higher education

Broken but alive – COVID’s gender impacts in Australian universities now

In February 2020 we submitted an ARC Discovery application entitled Understanding and Addressing Everyday Sexisms in Australian Universities. Thinking that we would have zero chance of getting an ARC with the word ‘sexisms’ in the title (spoiler alert – we did get it!), we planned to do a pilot study that year that would trial a number of our proposed survey items and follow up interview content. While we were writing up the ARC application in January 2020, one of the team was working in Hong Kong as a guest lecturer at a local university. There were rumours flying around about a ‘strange flu’ that had come out of Wuhan city, Hubei province in mainland China…

By March of that year we had, to use popular vice-chancellorian parlance, ‘pivoted’ and were living in various stages of lockdown in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. We worked remotely, some of us with children at home, as we tried to grapple with strange new realities and the terrible knowledge that this strange flu, now known as COVID-19, could kill us. As the months wore on, we noticed that gender-based inequalities at our workplaces had not pivoted, and given our focus on gender and Higher Education in Australia, we decided to investigate the impact of COVID-19 working conditions in this space. We brought Jo Pollitt into the pilot who, at the time, was working as a postdoc at ECU. The study sought to understand the ways in which everyday sexisms were playing out for academic workers in universities across Australia and the impact that the pandemic was having on the pre-existing gender inequalities in Australian Higher Education. Whilst not shocking or surprising, our findings were bleak.

“Both my husband and I worked from home for the 10 weeks our children homeschooled. He did not do a single day.” From The #FEAS Report 2021: a satirical news report based upon this research. feat. Mindy Blaise, Emily Gray and Jo Pollitt

That the effects of the pandemic were/are not evenly distributed is, by now, well documented and research shows us that women globally are more likely to be precariously employed and/or engaged in ‘frontline work’, unpaid care work and volunteer community work. The global recession that COVID precipitated meant that women-dominated employment sectors such as retail and hospitality businesses have been adversely affected by social distancing and stay at home directions. As British feminist scholar Elaine Swan articulates, the impacts of COVID-19 on paid work and domestic labour were racialised and classed as well as gendered, and “that it became visible that women, especially women of colour in paid and domestic carework and key worker roles were keeping the system running”.  

Within higher education, social inequalities were similarly amplified. Research so far shows us that the domestic division of labour and stresses upon women’s time precipitated by increased domestic responsibilities mirrored that of the general population. Alarmingly, the lack of women scientists involved in COVID-related medical research means that there may be gendered effects of the virus itself that have not been attended to. This early research also illustrates a significant decrease in journal article submissions from women during the pandemic.

Our survey was taken by almost 200 participants, and while our convenience sample was not representative, it nonetheless provided a ‘snapshot’ of the experiences of academics for whom our survey focus was most relatable: those experiencing sexism and gender-based inequalities during the early stages of the pandemic. 

One of the things that we noticed was how women-identifying participants spoke about how their perceptions of the pandemic’s impact upon their working lives were not shared by their (cis)male colleagues.  Participants spoke of being in meetings where (cis)male members of staff would talk about what a ‘great year’ 2020 had been for them, how their research productivity had gone up. They got books out and were able to use time previously earmarked for commuting to write for publication. Participants who shared this experience talked about how no space was made for their conflicting experiences of the pandemic – for them to encourage their senior/leadership colleagues, as one participant articulated, to “look at the literal wreckage around (them)” and take action. The masculinist orientation of the contemporary neoliberal university was amplified by the pandemic, and those who haven’t historically been welcomed or belonged found out that, at the worst of times, they were left to clean up the mess. Our research showed that the university sector’s, ‘business as usual’ approach during the pandemic manifested as a refusal to allow academics pause, to sit with our fears, our losses, our grief and to attend to the needs of our families and communities.

Perhaps one of the starkest findings was the impact that messaging from university management had upon participants. Many spoke of a weird juxtaposition between ‘business as usual’ and ‘we’re all in it together’, which were both popular slogans that were used simultaneously by VC’s and upper management at universities. Several participants spoke of the psychological impacts that this had, including one participant who had previously been in a violent domestic partnership. This participant spoke of being triggered because the mixed messaging was tantamount to gaslighting – a coercive control tactic deployed by abusers in order to make another party feel insecure, belittled and ultimately insane. Within higher education, such gaslighting went along the lines of, as one participant phrased it: “Two days to pivot online, it’s business as usual. We care about you, but your student evaluation scores are low. We’re in this together – where are your three research outputs?”. Many participants also spoke of a disconnect between the lived realities of regular academic workers and university executives, who, in the early stages of the pandemic, were telling us all that ‘we’re in this together’ to a Zoom backdrop of expensive (often Aboriginal) artwork or Danish mid-century furniture. This was hard to swallow for many, especially precariously employed academic workers, one of whom we interviewed who had half of an IKEA kitchen table in their share-house as a workspace during periods of lockdown. 

Quantitative data showed that feelings of dread and insecurity about the future even characterised the experiences of ‘safe’ academic workers in ongoing positions. This was especially the case where universities had ‘voluntary’ redundancy programmes or were encouraging staff to ‘gift’ time and/or research income in order to relieve some of the financial burdens upon schools and institutions. Because the domestic division of labour continued to be mirrored at work, many women-identifying and minority academics found themselves suddenly feeling precarious because they had been so busy attending to the needs of students and/or colleagues, they had not had time for research-related work, which often requires prolonged periods of uninterrupted focus.  This was near-impossible for academic parents/carers and those providing pastoral care for students, including cohorts of international students stranded far from family support. 

