Thursday, May 27, 2021

Australian Universities Should use the Pandemic to Reform

Baré, Beard, Marshman and Tjia ask "Does the COVID-19 emergency create an opportunity to reform the Australian university workforce?" (2021). They suggest that Australian universities could change, if those in the sector had the will to do so. The authors suggest the university workforce requires knowledge of digital and artificial intelligence (AI), capability to innovate, skills for  engagement with industry/government/community, flexibility, learner-centric approaches, and team skills. Those are all achievable, assuming staff and potential staff, are given incentives to acquire those skills. However, I suggest some of the structural reforms suggested appear contrary to this and internally inconsistent. 

Baré, Beard, Marshman and Tjia suggest  more flexibility in university employment conditions, but also job security and better pay for casual academic staff. However if universities gain more ability to hire and fire "permanent" staff, why would they want to give this up for the staff they already can already hire and fire: the casuals?

In taking on increasing numbers of international students over the last decade, universities realized that this source of revenue could cease quickly. For that reason universities have relied on large numbers of casual staff and those on short term contracts. When COVID-19 struck, these staff had no jobs. This was not an unintended consequence of the pandemic: it was the activation of a planned contingency. That was not some secret plan by heartless bureaucrats: just a fact of life. If universities don't have the revenue to pay staff, they can't pay them.

Unlike other employers, universities are able to train staff, but have someone else pay for this training (either the students, or the government or both). There are many more research academics graduated than there are academic positions for. As a result, for most jobs, universities have no incentive to offer career paths, permanent positions or competitive salaries.

There are plenty of people with academic training who are ready and willing to take on a job at a university. This is similar to the entertainment industry, where there are many more artists and musicians than jobs for. Some can earn a living teaching, but most need another career outside entertainment. 

Baré, Beard, Marshman and Tjia suggest a role for "third space professionals", who could undertake both academic and professional roles at universities. I suggest this is too inward looking and narrow an approach. Instead I suggest a role for professionals, who have skills for a role outside university, but can also undertake administration, education, and some research at a university. As an example, those teaching students need to know a lot about their discipline, but also a little about teaching. The can work alongside educational designers and other specialists. Those carrying out roles requiring innovation or industry liaison will also require extra skills.

It is not possible for universities to provide long term permanent employment for increasing numbers of research graduates, in the face of uncertain demand for their services. Instead, I suggest the graduates should be prepared for roles outside academia and research. A few of them will get secure jobs at universities, but the majority should be ready to work in government and industry. Some of those can have part time, temporary jobs at university, as and when needed, bringing with them their real-world experience.

I bring to my university work experience from the computing industry.  I can carry out the role as an educational designer, having postgraduate qualifications in the field, but also teach practical skills to  computing students, being a certified computer professional. As part of this I teach alongside professionals from the university's careers unit. Those teaching do need some knowledge of research techniques, but do not need to be rock stars of the research worls, as research shows that while a popular academic might appeal to students, this does not improve the quality of their learning (Uttl,  White, & Gonzale, 2017).


Uttl, B., White, C. A., & Gonzalez, D. W. (2017). Meta-analysis of faculty's teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not relatedStudies in Educational Evaluation54, 22-42.

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