higher education

Why your doctorate can make you feel like you’re drowning

This is not a cry for help. These aren’t my thoughts on the difficulties of managing money, time, kids, spouses, visas, conferences, the thesis, the job, or the dog, real as all these pressures clearly can be. Rather I want to share some of the impacts of early PhD studies on me, invite reflection, and offer a note of caution.

I am enjoying my doctoral studies more than any before it. I regarded my admission to the degree as a licence to read widely and write wildly. I’ve engaged with discourse from classical philosophy through neuroscience to behavioural biology, all through the lens of jurisprudential enquiry. I’m enthralled by it all. The possibility of realising nascent knowledge drives me forward. I feel accomplished when an idea reveals itself as a clear, sometimes seemingly novel, pure thought. If it does so at the right time it can manifest as a sentence or two which sparkles with satisfying clarity. Such is the evolution of a thesis, I hope. And a mind. 

My supervisors are quietly encouraging. Nevertheless, in their presence, I can feel woefully inadequate. I have said things to them that are just plain dumb, and other things just plain dumbly. An example of the latter kind was my remark that I found the PhD experience somewhat ‘destabilising’. When probed as to what I meant by that, I could offer nothing adequate. 

Where do we find a safe harbour?

Stumbling over the words of my attempt at an explanation, I muttered that everything was becoming less certain; I was less clear about what I knew, what I didn’t, and even about who, what and why I was. The global health pandemic didn’t wholly explain the phenomenon. No, I continued with deflating confidence, there was something in what I was reading, and in the process of learning itself, that was impacting me in ways I had simply not anticipated. I found it confronting. And I still do.

My research leads me to believe that our earliest hominin ancestors lived free of overt construct. They behaved first according to instinct and departed from it only when cognitive ability enabled them to believe that they had the choice to do otherwise. They resolved the existential problems with which they were confronted and, it seems in the process, transcended the objective fact of their entity as beings, to actually being. Our ancestors quite literally did ‘awaken’. I am left wondering if they did so in ways that I never have, can, or will. Thoreau said he felt as though he never did meet a person who was “quite awake”. It seems that, like me, he doubted that he was. His solution was Walden Pond.

There is perhaps an assumption that we, as modern humans, living as we do in this busy and sophisticated world, start from a position of self-awareness; with an understanding of what and who we are and the rules of our own existence. My doctoral studies suggest to me this isn’t so. I don’t understand very much at all. It is this knowledge, as much as any, that I can experience as destablising. 

Bertrand Russell validates what I feel. He wrote that philosophy ‘raises doubts’. It diminishes our feelings of certainty as to what things are. Russell regarded the doubt as liberating, enlarging our thoughts and freeing them “…from the tyranny of custom”. I agree. But when we are buffeted by those newly freed thoughts, encountered as part of the rigours of PhD study and life besides it, where do we find a safe harbour? 

I wonder if, more than any other course of study, the PhD doesn’t inherently involve breakage at some level, like a vase might as it smashes on a hard floor. For a time, there is only mess; scattered broken pieces that are disconnected from one another, such that the entity as a whole no longer exists (assuming that it ever did). Instead there are shards of sharp material that, if mishandled, will cause injury. The PhD candidate must confront that mess, all that ‘liberating doubt’, and try to understand what it represents. If the pieces are put back together so that something is (re)formed, better or differently understood, that is perhaps the true mark of a Doctor of Philosophy. But inherent in the journey, I think, is the possibility, and indeed the risk, that the vase will smash and that the candidate won’t be able to put it back together. It remains a broken mess which might never make sense again. Doubt prevails. 

Doubt doesn’t always feel liberating. It can be crippling, isolating, scarily confronting and personally challenging. Doubt is a frame of mind wherein feelings of being unsupported, anxious and depressed more easily surface, where we can feel deficient as researchers and our efforts pointless. We know that PhD candidates are susceptible to all these feelings, contributing to what Inger Mewburn has recently described as a “…frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students.” No such epidemic has yet claimed me and one reason it hasn’t is because of my university. Increasingly I rely upon it as a space within which I can safely expose myself to ‘liberating doubt’. My supervisors are my ‘port of call’. For me at least these are important aspects of the value proposition of the university – it will provide me with the support I need to ‘break’, as it were, and then to try and reform. It will lessen the very real risks inherent in the process of my doing so. 

These are the risks about which I would caution new PhD candidates. They should be considered and reflected on more explicitly and universities could, I believe, lead and facilitate that discussion more than they do. A consequence of doing so might be candidates who are more resilient and better prepared to confront the all-pervasive and, yes, potentially destabilising doubts of the kind that go to the very core not only of who they are as researchers, but as persons. When properly supported within the educational setting of the university these same doubts are better able to become truly liberating and, in that form, are perhaps our best chance of moving toward that state of being “quite awake”. 

Richard Stewart is a practising lawyer in Melbourne and a confirmed PhD(Law) candidate at Southern Cross University. My research concerns the capacity for property law to be used as an agent for behavioural change. LinkedIn

We struggled to make university more equal. Has that battle for equality worked now?

Australian education policy has really focussed on getting  ‘equity groups into university and then onto completion with initiatives designed to improve access and participation.

That worked. 

Recent data indicate that there has been growth in the university enrolment of these equity groups in the past ten years. Published studies have also found evidence for comparable employment outcomes for university graduates from equity groups shortly after degree completion with favourable employment outcomes sustained at three years after graduation.

But what happens next and why does it matter?

Education drives social mobility and levels the playing field for those with  disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our study looked at postgraduate study outcomes in tandem with employment for graduates from equity groups in Australia. We found graduates from equity groups are afforded the same, if not better, opportunities to engage in further study after the completion of their bachelor qualification. 

But we also discovered  graduates from some equity groups, namely those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, with a disability, or from non-English speaking backgrounds experience weaker employment outcomes including being in full-time employment and salaries. 

Why is postgraduate study an outcome of importance? 

The opportunity to engage in postgraduate study is an important outcome in its own right, especially from an equity perspective. University degree attainment is influential on social mobility and associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, with higher earnings found for those with postgraduate qualifications. Globally, bachelor degree attainment has been growing and arguably, postgraduate degree attainment is increasingly needed to gain a competitive edge in the workplace, and to provide greater opportunities for leadership roles. Moving beyond benefits at the individual level, there are also persuasive reasons for encouraging a diverse postgraduate student base. Encouraging diversity in postgraduate education will flow on to diversity in a nation’s leaders, educators of future generations and other important influencers of a country’s future. 

Furthermore, finances are one of the greatest barriers to participation in higher education. Direct costs such as tuition fees are substantial, but are dwarfed by the opportunity cost of study – the missed earnings from time spent away from the workforce and in study. These costs are exacerbated for postgraduate degree study. It has been argued that social inequalities extend beyond first degrees into unequal graduate outcomes, including postgraduate degree attainment and occupational class. 

