Tebeje Molla

Why Labor must reconsider the Job-Ready Graduates package now

The Coalition Government used the pandemic-induced shock to introduce legislative measures,  commonly known as the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) package, to  restructure the nation’s higher education (HE) funding arrangements. It had failed to get these reforms up on three separate occasions.

The change was primarily framed as an intervention to ensure that higher education – and its graduates – would be ready to help the nation avert COVID economic shock. JRG would  address the skills shortage, weak university/industry linkages, growth in the school leaver population, and geographical attainment gaps in the sector. 

In a recently published paper (Crisis and Policy Imaginaries: Higher Education Reform during a Pandemic), we critically review the JRG package through the lens of crisis and policy response. 

We ask what was seen as a problem to be fixed by the Morrison Government, what policy responses were introduced, and what was conceived as a desirable future enabled by this policy reform.  

Limited public consultation

To begin with, the change process did not pass through proper public consultation. Policy initiatives may come from top-down (e.g. in the form of political narratives and theories) as well as from bottom-up (e.g. in the form of social movements and public submissions that draw on shared conceptions about what society is and should be).

In the case of the JRG package, the process proceeded with no genuine public consultation: the Government allowed a mere five working days for public submissions. Notably, except for arguments on social work education, none of the critical issues raised by the sector was considered in the final bill. 

Crisis opportunism

Before 2020, the Coalition Government tried and failed at restructuring the HE funding on three occasions.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector hard, the Government seized the moment to make its fourth attempt at reform. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Australian HE. Many people were also distracted by the health crisis. The situation presented an opportunity to impose unpopular reforms. The reformers were keen not to waste a crisis.

The policy selling point was that the health crisis (COVID-19) coupled with fast-paced technological changes in the workplace pose a risk to national economic productivity and competitiveness. The policy purported to provide a solution. 

In essence, the JRG package signifies what Boin and colleagues refer to as ‘crisis exploitation’. The Government framed the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated fear of an economic downturn as a crisis to sell old policy packages and imaginaries. 

As Fassin notes, in a time of crisis, a policy narrative has elements of both temporality (triggering a sense of urgency) and affectivity (triggering anxiety). Crisis narratives make drastic policy changes possible by creating a shared perception of threats or opportunities. We find that crisis opportunism was cynically exploited by the former government to prosecute an old policy agenda. 

Recycled Imaginaries

Imaginaries represent shared visions of desirable futures. When it generates new imaginaries, a crisis can be transformative. Sargeant speaks of crisis as ’a moment of discontinuity’ that requires ‘an act of imagination large enough to envisage a future different from the continuities mandated by the past, and powerful enough to generate a strategy sufficient to chart a path towards this future’ (emphasis added).

In this vein, the JRG reform relies on recycled imaginaries and a tired lexicon. The JRG agenda was essentially set years before the COVID-19 crisis, and the desirable futures outlined in the policy are largely a rehearsal of old political arguments for increased efficiency, productivity, and accountability.

The Morrison Government used the pandemic as an opportunity to (re)articulate its pre-existing neoliberal policy imperatives of privatising and economising HE. Public spending on HE is linked to the need for maximising economic returns. JRG envisages HE as a subset of the economy:  universities should support the nation’s economic goals of productivity and competitiveness by producing more graduates in selected ‘fields of economic productivity’.

In essence, the rupture caused by the pandemic was both a crisis seized opportunistically and an opportunity lost by the Australian Government for visionary reform. In justifying the timeliness of the reform, rather than constructing new imaginaries, the Government reactivated old neoliberal visions of society and the economy. 

Issue omission

In a policy process, the framing of issues matters. As Edwards notes, ‘It is only once a policy issue is accepted as a problem that people can ask, “What can we do about it?”’

In this respect, the JRG package can be defined by the issue it omits from consideration.  For instance, while the reform advocates for innovation, productivity, and competitiveness, issues of research and research training receive no attention. The urgency of decarbonising the economy and the role that universities might play in this was ignored in the reform. No substantive reference is made to the perils of climate change, its impact on employment, public health, agriculture, water and energy, the environment, and all areas of social and economic activity.