As the pandemic continues, we are left wondering if our institutions see the literal wreckage around them, and more importantly, what they are doing about it. The gendered, racialised and classed impacts of the pandemic upon universities is likely to continue for years and will be reflected in lowered numbers of research outputs and failed promotion applications. COVID-19 needs to be understood as a career interruption for many, and a traumatic experience for all. Universities have to acknowledge this, to give us time to stop and reflect on the past 2 ½ years, to let us grieve for the time we lost, the fear that has become part of the lives of many, the births we missed, the funerals we couldn’t attend. That the pandemic amplified pre-existing inequalities so spectacularly means that the Higher Education sector writ large needs to stop and reflect, to make changes to masculinist neoliberal measurement techniques that punish those for whom universities were not made: women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities. These are the people who kept the system running in crisis, who continue to navigate the wreckage, who, in the words of an Aboriginal woman participant, are ‘broken but alive’. 

From left to right: Emily Gray is a senior lecturer in education studies at RMIT’s School of Education. Her interests within both research and teaching are interdisciplinary and include sociology, cultural studies and education. She is particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality and with how understandings these identity categories are lived by individuals and experienced within social institutions.  Jacqueline Ullman is an associate professor of Adolescent Development, Behaviour and Wellbeing at Western Sydney University, where she teaches in the areas of educational psychology, sociology of education, research design and research methods for preservice secondary teachers and educators looking to pursue continued education. Her primary research focus is in the area of diversity of genders and sexualities and associated inclusive educational practices. Mindy Blaise is a vice chancellor’s professorial research fellow at Edith Cowan University. She is leading an interdisciplinary project on children’s common world relations with place, materiality, and the more-than-human. Her research interests include creating and practising experimental and innovative pedagogies for the Anthropocene; interdisciplinarity; postdevelopmentalism; queer theory; feminism; post empiricism; multi-species ethnography. Jo Pollitt is a post doctoral research fellow at the School of Education, Edith Cowan University. As an interdisciplinary artist and researcher Jo’s work is grounded in a twenty-year practice of improvisation and her work in dance, dramaturgy and writing has been presented both locally and internationally. Her research applies choreographic thinking, expanded embodiment, experimental writing, and creative response in thinking with more-than-human worlds to explore children’s relations with common worlds.

Why we must take the pulse of education research in Australia now

Australian education research is at a key turning point in a pandemic world where the dramatic effects of climate change demand our urgent attention. This blog piece explores the current challenges facing Australian Education research and the contemporary opportunities to create a future radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research. This piece has been adapted from the Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE) address* that I presented on 29 June at the recent AARE/cADRE Education Research Leaders’ Summit hosted by Professor Anna Sullivan on Kaurna Land at the University of South Australia. 

In Australia, we are in a post-election phase. We will have a new Labor government and a new Minister of Education, Jason Clare. We also have a number of other key federal portfolios that will particularly impact upon our sector including Linda Burney, Minister of Indigenous Australians; Ed Husic, Minister of Industry and Science and Anne Aly, Minister of Early Childhood Education and Youth. Australia has voted for change after a long period of Coalition government. 

Education research encompasses a rich transdisciplinary field including all education sectors such as home, early childhood, compulsory school years, senior secondary, higher education, vocational education, professional education, community, transitional and adult learning as well as initial and ongoing teacher education. Our field faces a series of external wicked problems, particularly demoralisation and burnout because of university job losses at a time, as Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins wrote earlier this year, when many universities report large profits. We face a severe lack of grant funding for education research with a significant decline in ARC funding. There is a pressing need to improve the national profile of educational research at a time of extreme change and cutbacks and a significant restriction of opportunities for HDR, early and mid-career academics to build research momentum because of excessive workloads and unrealistic performance goals. We witness the increasing casualization of higher education and more colleagues moving to teaching-focused positions. Science-based metrics are used to inaccurately measure education research outcomes and education researchers experience shrinking time for research and the narrowing of the purposes of universities to vocational skill development (Brennan et al., 2020 AARE Working Party report).

We have seen the previous Australian government increasingly outsourcing education research to organisations and groups outside of universities such as external organisations like AERO and private consultancies, NFPs, philanthropies and corporations. The previous Coalition government’s Australia’s Economic Accelerator (AEA) initiative committed significant funding to the commercialisation of Australian research as part of a package designed to improve commercialisation in Australia’s 6 research priorities which are all in areas of manufacturing. As Professor Tom Lowrie indicated in the recent cADRE/ACDE webinar, this funding initiative will not assist education. However, other funding possibilities include incubator and start-up hubs, philanthropic support, angel investors may be interested in funding our research. The previous government has also introduced funding for industry PhDs and fellowships. These priorities are likely to continue under the new Labor Government. It is, as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar, ‘a dangerous time’ for education research in Australia.