Postgraduate study and work outcomes 

Our study used data on over 40,000 Australian graduates sourced from the national Graduate Outcomes Survey, linked to data from 19 universities in Australia to examine work and further study for bachelor degree graduates. We considered employment and further postgraduate study outcomes for six equity groups: low socioeconomic status; with a disability; Indigenous; non-English speaking background; from regional and remote locations; and women in non-Traditional areas of study. We found that graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds experienced lower rates of employment, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds whose prospects of being employed after degree completion lagged far behind those from English speaking backgrounds. Conversely, graduates from regional and remote areas had superior prospects of being employed. 

Further study opportunity, however, were positive for all equity groups, except those from regional and remote areas. We found, however, that equity group graduates tended to be engaged in study of another bachelor qualification, and did not have comparatively higher rates of study in a postgraduate qualification. The one notable exception here was for women in STEM fields, who had markedly higher rates of further postgraduate research study. 

We also examined the outcome of full-time employment for equity group graduates. Once again, the same groups of graduates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with a disability, and from non-English speaking backgrounds were found to be less likely to secure full-time employment. Separate analyses of hourly wages showed that these exact same groups also experienced weaker earnings.

What does these all mean? 

The comparable or slightly favourable employment outcomes for three of the equity groups (regional or remote areas, Indigenous, women in STEM) are encouraging and suggest that higher education policy for these groups are achieving their intended purposes. However, given the weaker employment and earning outcomes for the other three groups (low socioeconomic status, with disability, non-English speaking background), there is still work to be done. Our study was not able to pinpoint the reasons for the weaker employment outcomes due to the nature of the data, but previous studies have noted the lack of social capital and/or labour market discrimination for these groups, and these might require policy intervention and development. 

The finding that equity group graduates are more likely to be engaged in further study after their degree completion is interesting, but there remains some issues of concern. Firstly, a higher proportion of equity group graduates are engaging in further study at the bachelor degree level. This potentially limits any advantage that can be gained from further study and time further spent out of the workforce. Secondly, and related to the first point, it is possible that graduates from equity groups feel that they require further study to gain an edge in the labour market. It also raises questions on whether these graduates felt that their first degree did not adequately prepare them for work, and possibly concerns that they felt further investment in study is required to overcome labour market discrimination or other barriers. These important considerations will hopefully be the subject of future studies and action. 

Ian Li is an economist based at the School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia. He is interested in applied fields of health and labour economics, particularly on research on the determinants of well-being, economic evaluation of healthcare, graduate outcomes and higher education policy equity. Ian is a member of the UWA Academic Board, the Equity and Participation Working Group, and director of the Public Health undergraduate major. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management and a co-editor of the Australian Journal of Labour Economics.

At least six ways COVID has crushed higher education (now university managers make it worse)

Even less work-life balance, anxiety around online skills, fears the pandemic will be used to crush academic autonomy and cut costs. And by the way, COVID hit academic women hard.

Our research found the onset of the pandemic produced unprecedented organisational challenges for the higher education sector globally. That has been widely documented. As part of research funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, we undertook a global attitudinal survey in June and July 2020 to identify the impact of universities’ response to the pandemic on academics’ wellbeing.

Our publication, forthcoming in the Higher Education Research and Development journal, reports findings from the survey specific to the Australian higher education context and presents stark results. One year on, many academic staff in Australia are again working remotely, having previously returned to campus, and are likely to be feeling significant strain.

From the 370 survey responses, key findings include: work-related stress due to COVID-19 (78% agreement); reduced work-life balance (77% agreement); and digital fatigue (78% agreement). In terms of university leadership and managerialism, 69% of respondents felt that COVID-19 had intensified top-down governance and 60% felt that it had weakened trust in university leaders. This was also implied in strong agreement (92%) with the statement ‘The COVID-19 crisis will be used by universities as a means to legitimise ‘cost-cutting’ initiatives (closing programmes/departments/making job cuts)’.  Responses to open-ended survey questions reflect frustration over the implications of government policies that have created a quasi-market model of higher education in Australia and the associated over-reliance on international students as an income source, severely impacted by the pandemic.  These political and sectoral conditions, combined with the pandemic, created the perfect storm, the effects of which have impacted on the wellbeing of staff, as supported by the survey data.

Although overall there were some similarities with findings from other countries, respondents generally commented primarily on their universities, university leadership and the higher education sector, and government treatment of the sector was a secondary theme.  In the UK for example, the government’s furlough scheme has been available to the university workforce although to what extent it supported the sector remains to be seen.  Our global findings have also noted the gendered impact of COVID on female academics.

Ultimately it is the sense of community that will suffer most.

Academic staff reported undermining of academic autonomy with regard to rigid requirements around online teaching but the potential for greater autonomy if some of the more flexible working arrangements were to be retained. Some respondents had concerns about their own competence in using online digital tools, and concerns that changes to teaching, such as online teaching, would negatively impact on student learning outcomes. Conversely, some noted that digital skills and confidence had rapidly been acquired during the pandemic. Online working was also perceived by some respondents to weaken relationships: ‘Ultimately it is the sense of community… that will suffer the most.’ Facing the possibility of more online teaching and remote working in future, a challenge for the sector is to foster and maintain meaningful relatedness with colleagues and others via digital technologies. Although most survey respondents did not report an improved sense of belonging within their institution, this gap was filled by a general sense of support from colleagues and line managers.

The need for effective leadership within the higher education sector has never been more apparent than during COVID-19, but as made clear by our respondents, government appears to have abandoned the sector and university leadership are seen to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce costs. Sadly, many of the predictions in the survey responses were quickly borne out, including redundancies, restructures, pay cuts, course cancellations and moves to fully online courses.

The move away from the physical campus was occurring incrementally across Australian campuses prior to COVID-19. For example, unlike the UK, mandatory lecture recording was already commonplace in Australia and many students do not attend lectures in-person as a result.  It seems likely that the pandemic will have accelerated this process, which will have implications for staff and student wellbeing that university leadership should anticipate.

So what further lessons can we learn from the pandemic and its impact on the higher education sector in Australia? First, it is clear that COVID-19 exacerbated existing issues with the neoliberal, marketised model and cannot be entirely blamed for the current crisis in the sector. Second, although government support of the sector — for example, the exclusion of JobKeeper supports — has been critically lacking during COVID-19, this is not out of step with recent policy trends in Australia. Third, the pandemic brought into sharp focus the sector’s strong reliance on the international education market, and the resulting impact on the Australian economy. The interconnected issues of marketisation, inadequate government support, reliance on (and treatment of) international students require robust discussion at a national level and a revised policy approach for the future. Fourth, the evidence from this study shows that university leaders must address the wellbeing needs of academic staff; not only through Employee Assistance Programs and other supports, but through reasonable and sustainable expectations.