Further, through price signalling, the reform privileges STEM fields and unfairly undervalues the importance of humanities and social sciences. The economy is seen as entirely constitutive of the nation, allowing little space for culture, society, or genuine political debate. The focus on teaching, health sciences and STEM fields is justifiable. The issue is not with expecting universities to be responsive and adaptive to the nation’s needs and priorities. Instead, an excessive emphasis on technical training risks the emergence of generations with little or no regard for democracy, social cohesion, and environmental justice. As Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, argues, universities play a critical role in fostering democracy by way of supporting ‘social mobility, citizenship education, the stewardship of facts, and the cultivation of pluralistic, diverse communities’. 

Technology calls for adaptive humans and effective adoption of technology requires expertise from social sciences as well as STEM fields. Technological changes indeed raise the skill requirements of jobs, but human capital (the educational attainment of the workforce) is a narrow parameter of progress. A cohesive, prosperous, and free society is much greater than the economic activities underpinning it. 

The JRG package also frames equity issues reductively. The complex and nuanced equity categories articulated in previous policies are reduced to a crude city/rural divide. 

Workforce nativism

Elements of the reform are also nativist in orientation. The policy discourse around the legislation rehearses a range of nativist tropes about Australian universities for Australian students and Australian jobs for Australian graduates.  This obscures the vital roles played by international students and immigration in Australian economic and social development over our history. The nativist vision seeks to return to a period in which the HE sector was not dependent on the revenue generated by international students’ fees without providing the funding which universities turned to international tuition fees to replace.

This nativism echoes the populist anti-globalisation sentiment we are witnessing globally. Elements of nativist imaginary also evoke an earlier exclusionary, racist, and xenophobic period of Australian history, including the White Australia regime that persisted for much of the 20th century.

The Job-ready Graduates Discussion Paper stressed: “A strong economic recovery will depend on knowledge-intensive jobs held by Australians who are highly skilled, creative and flexible.” However, this nativist rhetoric failed to acknowledge Australia’s historical dependence on immigration to compensate for a skills deficit, especially in STEM fields. This might not come as a surprise given the anti-immigration agenda and populist inclination of the ruling Coalition. 

In closing

A moment of a significant rupture may also be  a moment of bold measures. It challenges the legitimacy of the status quo and puts pressure on the ruling elite to devise coping strategies. A crisis also demands new imaginaries–new shared visions of the desirable futures. Taylor identifies two pathways of imaginary formation: new theories that inspire new practices or reinterpretation of existing practices that lead to a new vision of the future. During a crisis, as our analysis shows, those in power may also choose to enact pre-existing imaginaries, responding to new challenges with old answers. 

In our view, the JRG package was a cynical exercise at several levels, most obviously in its seizing of the moment of the pandemic to prosecute a change that it has been pursuing since at least 2014. In emphasising market-based competition, personal choice, and human capital, the policy package overlooked the importance of such inclusive goals as civic cooperation, shared commitment, and human capability

From here to where? It appears that another round of HE reform is on the horizon. The new Federal Government has an opportunity to reimagine the future and purpose of Australian HE. We urge boldness. Australia’s world class HE sector stands ready to engage creatively and constructively with government, the community, and current and future students. Australian universities are well-positioned to  contribute to a bold change agenda: one which tackles the skills gap and the host of other actions needed for Australia to continue to thrive as a democracy which acts in the interests of its citizens and the planet.  To that end, extensive sector-wide consultation is critical. 

 

Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Denise Cuthbert is the Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research Training and Development at RMIT and has published extensively on higher education policy and practice.

      Denise Cuthbert, RMIT University

A vital message for teachers everywhere: how to help traumatised students

We are constantly exposed to life-threatening events that result in trauma. Natural disasters such as seasonal bushfires and floods have affected millions of Australians. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about loss of life, extended isolation, and exposure to increased domestic violence— for some youth, all these events can be traumatic.  

Likewise, human-induced traumatic events (e.g. violence, neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction) leave indelible marks on emotional and physiological wellbeing of Australian children and youth. For refugees from war-torn regions of the world, the trauma of violence, forced displacement, and resettlement stressors can be debilitating. Young people who grew up in foster care, experience extreme poverty, or identify themselves as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning) are also likely to experience trauma that can interfere with their learning and social interactions. 

