Friday, 3 July 2015


SELLING STUDENTS SHORT: Why You Won’t Get the University Education You Deserve
Allen&Unwin, 2015, 227 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

‘When I leave, it will be like it never really happened’, bemoans a dejected student to Griffith University Associate Professor, Richard Hil, in Selling Students Short, his investigation into the “hollowing out” of the modern university education experience in Australia.  Many of his student interviewees report a similar alienation, a lack of connection with other students, the atrophy of teacher-student interaction and an uninspiring, narrow pursuit of a vocational qualification that together make for the social and intellectual “blandscape” of today’s campuses.

Personal enlightenment and the public good have both evaporated from “University Inc.” which has been re-purposed for the needs of free enterprise rather than free enquiry.  Market values, corporate culture and a “tighter tertiary-industry fit” are ascendant in what are now “job-training centres and feeders for the industrial economy”, pumping out credentialed ‘products’ (graduates) fit for purpose (industry needs).

Starved of significant government funding, Australia’s universities have taken on the trappings, and soul, of the corporate world.  Courses which lack immediate economic utility are culled whilst multi-million dollar marketing budgets entice “tertiary shoppers” in a “mad scramble” for undergraduate market share.  Brand promotion, free iPads and other loss-leader enticements are used to attract enrolments to secure the revenue stream from hefty tuition fees.  The removal of government caps on student numbers has invited universities to take in anyone, including the sub-literate and semi-numerate.  Student quantity is valued over quality.

Crammed into overcrowded classes, the student hordes are taught by an army of 67,000 low-wage casual teachers, stressed by oppressive administrative and bureaucratic demands.  This academic proletariat is heavily populated by a glut of PhD post-graduates, trained in their redundant droves for prestigious university research jobs they will never get by university administrations because they attract rare government funds of $100,000 each.

Amongst the most aggrieved of Australia’s university students are the 223,000 international students (one quarter of the total student population).  This particular income river is highly prized by university accountants because of international student fees which are  up to three times those for domestic students.  Fraudulent entry processes which falsify academic records and English language skills let in the unsuitable, wastefully divert resources into intensive remediation, and encourage plagiarism and “soft assessment”.

Compounding the decline in the quality of education, campus culture withers due to the time pressures of employment (80% of students work to support the costs of their study), resulting in missed classes and rising drop-out rates, especially for the bargain-basement education offered by on-line tuition.  To cap it all off, unemployment, or lack of employment in their chosen field, awaits many graduates, whilst all are mugged by a long-term debt of up to $100,000.

The corporatisation of higher education results in the depoliticisation of university life, churning out graduates with the professional skills needed to administer, but not critically challenge, the hegemony of “global capitalism”.  Universities now manufacture the politically passive brain-worker whereas they once produced critically aware citizen-graduates.

Hil laments the bygone age of the liberal university when the rigorous exploration of ideas in a “joyous, passionate and engaged passage through higher education” was assumed.  Hil’s book could have benefited from an historical analysis of the tension between, on the one hand, the university’s role in preparing the workforce essential to capitalism and, on the other, its antagonism to that system’s political-economic values.  This tension has been present from at least the time when universities were essentially elite finishing schools for the sons and, more rarely, daughters of the ruling class to the contemporary era of the university grinding out capitalism’s technical-managerial class.  Neo-liberalism has been very bad news for what was once a “community of scholars”.

A hopeful Hil notes that pockets of academic resistance remain, that student protest has not been extinguished and that the (market-agnostic) humanities still account for the majority of undergraduates who remain the least unhappy students because they are doing what they really love, irrespective of what the market deems directly utilitarian.  Hil’s fervent and deeply-felt book maps out the ground still to be fought over for the purpose of the modern university.

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