Forthcoming article: 

Fiona McGaughey, Richard Watermeyer, Kalpana Shankar, Venkata Ratnadeep Suri, Cathryn Knight, Tom Crick, Joanne Hardman, Dean Phelan, Roger Chung This can’t be the new norm’: academics’ perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis for the Australian University Sector

*Corresponding author: fiona.mcgaughey@uwa.edu.au 

From left to right: Fiona McGaughey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia Law School and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).  Fiona has broad research interests including international human rights law, modern slavery, pedagogy and student wellbeing.  Richard Watermeyer is Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of The Centre for Higher Education Transformations (CHET) in the School of Education at the University of Bristol. A sociologist of higher education his recent books include Competitive Accountability in Academic Life: The Struggle for Social impact and Public Legitimacy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) and the Impact Agenda: controversies, challenges and consequences. (Bristol: Policy press). Kalpana Shankar is a Professor of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin and co-director of the UCD Centre for Digital Policy.

Online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face

In 2020 higher education student satisfaction with their ‘entire educational experience’ hit its lowest point since Australia’s national survey of current students began in 2011.

But the detailed survey results, which cover many aspects of student life, paint a mixed picture. Despite an unexpected shift to online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions, satisfaction with many aspects of teaching changed little between 2019 and 2020. The lost opportunity for personal contact with other students drove the biggest falls in satisfaction.

The Student Experience Survey (SES) is sent each year to commencing and later year students, who based on subjects taken to date are estimated to be in their final year. All higher education providers, public or private, university or non-university, are now within scope, with 184,000 undergraduates completing a survey in 2020. The SES includes postgraduates, but this post focuses on undergraduates. 

Students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Most SES questions refer to specific aspects of student experience, but there is a general ‘overall how would you rate the quality of your entire educational experience this year?’ question. This fell from 78 per cent of respondents rating their educational experience as good or excellent in 2019 to 69 per cent in 2020. It had never previously been below 2019 levels. The SES report produced by the Social Research Centre notes that, as we would expect, students who enrolled for on-campus education led the decline in satisfaction. 

Despite lower overall satisfaction, no specific question probing responses to the work of academic staff declined by more than 5 percentage points – that was the drop in those agreeing that their course was delivered in a way that was ‘well-structured and focused’, to 62 per cent (suggesting that this was already an issue for a third of students). 

Ratings of teacher concern for student learning and feedback on work showed no year-to-year change at all, and other questions on intellectual stimulation, clear explanations of coursework and assessment, and teacher helpfulness and approachability registered only small dips in satisfaction. The quality of online learning materials was rated as good or excellent by 81 per cent of students, four percentage points lower than in 2019 – but a good result as it includes judgment on materials were not going to be online until COVID struck. 

In the eyes of their students teaching staff managed the move from campus-based teaching better than expected given earlier reports of dissatisfaction.  But online study diminished other aspects of the higher education experience. This was especially so for commencing students. The proportion of them reporting working often or very often with other students as part of their study dropped 16 percentage points, to 48 per cent. Frequent interaction with other students outside study was down 15 percentage points to 27 per cent. A sense of belonging to the university declined 12 percentage points to 42 per cent. Self-perceived development of skills to work effectively with others fell 11 percentage points to 52 per cent. 

The published SES reports don’t provide demographic detail for individual question results, but undergraduates aged under 25 years reported larger overall declines in satisfaction than older students. Young people had the most to lose from online education. For many of them university offers a significant social experience as well as a formal education. No matter how good the online educational technology, there is no perfect digital substitute for face-to-face contact. Later year students were less satisfied in the same areas as commencing students, but with lower year-on-year declines. Possibly maintaining friends and connections established before 2020 online was easier than forming new relationships. 

A return to on-campus teaching is the obvious way to lift face-to-face contact between students. That is partially happening, but going back to where we were in early March 2020 will not be easy. Universities won’t remove online versions of courses while the threat of lockdown remains, or while there are still students, especially international students, who cannot get to an Australian campus. And as with workers who are reluctant to return to the office despite most restrictions on doing so being lifted, students may have formed new habits while being forced to study at home. They might miss their friends, but they don’t miss the commute. 

 A university survey conducted earlier this year suggests that COVID accelerated moves to permanently reduce, or even eliminate, teaching via lectures. While there are long-standing pedagogical critiques of lectures, this could take away another reason for students to visit their campus regularly.  

So many big things are happening in higher education at the moment – COVID-driven changes to domestic student behaviour, the loss of international students on campus or entirely, the reduced per student funding of Job-ready Graduates – that it is hard to predict what campus life will look like in two or three years time. 

But the latest Student Experience Survey results show that while hasty transitions to online tuition had surprisingly small negative effects on student ratings of teaching, for some students the lack of face-to-face interaction makes their overall student experience much less satisfying. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at andrewnorton.net .au Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton 

I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting

The secret lives of doctoral students and how academics can help

Every year, thousands of students enrol into doctoral programs across Australia and around the world. New PhD students enter an environment characterised by the persistent pursuit for knowledge – there is always something more to learn.

They also hear advice about academia from all and sundry. When we spoke to students in 2021, one final year PhD student noted, 

“There are so many different aspects to learn about and it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. This leaves you always wondering whether you are missing something. There are also many different perspectives offered by others – everyone’s experience is so different that it’s hard to work out what advice applies to you and what does not.”1

Given that each person’s experience in a PhD program is unique, how does a PhD student come to know what their identity as a researcher is?

When someone asks you to describe yourself, on which area of your life do you focus? Perhaps you highlight your job or education, listing your interests and achievements. Maybe you highlight your religion and/or ethnicity, highlighting how these shape your approach to life. You may explore your family and personal life, showcasing the impact these areas have on your life satisfaction. The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, who we are not, and who we ‘should’ be in our context, can be defined as our identity

Identity is multifaceted and continuously shaped through our experiences. It is also significantly influenced by the context in which we find ourselves – the implicit practices within our context tell us what is expected of us.  As researchers, we are particularly interested in the concept of academic identity – the stories people tell themselves and others about who they are or are not within the context of academia. A PhD student’s academic identity is, therefore, largely shaped through the narratives and practices they experience within academia as they conduct their research.

An area of special interest for us is the doctoral education environment in higher education institutions. As higher education researchers, we experience the daily influence of academia on our own sense of who we are. We have seen PhD students try to navigate the often implicit knowledges and practices of academia during their studies. These implicit knowledges and practices are rarely taught and can cause an environment of exclusiveness – a space where some are privileged while others are marginalised. We were interested in exploring how PhD students’ experiences influence their perception of their place within the context of academia.