But What is Trauma?

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physiological damage resulting from adverse events that overwhelm our ordinary coping abilities. Trauma can be caused by a single event (e.g. a car wreck), a series of events (e.g. sexual abuse), or collective historical wounding (e.g. forced removal of Indigenous children).

The impact of trauma can be multifaceted. Dr Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma experts, describes trauma as a profound shock with lasting effects on one’s psychic, brain, and body. Trauma-impacted children and adolescents experience intrusive negative thoughts, anxiety, irritability, and feelings of numbness. 

Why do teachers need professional learning on trauma-responsive education? Because, we argue, trauma affects student performance and teacher wellbeing. Traumatic stress associated with emotional and psychological wounding interferes with people’s ability to manage ordinary daily activities, including learning. 

The Epidemic of Trauma in Schools

Trauma is a pervasive problem. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that in a classroom of 20 students, at least three are likely to have had traumatic experiences. 

In the US,  the National Council of State Education Associations called for a policy action to address ‘the epidemic of trauma in schools. In Australia, the damaging effects of the ‘hidden epidemic of early trauma’ are yet to gain increased public attention. The prevalence of the problem notwithstanding, there is still a lack of awareness about trauma and its impact. A secondary school principal in Melbourne told us: 

People think that there are only certain areas that are affected by trauma. No matter where you are, children will be impacted by adverse childhood experiences, sometimes up to 40% of students within a class. There are many forms of trauma. [But] people aren’t recognising or appreciating that there is trauma. 

In a recent survey of close to 900 young people (16-25-year-olds), 42% of the participants reported that the pandemic worsened their mental health condition. Although not all individuals with mental health conditions have a trauma history, those exposed to traumatic events are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

Trauma Inhibits Learning 

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences is positively correlated with poor school performance. Traumatic stress during the early stages of life impairs brain development and affects memory. 

Trauma also results in prolonged activation of the body’s stress-response system. Students cannot focus on the present and effectively engage with learning experiences when the stress-response system is activated for an extended time. Traumatic reactions such as anxiety and hyperarousal affect how students feel, think, and act on schoolwork. Trauma also diminishes memory

Trauma Drives Disruptive Behaviour

For traumatised students, the slightest hint of danger triggers anxiety. Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness, trauma-impacted students may display emotional outbursts and act out in the classroom. Such disruptive behaviours are not wilful; traumatised youth have limited capacity for emotional self-regulation. 

Seen through a trauma lens, disruptive behaviour can also be a language of communication. Traumatised children often adapt disruptive behaviours as a survival mechanism. Trauma turns their learning brain into a ‘surviving brain’. For instance, children who have experienced chronic neglect tend to use disruptive behaviours to communicate their desire for attention and attachment.

In schools where trauma is not recognised as a serious factor that affects engagement and learning, survivor students are less likely to get the necessary support. In fact, as Baldwin and Korn (2021) noted, “When traumatised children are restless and aggressive, they often get labelled as ‘bad,’ and their suffering gets missed.” 

At a societal level, trauma is costly too. It is estimated that annually unresolved childhood trauma costs Australian taxpayers as much as $24 billion

Student Trauma Increases Teacher Stress 

Student trauma can produce a negative ripple effect on teacher wellbeing. According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, one of the primary causes of teacher stress is student behavioural problems. Working with trauma-impacted students can expose teachers to excessive fatigue and draining stress. In other words, dealing with recurrent disruptive student behaviours and hearing trauma stories can result in secondary traumatic stress that generates emotional duress and makes teachers feel overwhelmed. Extreme stress may force teachers to leave school. 

In 2019, a nationwide study showed that many teachers were concerned about their wellbeing,  saw student behaviour as a serious challenge, and indicated an intention to leave the profession. Increased teacher attrition in state schools, in turn, widens the educational divide along the line of socioeconomic status of schools and communities. 

In a recent Australian study that surveyed 749 teachers, over half of the respondents reported being stressed due to environmental factors, including disruptive student behaviour. The study also revealed that the stressed teachers ‘were considering leaving the profession’.

What Can be Done?

