Book review: Selling Students Short

Selling students short comes at an important time for higher education in Australia: funding uncertainties and questions over academic standards have never been more pronounced. from www.shutterstock.com.au

Richard Hil’s Selling Students Short: Why You Won’t Get the Education You Deserve is a timely exposé of the difficult conditions facing students at Australia’s increasingly corporatised universities.

The book is a follow-up to Hil’s Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University. This focused on the perspective of academics struggling to negotiate progressively more burdensome bureaucracies.

Shifting to the “student experience”, Selling Students Short is a companion piece to Whackademia that mirrors one of the National Tertiary Education Union’s consistent refrains from recent industrial action across the country:

Our working conditions are your learning conditions.

Hil’s wit and frequently irreverent tone afford the reader a more pleasurable experience than might be expected given the dire conditions of Australian universities that he details. The situation has largely been brought about by a steady decrease in Commonwealth funding, coupled with a dramatic expansion of student enrolment numbers in recent years.

Large sections of the book are devoted to discussions and interviews Hil conducted with 150 students around the country. It may be tempting to dismiss these accounts on the basis of their anecdotal nature, but readers would be remiss to do so. The focus on student narratives is a welcome antidote to the “empirical drudgery” that pervades “the great student surveyathon”, which Hil argues places far too much faith in metrics and measures of student satisfaction.

One student interviewed by Hil lamented that the federally funded University Experience Survey published in 2014 posed questions that felt like he was “being asked to comment on the quality of a service at a local supermarket”.

Increasing focus on brand power

The corporate culture of universities has responded to increased competition with an increasing focus on marketing and brand management. Hil’s chapter on “Brand Power” deftly lampoons some of the more head-scratchingly silly mottos to emerge from costly consultancies. Deakin’s slogan — “We’re not only worldly, we’re world class” — comes in for some deserving rebuke. The glibness of such language pervades many aspects of student life.

One comes away from this chapter with the impression that the marketisation of the student experience is not only an unnecessary and wasteful use of taxpayer money, but is also shabbily executed. More worrisome is that such gimmicks

seriously debase and trivialise what universities are supposed to be about: teaching, research, scholarship and professional service.

University managers increasingly refer to students as “consumers” and “clients” without grasping how this language both reflects and reshapes teacher-student relationships in harmful ways. One of the most basic insights that academics in the humanities cultivate in their students is an appreciation for how language is never innocent and neutral. Yet the corporate ethos of universities seems to ignore this.

The overall impression that one gleans from Hil’s book is that academics and students are increasingly expected to follow decisions that come from above. The critical thinking skills that we foster in our teaching and research are to be thrown out the window as soon as they conflict with management imperatives.

For example, the growing shift toward online and “blended learning” has been welcomed by some students for pragmatic reasons. However, Hil’s discussions with students (some of whom had no choice but to study online because of work or family commitments), as well as the academic research that he cites, overwhelmingly show that the majority of students still prefer face-to-face learning. Whether universities will listen to student preference remains to be seen.

International students

Hil’s chapter on the international student market also contains a number of first-person narratives from students whose high course fees cross-subsidise those of their domestic counterparts. This chapter is the most disquieting from an ethical point of view. Hil’s conclusion that foreign students are being “fleeced in order to prop up Australia’s teetering university system” is hard to argue with.

That many foreign students possess weak English language skills and find themselves struggling to stay afloat underscores just how exploitative and morally hazardous the international student market has become. This chapter also includes a brief discussion of allegations of fraud and deception in this market.

Hil documents accusations that overseas recruitment agents and other middlemen have coached prospective students to pass English language tests and have doctored credentials. The recent exposé on Four Corners called “Degrees of Deception” and an investigation by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption lend further support to Hil’s findings and have motivated Senator Kim Carr to call for an immediate federal investigation.

Selling Students Short has emerged at an important time in Australian tertiary education. Christopher Pyne’s proposal to deregulate fees has twice failed to pass the Senate. It occupies a notional space in the government’s recent budget, but barring either a sudden change of heart among key crossbenchers or a double dissolution, full fee deregulation seems unlikely. At least in the near future.

As a number of commentators have observed, Pyne’s failure to pass fee deregulation has been an unintended gift to the university sector in one crucial respect: it has spawned a long-overdue public debate about the nature and purpose of public higher education, a discussion to which Hil’s book productively contributes.