We believe that, to understand the experiences of PhD students as they navigate this complex environment, you have to highlight their voices. By listening to their stories, we believe we can better understand their journeys and, consequently, design improved educational experiences. We have used this approach in the past, which allowed us to explore the personal journeys of several doctoral students as they reflected on their own studies.2 The autobiographical narratives that the PhD students wrote highlighted that the PhD significantly influenced their wellbeing, sense of identity, and intercultural competence. For example, one student noted:

“I understand the PhD as an office-like job; however, your job has a lack of clarity regarding how you are supposed to achieve your goals. You get to decide what you need to do each day, but your plans change all the time as your research results take your study in a new direction. This of course means that you have a great deal of flexibility, but it also means there is a lot of uncertainty during your PhD journey. Personally, this meant that I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting.”3

To explore PhD students’ academic identity development, we conducted a large-scale research project exploring the experiences and lived realities of 29 PhD students at an Australian university. We used a creative approach that was designed to highlight the voices of the students through narratives and poems, allowing us to explore academic identity development from their points of view. The first findings from this project was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education and has since received significant attention from the academic community. An open access post-print version of this article is available here.

To start our research, we wanted to know why students committed the time and energy to pursue a PhD degree. We found our participants pursued a PhD as a stepping stone for future career success, to learn more about themselves or a particular academic topic, and to solve a problem in their local context. The students believed that the PhD was an all-consuming endeavour, something that should only be attempted by someone if they could fully dedicate themselves to the pursuit.

Further exploration of our participants’ experiences helped us to discover that PhD students experience significant pressure to build their personal brand. They felt that there was considerable tension between developing disciplinary knowledge and building professional skills (also sometimes termed “soft skills” or “transferable skills”). Yet they also felt that both these forms of personal knowledge were essential for later career success. Importantly, our study showed that several of our participants felt marginalised in their ability to develop these different forms of personal knowledge. They felt that their agency to take control of their own learning was hindered by various institutions that influenced the context of academia including the universities themselves, government agencies, and scholarship funding agencies. As a result, several students felt disempowered during their educational journey which adversely affected their academic identity.

As noted by one participant,

“This has been taxing intellectually but VERY taxing on my sense of self and my sense of self worth as a scholar.”1

The tension students experience highlights that the links between disciplinary knowledge and professional skills are not made clear to students. We believe that professional skills actually increase the applicability of disciplinary knowledge. For example, if PhD students do not have the ability to communicate their research to a wider audience, it is likely that their disciplinary knowledge will linger in relative obscurity. We also believe that the act of doing disciplinary research teaches a range of professional skills as a consequence. For example, conducting literature research to identify a research project for study necessitates the use of a variety of analytical skills. It is, therefore, our responsibility as educators to help PhD students reflect on the knowledge and skills they already possess. This reflective approach can help students develop an understanding of the variety of skills they have already developed during their studies, giving them the agency to seek targeted professional development approaches for future career success.

Importantly, our research should act as a clarion call for those in academia. We implore educators to value different forms of knowledge and skills. This approach will help the scholars and problem-solvers of the future develop a strong sense of who they are and where they fit within their respective fields.

Dr Lynette Pretorius works with undergraduate, postgraduate, and graduate research students to improve their academic language and literacy skills in the Academic Language, Literacy and Numeracy Development Team at Monash University.

Dr Luke Macaulay is a research fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training, and Education (CREATE), researching the education and employment experiences of people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds.


1.     Pretorius, L., & Macaulay, L. (2021). Notions of human capital and academic identity in the PhD: Narratives of the disempowered. Journal of Higher Education, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2020.1854605

2.     Pretorius, L., Macaulay, L., & Cahusac de Caux, B. (2019). Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0

3.     Lau, R. W. K., & Pretorius, L. (2019). Intrapersonal wellbeing and the academic mental health crisis. In L. Pretorius, L. Macaulay, & B. Cahusac de Caux (Eds.), Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience (pp. 37-45). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0_5




Universities all over Australia are welcoming back students – but what will the learning experience look like?

The Australian National University’s vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt told staff last week:: “We need our teachers to be more than just people who stand at the front of the lecture hall or before a video camera. We need them to connect with their students in richer ways. This might include fewer lectures, and those that we do deliver, will be memorable and sophisticated, utilising technology.”

Campus Morning Mail reported his remarks: “It would be easy to make the university into an on-line supermarket of inexpensively delivered courses and divert the savings into research or other funds.”

And The Guardian reported: “Australian universities are prioritising ‘Instagram-worthy’ experiences on campus, while cutting building costs and face-to-face lectures, according to an external report on university digitisation. Darren McKee, the chief operating officer of Murdoch University in Western Australia was quoted in the report saying: ‘The face-to-face mass lecture is all but dead’.”

And read this in THE: Berkeley scraps plans for great big lecture theatres.

We asked educators to respond to these comments. Shirley Alexander, deputy vice-chancellor. University of Technology Sydney; Sarah O’Shea, director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University; Marcus O’Donnell, director, Cloud Learning Futures at Deakin University; Sally Male, chair in engineering education, University of Western Australia; and Amy Wong, research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, formerly of the University of Queensland.

Have lectures ever really been alive?

By Shirley Alexander: Avid readers of higher education news will have noticed a recent run of articles proclaiming the lecture as “dead”, with universities reported to be ceasing expensive building programs, and/or no longer building “lecture theatres”.  But have lectures ever really been alive? 

To answer this question we need to explore what we actually mean when we use the term ‘lecture?’ One form (and one which I’m sure many have experienced) is the practice of conveying information. This can range from someone engaged in a one way communication of knowledge, perhaps even reading Powerpoint slides to an audience (who presumably already know how to read) to someone who is incredibly inspiring and motivating to listen to. Do students learn from these? It depends on what the learner does, and how he/she/they perceives the context.

Another teaching activity sometimes described as a lecture, is one in which the teacher gives a clear explanation of an important concept, and then asks students to apply that knowledge to solve a problem or complete an exercise that makes use of that concept and creation of personal meaning. Students might submit their own responses and then have the benefit of seeing a variation of responses from their peers, after which they might refine their own understanding. Do students learn from these experiences? It depends on what the learner does, and how he/she/they perceives the context.

My original question “have lectures ever really been alive?” can only really be answered by analysis of whether they have led to good student learning outcomes. The prevailing evidence is that the more active learning approaches to ‘lectures’ as described in the second scenario are much more likely to achieve that. But I also sound a note of caution as hinted at above. No teaching method can guarantee learning independent of what the learner does and how they perceive the context of their learning.