There are also a number of key internal challenges also facing Australian education research. Firstly, we need to take a more collegial approach to peer reviewing for ARC grants, ERA, and other competitive research activities. This is an issue facing not only education but HASS as a whole. We also need to improve collaboration between universities and resist the pressure to endlessly compete for very scarce resources. There is a need to think creatively about succession planning in our field given the dramatic changes we are witnessing in the education research workforce with the retirement or retrenchment of many senior researchers; the lack of academic positions available to replace these experienced colleagues; the challenges many Senior Lecturers and Associate Professors face in gaining promotion given the dominance of science metrics to measure academic success in all fields and the difficulties early and mid-career education researchers are experiencing in building and sustaining research momentum. Professor Stephen Billett argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar that this amounts to ‘a withering of the academic workforce’. Across Australia, Associate Deans of Research in Education report strong cultures of teaching in the field of Education which detract from a focus on research. Deans of Education are often focused on the budget-generating, politicised and rapidly shifting field of Initial Teacher Education to the detriment of other domains of Education research. 

cADRE would like to argue for a radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research that informs educational policy and practice. This would challenge the empty rhetoric of ‘excellence’ that we hear so much about in universities. Back in 1996, US scholar Bill Readings was one of the first people to query the ways in which the discourse of ‘excellence’ was replacing the development of culture as the key driving force in universities. While excellence has a convenient ring to it for university managers and governments, we believe we should be seeking transformational or disruptive Education research that has the power to make a real difference to the lives of Australian people of all ages. 

Inclusive and compassionate education research would take a strengths-based approach to the education of all Australians, especially the education of First Nations, migrant, refugee, culturally diverse peoples, people who are differently abled, and all other sections of Australian society. An inclusive and compassionate education research agenda would broaden the scope education research ‘beyond the school/university fence’ to include public, adult, parental, environmental, civil and community education as Professor Stephen Billett argued in our webinar. It would advocate for the commitment of research funding and other resources to foster education research. It would engage in active and genuine partnerships with all of the important education stakeholders, particularly teachers, students, families, communities, Elders, organisations and citizens, to generate grass roots education research agenda setting using the scalable methodologies used in the NSW Deans grass roots education research agenda setting project, including artists who document and sketch the ideas put forward in world café style dialogues, as Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie Knowles outlined in the cADRE/AARE webinar. It would engage in respectful education research with, for and by these communities and citizens. It would provide for a dedicated and respectful focus in Education research on Indigenous knowledge in all domains of education including climate science. Inclusive and compassionate education research would be based on a relational, post-feminist ethics of care approach. 

There is also an important need for the federal Labor government to significantly broaden the national research priorities. There were significant calls at the AIATSIS Summit held on Kabi Kabi Country on the Sunshine Coast from 30 May to 3 June for the national priorities to include Indigenous issues. HASS fields also need to be reinstated as a matter of national research priority given the contribution HASS fields make to research innovation, creativity, transformation and inclusion. We need to lobby the Federal Minister for national targeted research funding for Education that goes beyond the narrow instrumentalist focus of AERO. 

We also need to shift the focus on the exchange value of education research or education research as a commodity on sale to the knowledge economy to Education research’s use value as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in our cADRE/ACDE webinar. This would involve engaging in research translation, where we educate the public about the value of the research we produce so that our research becomes publicly discussible for the community and for practitioners as well as governments, bureaucrats and funders. These strategies would consolidate our evidence about the Impact and Engagement value of our field in preparation for the ERA Impact and Engagement exercise in 2024.

AARE and ACDE are currently developing a coherent action plan for proactive strategies to enhance the national profile of inclusive and compassionate education research in Australia well into the future. Watch this space!

While I wrote this address, I would like to acknowledge that it was collaboratively workshopped with members of the cADRE Network Steering Group and built upon the recommendations developed at the cADRE/ ACDE webinar Reimagining education research in a post-election world that was held on 27 May (for video recording see https://www.acde.edu.au/networks-and-partnerships/cadre/ ).

Professor Catherine Manathunga, University of the Sunshine Coast; Chair of Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE – a network of the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) 

Academics, we need useful dialogues not monologues

(Illustration by Oslo Davis Copyright Oslo Davis 2022. Used with permission. www.osldavis.com)

Some things in academia become normalised as meme-worthy ‘Shit Academics Say. Sure, senior academics evoking the ‘more of a comment than a question’ post-conference presentation is not the most pressing of issues in academia.

But it’s a behaviour that we, two early career researchers, picked up on straight away at our first in-person academic conference, HERDSA. These observations aren’t unique to this conference (editor’s note: totally!), but it being our first in-person conference, we found it apt to discuss as we found these non-question monologues to be ill-timed and even problematic. In raising the issue, we would like to productively discuss not only what we noticed but how we believe conference organisers, session chairs and audience members can improve the experience for presenters and attendees.  

As newbies to the in-person conference, we looked forward to the opportunity to engaging with top researchers in our field about their findings. In many ways, HERDSA 2022 met these expectations.

 Unfortunately, with limited time for questions, we may not have always been able to both form our question and get the attention of the mic-holder before the less-of-a-question-more-of-a-comment attendee. At the end of nearly every presentation, we noted there was at least one audience member who stole the floor, eating away at the limited Q&A time, to offer their opinion or make a lengthy comment.  

In one session, after a tremendous keynote speech delivered by Professor Michelle Trudgett, around her research with supporting Indigenous Early Career Researchers, the very first comment made was that Aboriginal leadership in universities should ensure non-Indigenous people are aware of issues facing Indigenous staff and students. In our observation, this comment seemed odd given that the keynote had just spoken at length about the additional workload that Aboriginal leaders are expected to cover at universities. This is one example of where an audience member diverted the discussion around what was being presented, to focus the discussion on something unrelated to the presentation (and engaging in whataboutism). An audience member then commented on the microaggression implicit in the man’s comment i.e., that of requesting Aboriginal leaders to take the additional load of educating non-Indigenous colleagues when they had just been presented data suggesting that Aboriginal leaders are overworked. This exchange stirred a robust discussion within the room, and eventually allowed others to actively draw on the points addressed in the keynote. Although unimpressed with the initial “question” raised, I (Tanoa) enjoyed observing the room participation and the conversational exchanges that did address points relating to the keynote; the latter, to me (Tanoa), was a demonstration of what engaging academic conversations should be. Although we use this example, we witnessed similar exchanges multiple times across the 3-day conference.  

