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Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed

There are few things more richly deserved than the punishment of a profligate ruler who finds himself fending off a hungry citizenry. But such matters lie in the realm of government, elections, holding representative office. Universities, notably in Australia, are oblivious to accountability and have, over several decades, become a booming corporatocracy. Institutionally, they constitute a white-collar criminal class that should interest the offices of the public prosecutor.

Their Vice-Chancellors resemble degenerate generals padded with colostomy bags, cutting ribbons and navigating the cocktail circuit. Below them lie the quislings and Vichy academics, the sell-outs and pimps who have bought into the market even as it exploits the student base. They go to meetings, draw up their spread sheets, show that they can be dab hands at data entry. They shirk research and teaching as lowly tasks performed by academic grunts. They attend the management equivalent of Nuremberg rallies.

While this happens, a Demand-Driven Model, to use that unpleasant term, has become the established rationale for recruiting students. International students, in particular, have become the celebrated and mocked “cash cows” of the establishment, ruthlessly and generously milked.

This unsustainable system of ceremonial graft has found itself jerked by the recent travel ban imposed by Australia on those coming from China. In place since February 1, the Covid-19 travel ban has seen a parting of ways between Australia’s universities and the government. Had Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison perhaps reflected on the consequences of such a ban for the tertiary industry, a more measured approach to the virus might have taken place. Instead, Australia faces a potential exodus of students to other markets, leaving its blubbery university sector prime for trimming.

For this fact alone, heads should role. As sociologist Salvatore Babones reminds us in The China Student Boom and the Risks it Poses to Australian Universities (Aug 2019), Australian universities “are taking a multibillion dollar gamble with taxpayer money to pursue a high-risk, high-reward international growth strategy that may ultimately prove incompatible with their public service mission.” The China market figures dangerously and disproportionately. In 2017, University of New South Wales and Sydney could count on 22-23 per cent of course fees from Chinese students. Of international student revenue, China accounts for half in the entire university sector.

As Babones documents with alarm, Australia’s universities are simply not appreciative of the financial risk of such a venture. Nor do they make sufficient data available to inform public discussion on that fact. The Covid-19 ban, in other words, was a financial storm waiting to happen. Instead of heading to Australia to commence classes, students such as Lei Feiyang languish in Chengdu, incurring costs without return.

Desperate measures have been implemented by universities such as Monash, which has rescheduled the start of teaching to March 9. Classes in the first week will be delivered in an online format, a potential problem for those whose courses were not originally designed or advertised as such. University propagandists suggest “seamless” joining of programs to prevent undue interruptions. No one should be fooled by this. As Michael Thomson, co-secretary of the NSW branch of the National Tertiary Education Union noted, university authorities were “not being completely clear about what is happening.” Policy was “being made on the hop.”

The Education Consultants Association of Australia had done its modest bit in jogging Australian universities out of their exploitative complacency in a WeChat survey of 16,000 Chinese students conducted between February 5 and 9. The findings did not make pretty reading for Australia’s university politburos, with 32 per cent claiming they would be more than willing to enrol in another country if they could not commence first semester studies in 2020. The United Kingdom, with 58 per cent, proved to be the highest “redirection destination.” Canada, with 31 per cent, and the United States, with six per cent, were second and third respectively.

Such findings could not be ignored by even the smoothest university bureaucrat. Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8), suggested that, “This could be a lost opportunity,” despite making a feeble effort to reassure students to “hang in there and stay with us.”

Ahmed Ademoglu, National President of the Council of International Students Australia, stated the obvious: students felt “exploited” and were reconsidering options. “These Chinese students may have friends or relatives at school level who are considering coming over here and ask what their experience was in Australia.”

Abbey Shi, General secretary of the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Sydney, has also noted the fury from being in contact with some 2,000 Chinese students who find themselves incapable of returning after having gone home for the Lunar Year holiday. “Universities don’t care about our affected career path, life, tenancy issues, our pets at home.”

A hollow statement from Monash University suggests that all shall be well in the fullness of time. Cash has been supplied; services shall be delivered, even of uneven quality. “If the travel restrictions are not lifted on 22 February, we will work with affected students individually to determine a personalised study plan, which may include remote and intensive study options. Monash is committed to ensuring affected students are able to start their semester one studies and be fully up to date by the end of 2020 and able to progress to second year studies.”

This is all a rather unconvincing way of maintaining students without giving them the service they need, let alone the care they require. And for having exposed Australia’s education sector to levels of staggering greed and over-reliance on single sources of revenue, university management across the country should consider some equivalent of ceremonial seppuku, cheered on by the student body and academic toilers.


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  1. New England Cocky

    I seem to remember that Little Johnnie Howard (Liarbrals) initiated this ridiculous system by gifting US research institutions $100 million for research that was subcontracted to Australian universities for considerably less, with the residual becoming part of the profit margin that year for the US corporations.

  2. Watchdog

    Recently, a casual Indian employee of ours, often bragged how he had a substitute University student studying for a Business degree on his behalf. My personal experience with a WA “Business Degree” often entailed institutional corruption, (Lecturers not qualified, exam papers given to select individuals) all designed to disguise and compliment the tick and flick funding.

  3. Pingback: Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed #auspol - News Oz

  4. Matters Not

    Binroy, one assumes you are tenured and are not seeking another posting in the foreseeable future. Certainly courageous. Worth pointing out that salary packages for Vice-Chancellors in Australia are among the highest in the world. Lecturers – not so much.

  5. Andrew Smith

    I concur, wrote similar comment on TC some years ago after dealing with unis from offshore…

    …. new oldest profession..

  6. josephus

    Yes there was pressure to pass incompetent students but if one resisted they did not dare attack us other than complaining that oh we were being difficult… good, not to be so was to punish those few brilliant students.

  7. Sammy

    This is the fault of governments. Many of whom have many ministers who themselves paid nothing for their tertiary education. Like it or not students have become the product, instead of the customer and this is the result of governments cutting research grants, capping domestic student numbers, reducing HECS repayment caps, etc.

    The universities are somewhat of a hybrid between the public service and private enterprise. If there is a market, who can blame them for accomodating it? After isn’t that how the neoliberal, globalised free market is supposed work?

    This situation is unfortunate and yes probably was inevitable at some point but don’t forget the fact that these 100,000 Chinese students were choosing Australia’s education system over England,Canada and the US. In my book that says a lot.

    If the government had some brains they would remove the domestic student caps and invest more in research, but we can hardly expect that from this bunch of fools. Instead we will get some bullshit, draconian religious laws that will drive the public to dislike and distrust anybody who is ‘christian’.

    To the author, I don’t know you, but I hope you are no longer teaching, you sound like you hate universities and more so their hierarchy and that’s a shame because I don’t think you can be good at your job when you hate where you work.

  8. Carl Marks

    “Fullness of time”?

    That is true Sir Humphrey-speak.

    Wearing his party-hat, of course.

  9. corvusboreus

    Thanks boobby.

  10. Simo Cole

    It’s cathartic for me to read so scathing a description of university greed, having experienced it first hand for 10 of a 30 year career in English language education. However, there are many relatively innocent people caught up in it – ‘it’ being the all-consuming growth monster championed by a few, mostly in management. Growing the sector, building new facilities is the top priority. They might think it’s all for the good of Australia, but on the contrary, we’d be much better off with our integrity, a smaller economy and population… but don’t get me started… or maybe I should, because those of you who aren’t taking that into account, have little ground for criticism. Australia is growing itself to death. And we don’t need to compete with other nations or economies. We can even defend ourselves militarily with fewer people because these days that’s mainly a question of technology, not soldiers.

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