There is a certain amount of ‘invisibility’ around the resourcing of online teaching and delivery

The best way lectures can be delivered in the new environment is by adopting a diversity of modalities of delivery including face-to-face, online with small supportive groups. It is offering students that choice between different delivery modes that is most optimal.

Effective teaching and learning can be delivered online and face-to-face but academics need both time and additional specialist skills to do that. Simply, you can’t just deliver the face-to-face content and put that online. It won’t be effective. Creating online content is time consuming and may require fundamental changes in delivery. Academics may need to shift their existing skill set and also need recognition of the time this involves. To do that, they need additional support.

There is a certain amount of ‘invisibility’ around the resourcing of online teaching and delivery – having taught online for over a decade I know how significant this time commitment can be. Recent  research also indicates this,  such as Cathy Stone’s work in this regard. Aside from the time commitment, there are also equity implications. Academics and educational developers need to remain mindful of the context of learners. It is recognising that not all learners have high level NBN, high uploads and downloads or  access to even basic technology – content needs to be delivered according  to the context of the learners within the institution. Yes, we must have interactive strategies but we also need to recognise that not everyone can be online at the same time. It’s more important to offer options and flexibility in order to make learning truly equitable . We  cannot assume that all learners are the same or have access to the same equipment. Students from a range of equity backgrounds have indicated the diversity of ways used to access online content for their studies which can range from driving on-campus, sitting in McDonalds’ car parks or using friends or family. Some may only have pay as you go data plans which are notoriously more expensive and may often be shared with other family members. Hence, offering a diversity of modalities of delivery is key, a combination of online, face to face and also, asynchronous mediums such as recordings, podcasts and static downloads   

To be effective in online delivery and development – professional development for academic staff and a greater investment in educational technologists and technology is also needed urgently. The educational technology support staff are absolutely key; they understand how to maximise available platforms and how to ensure that all students are getting the same learner experience. 

With colleagues, I have interviewed over 1,000 students from a diversity of backgrounds. Overwhelmingly, what  makes a positive learning experience for them is often just the accessibility of people to talk to. It can be as simple as knowing who to contact if they have a problem, just knowing there is someone at the other end of the line can make all the difference for both retention and progression.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.


Stone, C., & O’Shea. S. (2019). ‘Older, online and first: Recommendations for retention and success’. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Drane, C.F., Vernon, L. & O’Shea, S. Vulnerable learners in the age of COVID-19: A scoping review. Aust. Educ. Res. (2020).

The Walking Dead

By Marcus O’Donnell Higher education is currently emerging from a fraught year of constraints and experiments where COVID19 forced a move away from on campus experiences to online only delivery. This seems to have emboldened some institutions to finally bite the bullet and scrap traditional lectures. So is the lecture dead?

The reality is that the lecture has been dead or dying for a very long time. Students have largely been voting with their feet. One lecturer in my own institution famously went viral a few years ago when he tweeted a picture of his empty lecture hall at the start of trimester with a cranky rant.

The persistence of lectures is largely driven by the fact that they are the most economical way for universities to deliver an in-person experience to large numbers of students. We know however that it is not an effective or engaging form of learning. Active learning where students are set tasks, asked to solve problems, asked to engage with their peers – not only mimics how we learn in real professional situations – it is now widely confirmed as a more effective form of learning.

Over the last few decades Australian universities have all committed themselves to turning out graduates who are digitally literate, critical thinkers, problem solvers, and excellent communicators. These are the learning outcomes that employers constantly demand. We cannot deliver these outcomes in programs which are primarily lecture-based because this is not just about “knowing stuff” it’s about “doing stuff”.

The danger in the post-COVID transition for higher education is that institutions take the worst of our old methodologies (ie hours of one way information transmission) and simply transpose this to online recordings. At Deakin we have adopted what we call a “Cloud First” philosophy. This takes as a given that all students engage with the university through digital tools – one quarter of our students are fully online, but all students who attend our physical campuses also engage with learning materials online. We have become very adept at producing these online learning materials in smart engaging formats, in our best courses we match this with active learning seminars where students learn together in more interactive ways. But transformation to this way of teaching and learning is hard and expensive. It takes leadership and resourcing.

Lectures have become the key-way universities organise staff time allocation and physical campuses have traditionally been organised around large lecture theatres, so until we address these elephantine structural issues lectures will persist, just like the walking dead.

Students still benefit from explanations and demonstrations

By Sally Male Universities have diverse student demographics, teachers, teaching and research strengths, campuses, relationships with employers and communities, and funding models. The meaning or existence of classes such as ‘lectures’, ‘tutorials’, and ‘practicals’ varies by discipline.

How we teach must adapt to changes with requirements, contexts, resources and constraints. Desirable graduate attributes have changed as work and society have changed. For example, the significance of addressing sustainability has increased in recent decades. Technology has provided
opportunities. Students now access numerous resources online. Simulations, models, virtual and augmented reality and online interactions are used in teaching and learning. In 2020, constraints changed due to COVID and we adapted.

Requirements for diverse students in diverse disciplines in diverse universities will be diverse. Requirements include equitable opportunity and support to learn in order to lead a successful life contributing to society, and inclusive opportunity to develop identity. Students still benefit from explanations and demonstrations. In classes that might be called lectures, teachers complement explanations and demonstrations with active, interactive learning activities. For example, students consider carefully designed problems and are led in discussion about the common alternative conceptions revealed by these.

By taking advantage of technology, and with thoughtful implementation, blended synchronous classes are likely to be one element of the range of classes and learning activities that meet future requirements. Face-to face classes can be convenient and involve rich experiences and opportunities
to establish relationships for a school-leaver living in college. A student with work and dependents might prefer to join online. A student outside the dominant cultural group might prefer to ask questions via chat despite sitting in class. A student with poor vision might attend face-to-face and
watch their laptop more easily than a projected image. Rather than abandon lectures, in many circumstances, and especially to achieve equity and inclusion, there is opportunity for blended (face-to-face, and online), synchronous (with students participating concurrently) lectures, involving
instruction and carefully designed, active learning.

Why we need live lectures

By Amy (Wai Yee) Wong Live lectures provide an invaluable opportunity for students to engage in synchronous interactions with lecturers and their peers. These social interactions are unique in live lecturing which is core to co-create knowledge and skills that are meaningful to the context of students’ university and lifelong learning.

The use of educational technology such as online polling and collaboration tools not only enables these interactions among a large cohort of students, either in a lecture hall or in a virtual environment, but also provide an inclusive opportunity to involve the less ‘out-spoken’ students to have a voice to connect with the lecturers and their peers. To make the best out of the live lectures, lecturers play a pivotal role as knowledge translators, co-creators and change agents developing partnership learning communities with students (Advance HE, 2016). 

