given as a uni student,” she said.

“You make sacrifices, you get through it, and at the end of it, you’re going to thank yourself that you did get through it”.

“It’s just another four years of a rough period”.