We pose a couple of speculations as to why an audience member may use the Q&A in an unproductive way; we believe some are unintended, while others are less benign: 

  •   Unsure how to succinctly frame the question

When a presentation has got our brains buzzing with thoughts and ideas, it can be difficult to make clear connections and articulate them. As one academic pointed out, what often arises is a comment with many entangled parts, not a straightforward question. That resonates with us, and what we found helpful was to keep a notebook, take notes and save the reflection or half-formed question for discussion after the presentation where we could discuss in a more apt setting, (in-person during tea or via email or by requesting a Zoom catch-up). HERDSA provided great resources, such as an events app, which allowed attendees to be able to connect with presenters, should there be any follow up questions or comments.

  • Using the Q&A for validation

As one academic expressed, it could be that the attendee does know how to frame their question, they just don’t want to ask one. Instead, they’re essentially wanting the presenter to agree with them.

  •  Using the Q&A for one’s own gain

Not all questions are good questions, and some audience members may disguise a question to signpost to their own research or expertise in the matter.

  • Using the Q&A as a microaggression

A microaggression, in this context, is a verbal indignity – often flying under the radar due to its cunning context. A microaggression is not the same as a respectful debate; although, the post-presentation Q&A may also not be an appropriate time to engage in a one-on-one debate. An alternative might be to take it to academic twitter!

By and large, we noticed non-question “questions” were posed to female-presenting presenters by male-presenting audience members. Our observations are in alignment with research that concluded that women ask fewer and shorter questions than men. Additionally, it has been found that senior academics ask more questions than junior academics.

We witnessed many thought-provoking presentations at HERDSA, and we both engaged with and listened in on many stirring conversations; we believe that conference organisers and/or session chairs can and should make space for discussion to flow. This is made possible with conference organisers and chairs proactively communicating with attendees around ‘housekeeping’. For example, it could be clearly stated if there will or will not be time for comments and reflections. In one session in particular, the session chair, Dr. Wade Kelly, set a (paraphrased) precedent that questions should be questions and advised that an ideal question is 10 words or less.

Further, conference organisers can ensure that attendees can be/feel heard by ensuring a range of formats. The traditional, one-way style of presentation leaves little opportunity, during the session, for audience members to engage with each other and minimal time for questions. HERDSA offered alternatives like non-hierarchical fishbowl or roundtable discussions in which attendees could better engage with each other – and the facilitator!

Audience members are also accountable for how they navigate and engage in productive conversations. We like the helpful Conference Monkey guide written by Georgina Torbet and would like to add some additional considerations to asking a question after an academic presentation:

1.       Firstly, (which is our whole point), is this actually a question, or are you showing off? Consider if you already know the answer.

2.       Will the response to this question directly impact what you do? (i.e., is your question authentic; is it informing practice/research?)

3.       Has somebody else already asked this question? Or could a response that was previously given also apply to your question?

No? Great!

If you have made it this far, then your question is probably valid and engaging, so we propose the following when asking your questions:

  • Write down your question (or concepts)
  • Be mindful of time and ask only one question (more if time permits)
  • If necessary, do a quick introduction
  • Re-consider if your question requires a backstory (it probably doesn’t)
  •  It’s okay to briefly thank the presenter

4.       Be mindful of the space you are in and the space you are “allowed” to occupy.

The keynote speaker has been invited into the space because the conference organisers/executive team determined that their research is valuable to the academic audiences that have chosen to attend. Give presenters the respect they deserve and don’t centre yourself.

Finally, it’s totally fine to have a critical question. However, question sessions aren’t intended to be a ‘gotcha’ moment; present criticism constructively.

Ameena Payne is a PhD student at Deakin’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE). Ameena is a recipient of her alma mater’s Outstanding Young Alumna Award (2022) and several teaching excellence commendations. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA).

Ashah Tanoa, a Pinjareb/Whadjuk Noongar woman from Perth, Western Australia, is an Associate Lecturer at Murdoch University. Ashah is studying a Master of Education by Research, looking at Indigenous student retention rates and what influences a student’s decision to leave within their first year at university. She was the 2021 recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s award for Excellence in Enhancing Learning. In 2022, Ashah was accepted to present at the HERDSA conference in Melbourne, on an evaluation of an innovative unit that teaches the hidden curriculum to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

O’Shea: All I want for higher education now and tomorrow

Fresh from delivering a widely-applauded keynote at this year’s HERDSA conference, Fragility or tenacity? Equity and participation in the pandemic university (read it, it’s fantastic), Professor Sarah O’Shea of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University shares her hopes and visions for the sector’s future.

My first face-to-face conference in over two years has given me pause to consider the many changes and challenges the university sector has encountered in the last years. The onset of the pandemic both exacerbated existing issues within the sector as well as revealing a whole gamut of new complexities related to funding sources, precarity of employment and systemic injustices for equity-bearing students. 

We are not yet post-pandemic and there are many things  the onset of the health crisis has revealed. It showed us COVID was never simply a health issue but required a much broader social response. 