The current pandemic has encouraged lecturers to adapt their teaching practices to a digital world. Reflecting on my recent experience of delivering live lectures online for an evidence-based practice (EBP) course in health professions education, I argue that lectures underpinned by purposeful pedagogical design work for higher education. For example, as a co-creator to construct meaningful knowledge with students, I have to know the existing level of their understanding of a topic and take students to a high level of learning. I heavily rely on real-time feedback from students during the lecture through an online polling tool which provides me with instant results of student responses showing in a bar graph or a word cloud. Based on the students’ inputs, I translated the abstract concepts of EBP to concrete examples in the healthcare setting that are relevant to the students’ practical experience. Students suddenly realised how the theoretical knowledge can be applied to the real-life context to make an impact on enhancing practice. This also creates new ideas for further professional conversations and inquiry.

The process of co-constructing knowledge is a distinctive feature achieved through synchronous interactions with students during live lectures. The personal interactions in live online or face-to-face lectures are irreplaceable by other means of delivery in higher education. To make live lectures truly work for student learning, we need to take the advantage of technology to deliver lectures with innovative design supported by sound pedagogical principles to connect, inspire and empower students to create partnership learning communities.


Advance HE (2016). Essential frameworks for enhancing student success. Student engagement through partnership.

Our university workforce has become a fragmented, casualised ‘gig economy’. The problems we face

The quality and integrity of higher education in Australia is dependent on the quality of the academics who staff our universities. The supply pipeline of the academic workforce needs careful planning if it is to continue to be effectively renewed by fully rounded academics who are engaged in research and can contribute to sustaining the quality of Australian higher education.

Unfortunately, the higher education sector response to this challenge has been reactive and haphazard. We believe the problems in the sector are wide ranging and can be profoundly destructive to the future of all Australians unless we co-operatively address them and get government and policy action to change what is happening.

Problems facing the future of academic work

Growth demands

For more than a decade demographers and researchers have drawn attention to the impending need to renew the academic workforce in Australia. The Group of Eight (Go8) coalition of Australian universities estimated  that by 2030 an additional 26,600 full-time teaching staff would be needed to meet growth demands, on top of the 16,400 to replace retirements. There is little evidence of policies or support from governments to address this problem.

Changes to the nature of our work in an increasingly competitive environment

Substantial changes in the nature and context of academic work have emerged in the slipstream of commodified higher education. There is now mass participation by students in higher education, with diverse needs, interests and abilities and they are engaged in multiple modes of course delivery.  Academics today need to be agile in learning new technologies and delivery platforms, while they work in loosely co-ordinated teams often with out-of-area teaching allocations.

At the same time, universities have become intensely competitive, with global league tables promoting a hierarchy of institutions, and, in an effort to support high quality teaching and research, increased competition for declining resources. University administrations have sought to reduce the risks of continuing academic staff positions by resorting to sessional, short-term contracts and teaching-only positions. 

Casualised and fragmented workforce under high levels of stress

During the last two decades the conceptualisation, organisation, and nature of academic work has been disrupted, re-designed and transformed, resulting in an increasingly stratified, segmented, and fragmented workforce. A number of major studies have established the Australian academic workforce is experiencing excessive workload demands, intrusive managerialism and bureaucratic reporting requirements, widespread work dissatisfaction, work-related stress and burnout, at higher levels in Australia than elsewhere.

It is also highly casualised, and reliant on sessional academic staff at the lowest appointment levels to undertake face-to-face and online teaching and marking at the undergraduate level.  Concurrently, the on-going academic workforce is disproportionately skewed toward the older end of the age distribution. Impending retirement among the “baby boomer” generation will intensify the gap between on-going senior academic appointments and those occupying insecure, precariously funded positions founded on “soft” money from research grants and tenders.

Struggles of working in the ‘gig economy’

Short-term policy responses to meet staffing demands over the last decade or more have left a climate of career uncertainty and insecurity, lessening the attractiveness of the academic career. In meeting their on-going operational and educational demands in an unpredictable and volatile funding environment created by successive governments, universities have generated a new class of highly flexible and agile academic workers employed on insecure short-term, casual contracts.

They are subject to somewhat arbitrary rules of hiring and firing, income insecurity, and are distinguishable by their job and employment insecurity, lack of negotiating power about working conditions, and lack of career prospects and planning.

These are “the precariat” who find themselves in the “gig” economy. A significant proportion of these people have completed their PhD and then find there are few opportunities for ongoing employment. They piece together teaching and marking contracts at one or more universities without necessarily building the foundations of a career.

The growth of teaching-only positions undermining our future workforce

Early career academics (defined as 5 years post PhD) constitute the future workforce of the academy; yet, many are employed on sessional teaching contracts, concentrated in the lowest appointment levels and teaching-only positions. The percentage of “teaching only” staff rose by 360%, and specialised research roles by 96% in the period from 2001-2014. Casual staff, estimated between 40-60%, experience greater job insecurity, lowered access to support structures, juggle multiple demands and piecemeal contracts, suffer occupational, financial and personal stress, all of which stunt the development of expertise, undermine persistence, and fracture academic career motivations and ambitions.

Workload and burnout

Pressures have intensified with frequent reviews and restructures, standardisation and external regulation, performance measures (of teaching, research, impact, and engagement), unmanageable workloads, and the abandonment of tenure in some universities. Research has suggested that almost 40% of Australian academics aged under 30 were not committed to an academic career, or were planning to pursue other careers within 5-10 years, and 13-18% had immediate plans for departure. In the intervening period the prospects of a career in academia have not got better.

It seems inevitable that universities will not be able to meet the key performance indicators set by government and that academic staff will continue to experience job burnout at high rates.

Struggling with how to help

We need to know more about how early career academics cope with the competing demands of the job and what personal and work-related resources help to sustain healthy and committed academics. Conversely, we need to understand what job-related demands undermine the personal career motivations and goals, reduce work commitment and result in poor personal health and well-being outcomes. These are not trivial questions.

Massive growth of non academic staff in universities and related tensions

Alongside casual academic staff, new types of professional staff appointments have grown exponentially and found secure positions within universities as student advisers, HR managers, teaching and learning advisers, technical staff to manage digital technologies, academic advisers or facilitators to administer teaching programs in “flexible” modes, including technology mediated on-line teacher-less classrooms, and most recently, the emergence of practice professionals who teach but are not expected to contribute to the research endeavour.

There are irrevocable tensions that will continue to build in the university higher education workforce, between academic and professional staff who are appointed to ongoing positions with a career path and prospects, versus the short-term, contracted, sessional academic appointments who are not offered a career path, creating a sense of existential precariousness with few future prospects.

Funding uncertainty

Funding uncertainty and poor long-term planning for higher education more generally and, for universities in particular, is undermining the capacity and contribution of a skilled and committed academic workforce, making hollow the promise of Australia’s future economic productivity, innovation, growth and social stability.

