Tertiary Education and Structural Barriers to Participation

After a massive week of work (full-time) and uni (part-time), I’ve been continuing my reflections about the tertiary education sector in Australia. What a complex beast.

I must say right from the start, given the presence of HECS/FEE-HELP I’m going to stay right out of any discussion of fees etc at this point, though this is something which I am equally interested in. For now, I want to focus on the way tertiary education is structured in Australia. We have TAFEs and Vocational Education providers. I know many of these operate only in ‘business hours’, similar to what I’m about to discuss with undergraduate education. I have to admit my knowledge gap about the Vocational Education Sector, and will focus mainly on Universities, though I understand many of the same issues are being experienced in the Vocational Sector.

I have been a perpetual uni student for some time now. I’m still an undergrad, though I have now studied more than 3 years of full-time equivalent load, from 3 different degrees. Yes, much of this is down to my own personal choices and some indecision about what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to get there. The transition from year 12 to university is often not smooth, and this was compounded for me by having to relocate to a city when I had grown up in a regional area. This was all expected.

What I didn’t expect was how difficult it can be to get a semi-decently paying job while at university, how classes sprawled in one or two or three hour blocks and bits across at least four days of the week… This made work-uni balance very difficult, particularly when there was rent to pay. A part-time job would have entailed working business hours – the exact hours that classes are scheduled in, all be it very short segments of them. So, work has most often meant something casual, with no security, often low pay, often less-than-desirable conditions, and often at night. I remember my law lecturer telling me that any work which took more than 10 hours a week was considered excessive by the law school… needless to say my marks weren’t very good and I wasn’t really engaging with the material being taught.

But this isn’t a poor me story. I’ve finally found a way to fit almost everything in – it involves lots of compromises and has made me into an old-lady-undergrad, but I’m very happy. What was striking at university, when I was actually attending on-campus classes, was the disenchantment with the system, from all sides. Lecturers and tutors would make comments about how little time they felt they had to teach, or conversely to write and research, and how teaching loads meant sustaining research through semester was nigh on impossible. Even students living at home (with much less expense to meet) felt frustrated with the lack of options and opportunity to engage in meaningful, rewarding work. Their parents wanted them to work, in many cases needed them to work to cover their own expenses like books, food, clothes, drinks etc, however many felt it was a waste of time during semester, and that it was a constant trade-off. Then, we would all sit almost idle over the semester breaks, for somewhere near 4-6 weeks in winter and often up to 3 months in summer – either working the same 10-25/30 hours in the same job, or trying to find a job we could work ful-time hours, but only until uni started… It all seems rather contradictory and quite unbalanced.

Many universities offer flexible classes for post-grad students, recognising that many already work full-time, and might prefer or in fact need, night classes, intensive weekend classes, or classes delivered in totality in a week or two, in order to condense the content delivery into managable chunks for people who have other things going on in their lives. This flexibility is not generally extended to undergrad subjects or degrees, as undergrads are presumed to be living at home, not in need of ‘real work’ and not in need of flexibility. In a perfect world, society would support undergrads to undertake their first degree in a model like this. However, we have a system which expects undergrads to be something they are not.

Lecturers too would benefit from an opening up to alternative models of material delivery, allowing greater work flexibility, greater freedom to engage in research and professional development, and hopefully such flexibility would also lead to innovative ways of ‘doing’ education – using emerging technology and allowing education to be more inclusive.

Of course, the structural barriers disproportionately affect those already disadvantaged and marginalised in society. We have so many methods which are supposed to foster greater diversity and inclusion at universities; scholarships, access and equity units, income support, quotas for under-represented populations, the list is quite long. These are all admirable, and hopefully have some impact. However it is quite clear that universities are still dominated by people who are more privileged. Perhaps one of the most effective ways of addressing this is to build flexibility and inclusiveness into the structures of the university model, rather than make corrective, affirmative action type adjustments after the fact. What if we needed less scholarships and programs and support units because people could just access university because the model was flexible enough to be inclusive and foster diversity?

I’m not pretending I know the answer to the current structural problems, far from it. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the current model is quite broken and is in dire need of an overhaul. As far as I can see, it’s a relic from the “good old days” of students being the elite of society, supported by mentors, family, philanthropy, or in the 1970’s for a while, the state. These kinds of student support are still useful and most welcome of course, however it is clear that they are not enough on their own any longer, and that reform would be beneficial to the central aims of the tertiary education sector.

We know that our society is becoming more stratified along class lines, and it seems that one of the only effective ways of achieving class mobility in today’s society and market, is to ensure all people have access to a good education. Therefore, the tertiary sector represents an important social justice tool for Australia. Retaining people in high school is very important, but people who have the ability and the desire to study at a tertiary level should not be turned away simply because they have to work to earn money and support themselves. The neo-conservative free-market types should encourage this, as well as encouraging people to be able to have ready access to tools to better themselves with. In the long-term, this also insures society against a large unemployable population.

Gillard wants to build an education revolution and the tertiary sector is ripe for a revolution now. It would be a fantastic way to ensure Australia can compete in the global markets as they increasingly move toward ideas- and service-based economies, rather than resources and exporting materials. It seems everyone but the university management-types, and government bureaucrats can see that real structural reform of the sector is long overdue.


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