Indeed, key to how we emerge from the pandemic will be our education systems, particularly the higher education setting. With this in mind I offer a personal wish list of changes needed in the system, to better serve the students and staff therein:

  • Linked to the previous point is the need to revisit the removal of Commonwealth financial support for those students who do not manage to maintain ‘an overall pass rate of 50 per cent’ across their studies (DESE, 2021). We know that many students from equity backgrounds may initially fail some subjects as they navigate the university system but still go on to succeed academically. Pedagogically, failing can often result in key points of learning and students should never be penalised financially as a result.
  • Recent research has indicated the high cost of ‘investment’ universities make to support and retain the equity student cohort. These costs are often borne by those institutions located in regional areas or who have committed to a mission to open up educational pathways for disadvantaged communities. Such work is laudable and deserves to be funded in ways that recognise the variable nature of investment required in different communities and locations.
  • The precarity of academic employment has always existed but its visibility and impact has become more visible since the onset of COVID-19. I hazard a guess that most of the readers would know of colleagues who have either not had a contract renewed or have been ‘restructured’ out of the organisation. A recent report has highlighted how tertiary education topped national job losses (39%) across Australia, but again, if Australia is to navigate its way out of the current health situation then securing and rewarding university staff is a requisite need moving forward.
  • Finally and fundamentally the current ‘business model’ of the university sector needs to be challenged and revised. The level of public investment in the sector has declined to just 52% of university revenue, which has led to an untenable funding model characterised by an over-reliance on international student fees derived largely from two markets (China and India), a situation identified as problematic even by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) 

COVID has irrevocably disrupted the existing and accepted business model of higher education, but embracing this disruption will ultimately assist in reimagining this system. Identifying and addressing the enduring and emerging pressure points in the system, provides an opportunity to strengthen the resilience of Australian education systems. We know developing robust and inclusive higher education environments will be key to adapting to new and unforeseen challenges in the future. This is challenging work but  confronting the deficiencies of the current system will ultimately enable us to ‘build back better’.

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.

How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin

My urgent wish list for Australian education

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Caroline Mansfield, Dean, School of Education, Fremantle Campus, University of Notre Dame in Western Australia

Tuesday, linked here: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Monday, linked here: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle.

Wish 1: Strategic investment to build a better regional, rural and remote (RRR) workforce

The issue of attraction and retention of teachers working in RRR contexts is not new, yet preparing teachers to work in these contexts is challenging. Investment is needed to support a range of strategies to build a better RRR workforce in Education and to encourage pre-service teachers have at least one placement in a RRR context. Successful models of how this might be achieved can be found in other disciplines. For example, the Majarlin Kimberley Centre for Remote Health which is a collaboration between 5 universities, aims to contribute to increased recruitment and retention of the health workforce in the Kimberley through placements, skills and knowledge for working in remote locations, cultural safety and innovative models of care. A model like this multi-university training hub would make a significant difference to the education workforce in RRR contexts, and could potentially improve outcomes for students living in non-metropolitan areas. 

Wish 2: Supported collaboration between ITE providers and employers 

Collaboration and meaningful partnerships between employers and ITE providers are critical for supporting teacher quality, transition to the profession, ongoing professional learning and research. The recent QITE report advocates such collaboration specifically to support the early years of teaching, a welcome move. Funding schemes to support collaboration on areas of strategic priority, and research to provide the evidence base for successful interventions will be essential as we move forward.

Wish 3: An evidence informed, career-span approach to teacher quality

The issue of teacher quality in Australia is also not new, and reforms to improve teacher quality have largely focused on Initial Teacher Education (ITE), with little evidence provided to support the view that ITE providers are not graduating high quality teachers. Although a further swathe of reforms is due, there is significant lag time for these reforms to impact the profession – 2025 at the earliest. What happens between now and then? 

Focusing the quality teacher debate on ITE and prospective teachers neglects some broader professional issues of current teachers such as heavy workloads, stress, mental ill-health, increased external regulation and accountability, along with the declining status of teachers in Australian society. While these challenges are also well known, investment in school-based support to ease teacher workload (such as educational assistants, psychologists, allied health, administrative support) has not kept pace with demand. Investment is needed to improve working conditions for teachers, which in turn will increase attractiveness of the profession to potential teachers. 

Caroline Mansfield is Professor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology. In 2016, she became an Australian Teaching and Learning Fellow, having won a National Teaching Fellowship to continue her work regarding resilience in higher education (www.stayingbrite.edu.au).

If only we really wanted to solve the problems

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Jim Watterston, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Yesterday: Susan LedgerDean of Education, University of Newcastle.

As we head towards a federal election, commitments in the school education arena from the mainstream political parties seem to be both inadequate and misguided.

In my view, both the Government and the Opposition have taken a very limited policy focus from a school education perspective that does not effectively address the ‘so called’ problem. Put bluntly, the underlying rationale from both parties for proposed change is that the quality of students currently entering Universities to become teachers are not of sufficient standard. It seems that universities don’t really know how to adequately prepare the next generation of super-teachers who can turn around our academic fortunes! Simplistically, the rhetoric from both political camps goes along the lines of “if only we could attract the best students who have achieved an ATAR in Year twelve in the top thirty percent of the population, then we would be able to regain our once esteemed international PISA test results ranking and also improve the performance of all students in NAPLAN reading and mathematics testing”.

The recently released Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) Review commissioned by Minister (at the time) Alan Tudge, proposes seventeen curious and seemingly disconnected recommendations to improve the quality of new teachers graduating out of universities and transitioning into the profession. The Government report is the basis for reforms to lift school performance standards. More recently Shadow Minister, Tanya Plibersek has released a Labor policy commitment, should they be returned to government, that aims to ‘out-Tudge’ the government in the ITE problem solving domain.

