The trouble with these surveys is that academics are always complaining, so it is difficult to know whether this is ‘whingeing as normal’ or whether there is anything unusual going on. It is always worth checking academic impressions against what evidence we possess.
The Age reports that more than half of academics do not believe that their university offers a better education than five years ago. Yet that is not the perception of students. The Course Experience Questionnaire continues to record improvements in satisfaction with teaching, and indeed most aspects of university life are showing long-term increases in satisfaction. The one clear exception is the ‘appropriate assessment’ scale, which is designed to explore whether ‘assessment promoted deeper forms of learning’. The questions in this scale are to do with whether more than a good memory is needed to do well.
An anonymous academic claims that
“There has been a continuous decline in the quality of teaching due to management demands to pass students — particularly full fee-paying students … Quality is put second, money is put first.”
This seems to be a non sequitur; presumably to pass full-fee students you need either better teaching (a possibility, given the above results) or lower assessment standards. But the statistics on pass rates (in the appendices) are very stable. Commencing international students, almost of all of whom are full-fee, consistently fail about 18% of the subjects they attempt. Local commencing students, almost all of whom are loss-making and government-subsidised, do a little better, failing about 15% of the subjects they attempt.
Though there is no evidence that soft-marking of fee-paying students is widespread or that there is any trend in their performance, this is partly because quality control in the sector is so weak and fragmented that nothing can be confidently said on this subject.
The Age report also suggests some contradictory views among academics. They complain both that their institution is more focused on gaining an income from fee-paying students than on getting results for students, and that universities are moving to sack staff because they have not raised enough revenue. It’s the great delusion that there are no trade-offs to be made.
I think it is reasonable to claim that, with price control keeping income artificially low, universities are ‘under-funded’. But the NTEU itself must take part of the blame for the higher education policy fiasco. To this day, they oppose the fee deregulation that could improve the quality of Australian higher education, including the working lives of their members.