Teacher trauma awareness matters. One in three young people who participated in the 2019 Mission Australia survey reported that they “would turn to a teacher as a source of help with important issues”. Further, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that students who establish positive relationships with their teachers display a greater sense of belonging at school. 

But without timely and relevant professional learning, teachers may find it challenging to help traumatised students learn. 

Teachers need to be trauma-responsive, but this does not mean that they should be trained to treat trauma. Instead, it means that teachers should use a trauma lens to understand student learning and behaviour. Trauma-responsive teachers are non-judgemental. They ask trauma-affected students: “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?”

Schools should promote trauma-responsive practices. Professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive education are instrumental in equipping teachers with valuable  knowledge and skills for supporting trauma-impacted students. Without the necessary awareness about trauma and its impact on student behaviour and learning, teachers may find it taxing to cater to the learning needs of their students. 

In closing

Teachers equipped with current knowledge and skills on the causes and consequences of trauma are well-positioned to promote learning for all. They are also likely to avoid misdiagnosing student behavioural problems as a marker of innate mischievousness. They take time to understand the message of disruptive behaviour and re-engage students in learning. 

Trauma-responsive teachers create positive learning environments that provide a protective buffer against triggers and additional stressors and nurture resilience. Widening access to professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive practices is critical in preparing teachers for the task.

Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Damian Blake is a professor and Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Damian’s research and teaching experience focuses on applied learning and teacher education aiming to improve young people’s educational outcomes and well-being.

Predatory publishing scams ravage the world of academic researchers

Research and publication are quintessential elements of the academic profession. Publishing is a key performance indicator, without it, job security is at peril. It has been this way for a long time. As far back as 1942, in a book on American higher education called The Academic Man, sociologist Logan Wilson documented that academics were under unbearable pressure to publish and ‘make good’ in their field. Wilson wrote

The prevailing pragmatism forced upon the academic group is that one must write something and get it into print. Situational imperatives dictate a ‘publish or perish’ credo within the ranks.

What is new in our time is perhaps the intensity—now the expectation is not just publishing, but publishing more with an eye on impact.

But getting published in a high-quality journal is demanding.  It is highly competitive and takes time.

I completed my Ph.D. five years ago. My main area of research is education policy. In my first year as a research fellow, when I was still naïve about the publishing world, I received an unsolicited flattering email invitation to submit a manuscript for publication. The manuscript could be on any topic in education, and it would be published very quickly. It was too good to be true. I had to seek advice from a senior colleague on the matter. Subsequently, I was told to ignore the suspicious invitation. I did just that, and in so doing, I escaped a predatory publisher.

In recent years, predatory publishing has ravaged the world of academic publication.

What is predatory publishing and why is it flourishing?

The Committee on Publication Ethics defines predatory publishing as a “for-profit open access journal publication of scholarly articles without the benefit of peer review by experts in the field or the usual editorial oversight of the journals in question”.  Masquerading as genuine scholarly outlets, fake journals prey mainly on inexperienced researchers.

Although senior scholars have not escaped the scam, early career scholars are more susceptible to fake publishers. Early career academics are vulnerable because they are under immense pressure to build a strong research profile in a short period of time.

However, publishing in well-established journals takes time. Researchers have to face the prospect of endless waiting for an uncertain outcome. Evidence documented by the SciRev Foundation shows that many authors had their papers rejected after over 60 weeks of the first-round review by legitimate journals.  At times, the review process lacks credibility. One author complained:

The journal took far too long to review the manuscript. I wrote after 6 months to enquire about the delay and was told that two reviewers had agreed to review the manuscript, that one review had been submitted and the other would be submitted imminently. Four months later (i.e. 10 months post-submission), I received a rejection letter on the basis of only one review.

Predatory publishers take advantage of this predicament; for a fee, they offer quick and easy publication. They trick scholars by mimicking legitimate journals—they claim false indexing and metrics and promise peer review. In reality, they publish anything for fees (ranging from 50 to 1500 dollars).

How big is the problem?

The problem of junk publication has become prevalent. In 2014, there were over 8,000 fake journals worldwide that published hundreds of thousands of papers. In India alone, Indian news media outlet, The Indian Express, has uncovered over 300 predatory publishers—many of them managing hundreds of fake journals.