The major problem is, however, that Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is not the easy answer to why national and international testing of student performance in Australia is in comparative decline. In addition to currently being a Dean of Education, I have previously headed up school systems in three Australian States and Territories and have been a principal of a number of small and large, rural, remote and metro schools. I know that while ITE could always be improved, there have been significant and highly positive national ITE reforms put in place over the past eight years which are making a difference but there is still no change to PISA and NAPLAN results. Why? Because ITE is not the fundamental problem or the direct solution to improving test scores!

Unfortunately, a quick survey of schools and particularly school leaders in Government and Catholic schools would reveal school performance standards are directly reflective of each school’s postcode.

In other words, the overall Socio-Economic Status (SES) of aggregated school families is, for the most-part, the determinant of overall school performance. Schools in poor communities generally get lower results than schools in high income locations. The real question should be that if we know this, then why aren’t we doing anything meaningful about it?

To address the stagnation and decline of student performance in Australia will require a brave and well-informed national government to first of all speak to and listen to those in all schools to find out that the problems of current practice stem from the inability to adequately fund challenged communities in order to provide equitable opportunity of achievement and life chances. As we reflect on the ten-year anniversary of Gonski funding which brought significantly increased funding to all schools, we should be asking the major parties to explain why the additional billions of dollars have not changed the achievement dial across all schools. We should ask them to invest more of the Gonski rivers of gold into paying high performing current and prospective teachers more attractive salaries to work in hard-to-staff communities and to use additional funding to provide better amenities such as quality housing, safety and increased capacity for travel in these locations so teachers can get the same access to services that metropolitan schools receive. What are these services you ask? Regular teacher professional development from experts at their school, access to professional support services within the school (psychologists, speech pathologists, nurses, access to quality relief teachers, student counsellors….and the list goes on), student engagement and disability support, and programs that build community connection and involvement.

The fact is, the further you move away from the metropolitan area the harder it is to attract the best teachers to move to under-resourced, understaffed, and unsupported schools. The most challenged schools in our country get the worst deal. Throwing a few dollars at students during their time in university will not ensure that ITE graduates go to the most difficult schools. My observation is that in our university, the highest performing students are quickly snapped up by the best and most inordinately resourced schools. I haven’t just read about this problem or have simply spoken to teachers and school leaders on Zoom calls or on the phone; I have visited thousands of Australian schools and have observed and listened to those in the field often describe the third world problems that exist in various locations. 

So, it is well beyond time to stop producing micro-election commitments that don’t make a difference. It is well beyond time to actually commit to really focussing on equity for all and doing whatever it takes. Pay teachers what they are worth and hold them to account once they have the optimal resourcing that is required, and change will occur.

Instead of political auctions every three years for things we don’t want, we need a bipartisan ten-year education plan that is not the source of political squabbling but becomes long-term agreement on what really needs to be done so that we can all stay the course and make it work.

I’ve always been a dreamer!

Jim Watterson is the Enterprise Professor and Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. He served for six years as the National President for the Australian Council for Education LeadersHe was the Deputy Secretary of the Victorian Education Department, and Director General of both the ACT and, most recently, Queensland Departments of Education and Training.

How to support our proud and essential profession

Each day this week, EduResearch Matters will publish the views of educational leaders on the state of education in Australia on the eve of the federal election. Today: Susan Ledger, Dean of Education, University of Newcastle

Education has been noticeably absent in this election agenda. What should policy makers in the next government do to support and respect students, teachers, leaders and educational researchers? Reform efforts must recognise the complexity, diversity and interrelatedness of all parts of the education system – students and families, early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational, higher education, and initial teacher education.

Teacher education would benefit from seven key actions. 

First, we must strengthen trust, understanding and support for the whole of profession – preservice, in-service and training. A combined approach within the profession will develop, induct and support great teachers who will inspire their students to learn (see Quality Teaching Model and  NSW Great Teaching Inspired Learning)

Second, we need to replace career bureaucrats with teachers and teacher educators in key policy-making positions in the same way other professions are represented.

Third, we must recognise and adapt for diversity. Much can be learnt from our Australian Teacher Workforce Data information. It highlights the need for more culturally and linguistically diverse teachers to align with the changing student population.

Fourth, teacher education would benefit from prioritising the three dimensions of the Australian Curriculum, the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities rather than subject only. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals used as a backdrop.

Fifth, we need to prioritise ‘intelligent’ conceptualisations of what constitutes good evidence of teaching work (Mockler & Stacey, 2021). Collaborative research endeavours that draw from multiple perspectives, not singular silver bullet approaches would benefit all. Involving teachers as researchers in Research Invested Schools is helping to re-professionalise teaching and reinvigorate teachers as experts (Twining, 2022).

Sixth, we must focus on the learning journey of a student and strengthen links across the education lifecycle from early childhood to primary, secondary, vocational and higher education. We know, for example, that the return on investment in early childhood education exceeds all other phases, yet early childhood teachers and childhood workers earn significantly less than other educators.

Finally, the profession would benefit enormously by prioritising and actioning the recent Quality Initial Teacher Education Review recommendations, particularly:

·       Recommendation #1: Raise the status of Teaching

·       Recommendation #3: Reduce Teacher’s workloads

·       Recommendation #9: Support families and carers to engage with teachers

·       Recommendation #14: Establish a Centre for Excellence to teach, research and evaluate best teaching practice.

More than $550Million was spent on policy reform between 2009-2013 driven by the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality Program (NTPQ). Emphasising quality, standards, accountability and evidence-based practices,this reform transformed the education sector and led to the creation of:

·       The Teaching Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG);

·       Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), the National Teacher Professional Standards and National Principal Standard, national accreditation for initial teacher education, nationally consistent registration for all teachers, and certification of highly accomplished and lead teachers;

·       a national curriculum, introduced through the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA);

·       Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) and National Quality Standard.