Without due care and attention to the systematic renewal of the academic workforce, we believe Australia’s enviable reputation for high quality university-level education cannot be sustained.

Paul Richardson is Professor of Education at Monash University. Paul’s research interests focus on the career choice motivations of beginning teachers and the career paths, health and wellbeing of mid-career teachers. His interest in the career choice motivations, goals, health and wellbeing of academics, especially early career academics, is a development from his earlier empirical work on teachers and observations made during his time as Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Education at Monash University.Paul is on Twitter @academiccentral

Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands

Paul Richardson (paul.richardson@monash.edu) and Amanda Heffernan (amanda.heffernan@monash.edu)  are beginning a pilot study examining the career motivations and coping strategies among Early Career Academics (within 5 years of PhD) working in Australian Universities. If you would be willing to contribute your experiences to this study, we would be pleased to hear from you.

The strange world of medical school for working-class and Indigenous students: doing extreme social mobility

What happens when becoming a doctor is a battle between staying true to yourself and fitting in to an elite profession? It sounds dramatic, but this is the struggle that working-class and Indigenous students face when entering the strange world of medical school.

Medicine – the final equity frontier?

Medical school has traditionally been the domain of white, upper middle-class males. There have been gradual shifts over time, with females and non-Anglo students now well represented. But when it comes to social class and Indigeneity, it’s a different story.

Medical schools have been slower to respond to the opening-up of higher education to diverse groups evident in teaching and nursing degrees. It’s a similar pattern in law. These high-status degrees represent the final frontiers for the widening access agenda in higher education. In undergraduate medical degrees, just 10% of students come from low-socioeconomic status (LSES) backgrounds and 1.9% are from Indigenous backgrounds. Proportional representation relative to the population would see 25% of students from LSES and 2.3% from Indigenous backgrounds.

What are the hurdles?

Are the privileged favoured in medical school admissions processes? Or are working-class and Indigenous students not applying? In Australia, low-socioeconomic status students have a higher success rate in medical school applications than their high-SES peers, but apply in smaller numbers. The exceptionally high ATAR for medicine is a substantial barrier for people from these backgrounds, as is the multi-phased admissions process, including hurdles such as the expensive Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test. British and Australian research shows that low-socioeconomic status students imagine that medical school is full of ‘posh’ geniuses, and that they will not fit in.

Medical school: a strange new land

Working-class and Indigenous students find themselves in a clear minority when they arrive at medical school. Starting university is a tough transition for many students, but this is compounded by the pressure of the intensive coursework of medicine and trying to develop a sense of belonging in an exclusive environment. We recently interviewed medical students who were the first-in-family to go to university – most were working-class and a significant proportion Indigenous. These students had to be particularly strategic to succeed in the profession while struggling to remain connected to their families and communities.

Medical education involves socialisation into an elite, high-paid profession. Many of our interviewees entered medical school expecting not to fit in, and they did notice how different they were. Other students had ‘money to throw around’, and were ‘a different breed’, more ‘polished’ and ‘clean cut’. In contrast, some of our participants described themselves as ‘a bit rough around the edges’.

The students had to work hard to build knowledge and connections around medical careers that their middle- and upper-class peers already seemed to have. One told us that:

everyone seemed a lot more confident because a lot of them had planned to do medicine since they’d entered high school and had always wanted to do medicine. A lot of people have parents that are doctors and people in their family that are doctors, so I really had no idea, I didn’t know what actually happened after medical school.

‘99% medical student, 1% bogan’: Forging professional identity

Students described gradually becoming more confident in the world of medicine, but this involved a shift in identity and behaviour. Some changed the way they spoke, adopting the professional communication style taught within the degree.

How were these students seen by their families and communities? Becoming more like a ‘doctor’ meant creating a rift between their old and new identities, a source of tension for students themselves and people they had grown up with. One described her friends making comments like, ‘You won’t come back to [our town] when you’re rich’. An Indigenous student was uncomfortable with the high status afforded doctors – status was for her most often reserved for community Elders.

Our research showed these students were caught between two worlds: no longer fitting easily into their old lives, nor into medical culture. One said, regarding the other students on her course:

I do find it hard to relate to people that are from rich families….I don’t know, there are all these things that I’ve seen and done that are different to what they may have seen and done…

Interviewees recognised that their backgrounds were a professional asset that gave them an advantage when treating patients, most of whom also do not share the privileged background of doctors. An Indigenous student noticed that many students were ‘quite clueless with Indigenous health’. Another said that because of his ‘very humble’ background, growing up in an environment where people had little money and poor health, he understands where patients are coming from.

What stood out was the commitment of these students to return to their communities as doctors. The areas they came from – typically low-SES, rural or Indigenous community – are the very places most in need of better healthcare access. Encouraging doctors to work in these regions has always been a challenge, and there’s evidence that the best strategy is to recruit students who grew up in these areas.

Having this goal of returning to serve community meant that participants were not prepared to forfeit their identities to fit some medical professional norm. Instead they were learning to succeed in both worlds. One participant proudly told us he was ‘99% medical student, 1% bogan’. Another said:

I might have to be a slightly more refined version of myself as a doctor. But I think with the patients I’ll still be okay and with my family, I’ll still be much the same.

Understanding extreme social mobility

Australia’s comparatively good rates of social mobility are less apparent in high status professions. The proposed increase in university fees, especially for degrees like medicine, may well curtail what limited mobility exists. It’s important for educators and policy makers to better understand journeys of extreme social mobility. Understanding how people from ‘humble’ backgrounds make their extraordinary journey into, through and beyond medical school is important if the profession is to diversify and become more inclusive of the truly talented, regardless of social background.


Erica Southgate is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Newcastle, Australia. She is her first in her family to go to university. In 2016, as national Equity Fellow, she conducted research on increasing access to high status professions such as medicine, law and engineering for young people experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation. She believes emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality can be used to broaden the career education of young people and is the author of the report: ‘Immersed in the future: A roadmap of existing and emerging technology for career exploration.’ https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Immersed-In-The-Future-A-Roadmap-of-Existing-and-Emerging-Technologies-for-Career-Exploration.pdf



Caragh Brosnan is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research focuses particularly on understanding how different kinds of knowledge come to be valued in scientific and health professional practice and education. She recently led an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award project, Complementary and alternative medicine degrees: new configurations of knowledge, professional autonomy and the university. This explored how what is taught in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) degrees reflects the professional status of CAM, at the same time examining the broader relationship between professions and the university. Caragh’s work on medical education has focussed on issues of equity and access, as well as on the construction of legitimate knowledge in medical curricula. Her publications include the edited collections, the Handbook of the Sociology of Medical Education (Routledge 2009) and Bourdieusian Prospects (Routledge 2017).