Although the majority of the victims of predatory journals are scholars based in Asia and Africa, researchers in the developed economies are targets too. Recently, a consortium of international journalists investigated the practice of predatory publication. The findings were astonishing. Since 2013 globally over 400,000 scholars have published in junk journals.

The Guardian reported that between 2013 and 2018 alone, over 5,000 scholars from UK universities have published in fake journals. According to German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, publication in such journals has increased five-fold during the same period.

Drawing on a large database of publications, a new research study shows the extent to which junk publications have polluted the Brazilian academic system. Predatory publishing has also reached Canada and Australia.

Predatory publishing damages science and society

The rise of junk journals has grave consequences. Unevaluated knowledge promotes bad science and endangers public reasoning.

At an individual level, publishing low-quality papers in junk journals undermines the credibility and reputation of the researcher and reduces the visibility and citation of the research. Paying to publish unreviewed papers also compromises the ethics and integrity standards of universities.

But most of all, the danger of unevaluated knowledge to society is real. Agents that seek to disseminate unsubstantiated claims use predatory publishing to circumvent the gatekeeping role of peer review. There are credible stories about big pharmaceutical companies, anti-vaccine advocates and climate sceptics that used junk journals to advance their interest. 

Even though some academics would like to downplay the impact of predatory publishing on scientific knowledge, if the problem is left unaddressed, scholarly research may face a crisis of legitimacy.

In a peer-reviewed paper that documents the scope and trends of fake publications, environmental engineers, Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy, warned:

If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity.

Encouraging measures

Promising measures are being taken. The Committee on Publication Ethics disseminates guidelines of ethical publishing and co-organises conferences on research integrity. In June 2019 the 6th Research Integrity Conference, held in Hong Kong, discussed a range of initiatives to tackle unscrupulous publishers.

In April 2019 a US federal judge ordered OMICS Group Inc, the world’s largest junk publisher, to pay more than $50 million for deceiving academics and researchers. OMICS is based in India and manages over 700 open access journals. In 2016, its annual revenue was estimated to be over $11 million.

Some universities in Australia expressly discourage scholars from claiming credits for papers published in junk journals. Sydney University, Griffith University and Swinburne University confirm they will “not allow academics to seek promotions or claim credit for publishing in so-called predatory journals.” In May 2019, the University of Adelaide’s Legal and Risk Branch released a legal notice on the proliferation of “counterfeit journals and conferences”.

But these measures are not sufficient.

More can be done

A viable solution should include tackling the systemic roots of the problem. There is a need for setting realistic expectations regarding research outputs of early-career scholars. The ‘publish or perish’ pressure is in part to blame for the rise of predatory publishing. Also, clear communication about the importance of maintaining a balance between quality and quantity in our research and publication is equally necessary.

Most importantly, universities must equip researchers with knowledge about research excellence and integrity.  Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of South Australia, Professor Robert Vink, calls for concerted efforts to train researchers in publication literacy as does Athabasca University’s Associate Vice President (Research), Donna Romyn.

Finally, individual researchers need to be vigilant to protect themselves from scam. Predatory publishers are easy to spot. Some of the main clues include short review timelines, an unsolicited email invitation, cheaper publication fees, and bogus metrics (see the image below). They send indiscriminate email invitations. An education policy researcher may receive an invitation for an agriculture or architecture journal.

Image by Tebeje Molla

Still, researchers can easily verify the authenticity of the journal/publishers in question using US publisher Cabell’s Whitelist and Blacklist of journals, and other major databases, including the Directory of Open Access Journals, Scimago, and Web of Science

We need to continually push back against predatory publishers, exposing their practices and diminishing the likelihood of academics to be scammed by them. It is equally important to alert the general public not to be manipulated by predatory publishers and misinformed by unevaluated knowledge.

Tebeje Molla is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow at Deakin University (School of Education). Tebeje has authored/co-authored over 30 journal articles and five book chapters on a range of issues, including (i) the problem of educational inequality, (ii) transnational educational policy agendas, (iii) graduate research training policy, and (iv) teacher professional learning. His latest book analyses structural inequality and policy responses in Ethiopian higher education.Theoretically, his work is informed by critical sociology and a capability approach to social justice and human development.