·       And adjustments to the Australian Quality Framework for Higher Education (AQF).

Teachers, schools and ITE providers responded to the calls for change and accommodated and adjusted their practices. 

A decade later we are witnessing intended and unintended outcomes of this national policy reform. It has been successful in achieving its intended outcome – to develop a national standardised approach to our schooling system. Yet, we are also witnessing the unintended outcomes of the policy reform on our schooling sector.

Enactment of the NPTQ has resulted in uneven and potentially inequitable outcomes, resourcing, privileging and market-like rationalities. Media and politicians lament stagnating student results against benchmarks like NAPLAN and PISA. Teacher and teaching quality is under continual scrutiny. Teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers and it is increasingly more difficult to attract teachers into the workforce. Teacher shortages are already impacting students. Ideological debates between pedagogical choices in literacy, numeracy and teaching methods have arisen and promote competition over collaboration in teaching, learning and research forums. Burdened by unrealistic and often relentless administration many teachers, leaders and initial teacher education providers have been reduced to compliant technicians rather than inspiring practitioners. The workforce is undervalued and overburdened which has reduced the agency, confidence, and even the passion of the profession. 

A focus on quality and accountability is positive and encouraged, but not when it is narrowly focused and comes at the expense of the teachers, students and families within our education ecosystem. Our measures of quality and accountability that judge the health of our sector must include individual and collective wellbeing, evidence of passion for teaching and learning, and confidence in emerging pedagogically informed technologies.

From my 30 years of teaching in rural, remote and metropolitan hard to staff schools, both in Australia and overseas, coupled with my more recent experience preparing teachers for schools’ changing population, environmental impacts and pandemics, I believe we must focus on the development of the whole child, teacher, leader and system, not simply component parts.

Professor Susan Ledger is Head of School and Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and in that role is responsible for transforming teacher education, advocating for the profession and developing partnerships between schools, universities and educational sectors

Ditch the widgets. Start investing in their amazing futures

The cost of teaching a student from a low SES background is significantly higher than for more advantaged students. The reasons for these costs include the ‘obvious’ assumptions, such as bursaries, but are likely driven more substantially by infrastructure investment by a number of universities specifically supporting campuses in areas and regions as part of their mission to provide a university pathway as an option to a diverse range of our population.

We believe this investment (a better way of thinking about it than ‘cost’) could be better recognised in funding agreements by switching the focus from ‘activity-based’ funding (i.e. “count your widgets, take your dollars”), to ‘mission-directed’ funding (i.e. recognition of the social impact and additional resources that these contributions require and perhaps redirecting funding from the low cost ‘low hanging fruit’ approaches of some).

Who are we and how did we discover this? A team of researchers spanning multiple universities (Victoria Uni, ANU, Curtin RMIT) and ACER published an article exploring the costs associated with supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in university. Our study has a ridiculously complex methodology – using econometric modelling to explore the economies of scale in relation to the costs of educating students in Australian universities, with ten years of financial, enrolment and employment data from 37 universities, and then exploring the outcomes with people who run universities across a range of states – but when you pare it all back, a relatively simple set of findings:

Here’s an overview.

Quantifying costs and differences in costs

First we compiled a large dataset spanning all Australian universities across 10 years. The dataset contained operating expenditure, student enrolments, level of enrolment, field of education and background characteristics of students, teaching costs, research grants, location of university and type of university. This was analysed using an econometric model to identify the average costs for each student, and to explore if there are economies of scale in enrolling some groups of students – in other words, does the average cost decline the more of a group of students you enrol? 

The stark finding (that we checked and re-checked) was that when all other elements are controlled for, the average annual cost for a student from a low SES background at undergraduate level was about 6 times higher than for a student from a medium or high SES background. The difference was slightly lower for postgraduate level students, but nonetheless, it was still a notable difference.

However, the other aspect of the analysis did show that there are economies of scale in enrolling students from low SES backgrounds at undergraduate level – that is, the higher the number of students of this background, the lower the average costs per student become. We also found the opposite (i.e. a diseconomy of scale) for medium and high SES student enrolments.

Explaining the differences

We took our data findings ‘on the road’, visiting four diverse universities in Australia to talk with academic, finance and student support leaders. We wanted to test whether the outcomes from the analysis made sense on the ground and found that while views differed, some key explanations were clear:

  • The kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.
  • The support factors that contribute to the additional costs include investment in the items listed above plus the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities. Further, it was found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.
  • Additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. Low SES students are not a homogeneous group. Depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage.

In the universities consulted, there were different costs and different approaches to supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

Future considerations on funding

We hope that what this research does is help to highlight the difference in investment required depending on the backgrounds of students enrolled in a university. The emphasis in shifting language from ‘cost’ to ‘investment’ is intended as a means of changing views and perceptions – much the way in which some universities in Australia embed in their mission an aim to open up opportunities by investing in areas or communities where previously a university pathway was not a consideration.

A radical, yet seemingly logical, proposition coming from this research is that if some student groups need a greater investment than others, then perhaps the funding pie should be cut in a way that recognises the variable investments required. From our work, we feel that consideration of ideas to recognise the various missions of universities and the different students they serve in following their mission could be captured in funding allocations. Ideas we have suggested for further consideration include a redistribution of funding based on need; shifting emphasis from activity-based to mission-directed costing; applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’; and conceptualising funding support for students from low SES backgrounds as a transformational investment that can improve outcomes for individuals, communities and society, rather than as a cost.