What is happening with higher education in this election? (Yes you should be worried)

You might share my concerns about what is looming for higher education in the coming election. A returned conservative government would continue with its agenda to significantly cut funding to universities. It appears likely to continue with its plan to deregulate fees, albeit at a slower pace than previously proposed.

However the alternative that Labor seems to be proposing for higher education is based on a flawed assumption.

Pyne’s “dumped” package is still in play

Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to university base funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package.

Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’, the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014. So, thankfully, the proposals were not passed.

The Turnbull government has since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like the current one. This is a shame for higher education, in my view, as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly.

Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. I will remind you just before he moved on he told us he was “the fixer”.

The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures.

However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out in a piece in The Mandarin that Birmingham’s discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others. But is not completely clear what is in and what is out.

As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms.

He adds that the government has clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date, until the beginning of 2018. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees.

But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation. This is indeed not Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach, however it is very much an introduction of higher education fee deregulation.

To sum up my concerns about the Turnbull Government’s plans for higher education

I’m worried about the potential impact of a 20% funding cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate. The opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education would surely be affected.

Fee deregulation, no matter how it is undertaken, will lead to fee increases. My concern is this will set up yet another hurdle for various non-traditional student cohorts, because of actual costs or the perception that university education is too expensive.

Labor’s intentions for higher education is based on a flawed assumption

But I’m also worried about Labor’s intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each-year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ a wide range of strategies to keep students.

The strategies we use include the following: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention. Significant funding is directed at all of these efforts.

We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions, and we closely monitor the effects of these.

Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally do decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.

But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified university system.

Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.

Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. Is this really what Labor wants?

We need an effective higher education package that will benefit all Australians

I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off.

As I see it the policies on offer so far will mean that many Australians will be turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings both personally and to the nation as a whole.

Marcia Feb 2016Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

Decelerated curriculum is here. It’s about engagement not more swipe and like literacies

Capturing student attention is often framed as the driver of technological innovation in universities. However, using more screens rarely results in a deeper investigation of ideas. Instead, it can promote quick swipe and like literacies.

Instead, we need to deploy strategies that slow down engagements with ideas, texts and knowledges so students find spaces to think critically, engage with deep knowledge and reflect. I call this a decelerated curriculum.

The screen age

Screens now percolate our physical environment, from ATMs and Eftpos machines, through to digital billboards, and art installations. Most of us carry at least one screen around with us. The ubiquity of the screen makes interaction with environments, people and places more complex and creative. The potential of this interactive experience is harnessed by clever ideas, such as QR codes for example, that effortlessly integrate online and offline consciousness.

These types of functional interactivities are what many educators are attempting to use to transform education from what is popularly decried as out-dated 20th century chalkboard and duster teaching to a flexible framework for mobile learning.

Multiplying screens in the world of university students

Students today have grown up with the internet. They typically own multiple devices, and have a diversity of internet, web and app-based literacies that work outside the tried and tested vocabularies of traditional education. Lectures and tutorials are decried as outdated and out-of-touch to the needs of these multitasking students. Traditional educational forms are too slow and mundane for jacked-in, digi-literate users.

Universities do indeed need to adapt. There is a place for wireless educational interactions and spaces populated with screens and touch interfaces, that offer multiple points of interaction with social media, learning management systems and flexible information management tools. Curricula and syllabi can offer the latest apps, Ted Talks, MOOC opportunities, and interactive testing, all in the service of capturing the attention of these highly mobile and fragmented digital natives.

It’s not the screens that matter

In an idealised education students learn at their own pace, in authentically interactive environments. Teachers ideally collaborate with them, using technology, to create a learning environment that is tailored specifically for them. Most importantly, this deployment of technology is coded to function as the catchall of that most difficult and mysterious of all educational challenges, student motivation.

The technology is seen provide the bridge between teacherly expertise and student interest. Teachers won’t need to worry about student engagement because the right app, programme, or interface will service those needs. As long as it is online, digitised and device ready, the students will be engaged.

However, what this approach belies is the fundamental problem of attention management. More screens do not capture attention, they fragment it. Students accelerate across their screens moving from platforms via different windows, gleaning information and processing at speed.

What is needed is the space and time to slow down from these interactions. It is through slow consideration of ideas that expertise is able to grow and percolate. It is not acquired, downloaded and archived. Education is as much about the student growing as a person as it is about them learning to process information into knowledge. This requires time, development and maturity.

The decelerated curriculum

What is needed is a decelerated curriculum. This is not a syllabus that nostalgically returns to the old ways of teaching and learning. Nor is this a radically new way of thinking. But the focus on using more screens to capture attention subverts the strongest potentials of education, to cultivate thinkers rather than scanners, critiquers rather downloaders, innovators rather than likers and swipers.

Our students already have an accelerated literacy. The point of education is not to provide more of what they already know, but to offer diverse experiences that make them effective learners, critical citizens and reflexive adults. This means asking them to slow down, to experience the world from a different perspective so that they make relevant and engaged choices.

How to decelerate

Moving towards a decelerated approach to teaching and learning means asking students to focus their attention on one idea or one task for an extended amount of time. It involves building their scholarship from information management into reflexively activated knowledges. Teachers may use a number of strategies to scaffold the disciplining of attention and mobilisation of contemplation. The objective is not to get to the answer or write the essay in the most efficient and effective manner, but to ponder the problems and potentialities in a question, topic or idea over time.

This process may also involve elements of digitisation and screen-based interactions, but done so in the service of amplifying the time focused on an idea. A semester long research project, for example, at first year level can introduce students to depth in investigation and demonstrate respect for knowledge. It can ask them to use their devices in ways that offer an intensified digital presence with a database, research task or required reading. This can be balanced by offline work that slows their interaction with texts so they cannot swipe or click through to new material. In doing so, teachers are teaching attention, focus and scrutiny by allowing students the space to think.

Students now face a number of demands as a result of a changing and highly unstable working environment. Getting the right education while accumulating high levels of debt is stressful. Many are being trained for jobs that may or may not exist when they graduate their degree. Universities are facing increasing competition under the demands to capitalise on business outputs. Digitisation is being framed as a way to excite students and streamline university processes.

It is indeed a time of great change, but I believe students do not need more screens. They need a decelerated curriculum in order to manage the screens they have and learn in more deeply relevant and effective ways.

McRaeLeanne McRae has been teaching international students at undergraduate and postgraduate level for over fifteen years. She is an expert in popular cultural studies and proficient in curriculum design and delivery with innovative approaches to pedagogy.

Leanne specialises in popular cultural studies, creative industries, mobility studies, pedagogy, postwork theory, and postcolonialism. Leanne is currently a lecturer and course co-ordinator in Internet Studies at Curtin University.