Dr Daniel Edwards is the Director of the Tertiary Education Research Program at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and an Honorary Senior Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Daniel Edwards (ACER) wrote this post on behalf of the project team: Marcia Devlin (VU), Liang-Cheng Zhang (ACER), Glen Withers (ANU), Julie McMillan (ACER) and Lyn Vernon (Edith Cowan University)

Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Apparently international PhD students in Australia now have to seek ministerial approval to change their thesis topic or face deportation.  

Yes. You read that right. 

According to guidelines published on the Australian Government immigration and citizenship website (Karen Andrews, pictured in the header, is the Minister for Home Affairs), International PhD students who want to change their “thesis or research topic” now have to wait for an Australian politician to sign off the change or risk have their visa cancelled. As Julie Hare reports in the Australian Financial Review, the government is worried that “… there might be an ‘unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of critical technology, or theft of intellectual property”. And apparently the minister will make a decision after they have ‘obtained an assessment from the competent Australian authorities.’ 

The deep, and – I’m just going to say it – totally bone headed stupidity of this idea is maybe not apparent to anyone who has not done a PhD. The whole first year of the PhD is meant to involve refining a topic. Many PhD students change their topic dramatically in the first year. Or they change it later on, due to unforeseen circumstances. Imagine the next Alexander Fleming having to wait for the minister to approve their investigation of this century’s equivalent of mouldy petri dish? Given how long it takes ministers to make decisions, I don’t have much hope Australia will produce the next penicillin. 

It’s not just medical geniuses who take their time. My own PhD application to Melbourne university in 2005 suggested I was going to study ‘genetic algorithms which can find architectural form’. Don’t even ask – the idea was deeply fashionable at the time. In the six months between my application being accepted and starting my research, I changed my mind about twenty times. My first research plan, written about 3 months in, suggested I was going to study the ‘linguistics of architecture’. This idea – to be clear – was Not Good. But my supervisor had to listen to me gibber on about it for a couple of weeks. Bless his heart, he never let me commit to such a crappy idea and coaxed me into exploring hand gestures. 

It was at least nine months into my PhD before I worked out why a study of architects’ gesturing was worth doing. I won’t bore for Australia as to why it was useful. The point of this story is that making knowledge is a deeply uncertain business. You need time to read, think and talk to people. That’s exactly why we don’t ask people to apply for a PhD with a ready to go project plan that can just be rolled out – as this visa legislation seems to assume. I’m deeply grateful for the time I was given to explore the possibilities and change my mind. The idea of getting ministerial approval every time an international PhD student changes their mind about your PhD thesis topic is not only stupid, and completely unenforceable. Worse, it’s all part of an insidious government over-reach into the business of being an academic in this country. Over-reach with creepy racist overtones to boot.  

This government seems perpetually anxious about international students and about academics more generally. PhD students from some countries have restrictions over what they can study, for instance, students from Iran are forbidden to study nuclear technology. Students on a visa don’t have the right to ‘be disruptive’, which handily limits their ability to protest. In case you missed it (I mean, it’s been a busy couple of years), all of us academics are now framed as being potentially dangerous traitors. In 2021, the Australian government published the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector (the Guidelines) in which they state that universities will require: “declaration of interest disclosures from staff who are at risk of foreign interference, including identification of foreign affiliations, relationships and financial interests.” I’ve asked my university, what does a ‘foreign relationship’ mean? Does an ongoing research conversation over email and writing papers with colleagues in other country trigger the need for a declaration? No one can tell me for sure because the guidelines are so vague and all encompassing. 

Where exactly is the line between reasonable caution and paranoia these days? It’s so hard to tell.  

Besides being impossible to enforce, this latest government brain fart seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Are there actual situations which have led to a clear need for this visa change, or is this the result of fevered imagining by intelligence agency personnel who don’t get out enough? I mean,  if these intelligence officials had taken the time to call any working academic in Australia I wouldn’t have to waste my Sunday afternoon writing this article. But I suspect it’s not the intelligence officials behind this change. We have a conservative government eager to punch on academics any chance they get, as we saw during the pandemic. It’s hard to avoid this feeling that this particular government just hates academics, which is a sad turn for our country. 

I don’t want to say Australia is turning into a fascist state, but perhaps our politicians are just a little too fascist curious? Just like our foreign interference guidelines, this new international student visa requirement is both vague and all encompassing. It seems designed to produce a chilling effect. To be honest with you, as I write this article I am starting to wonder – should I speak out so forcefully? Will I become a target? Is a file on me open inside the Australian government somewhere labelled: ‘middle aged female academic: angry’?

On the other hand, maybe the government is on to something. The minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, could save a lot of us supervisors a lot of time by being the sounding board for these agonising PhD topic conversations. My imaginary conversation with Karen Andrews about my thesis topic changes goes something like this: 

“So Karen, hey girl!, I’ve been thinking about my PhD topic and maybe genetic algorithms… are they too 2005? you know? I’m wondering if this thesis will date me, but not in a good way. I’ve been thinking I need a topic that is, I dunno, more – timeless? So I’m thinking about linguistics… 

Karen? … Are you there Karen? I hope I’m not boring you…”

Professor Inger Mewburn is the director of the Researcher Development Office of the Dean of Higher Degree by Research at the Australian National University, Canberra. Her blog The Thesis Whisperer is a must read. You can find her at @thesiswhisperer.

Image of Karen Andrews in header by Mick Tsikas