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Students are not the monsters in our universities

Ellena Savage |  01 September 2016


The university is in crisis! That is sort of a joke, because at university, you can use the word 'crisis' on any contents page. You can say the essay is in crisis human rights are in crisis youth are in crisis, and you'd always be right, because our ways of being are constantly overhauled and complicated.

Young women studyingWhat I mean to say is that the golden age of the university, apparently, is over. That one where young people sipped sherry with their dons and then quietly walked out the gates with a degree under their arm and the wisdom of becoming.

But for most of us the golden period of the university is a myth, and like all myths, one that serves a useful purpose. In the golden era, I suppose, only a handful of people, selected for their potential to contribute to certain class formations, went to university.

And then there was a shift, in the Anglophone west, at least, and more of us went to university and this occurred within the supposedly democratising process of neoliberalisation.

But neoliberalisation went a bit far and so now when we teach in universities we don't have offices, and we don't know if we'll be hired next semester, and we don't know how to tell our students that while they are entitled to real, unfettered attention from their teachers, a lot of the time their teachers are basically volunteers for the charity called their expensive education.

And these two principles are connected, though perhaps they needn't have been — a greater and more diverse student body, and the rapid deregulation of the university sector.

For many of us whose fates were not included in the golden era myth of the university, teaching at the university as a sessional is a difficult enterprise because your position is twofold: on the one hand you represent the figure of moral authority posed by the institution; on the other, you are subject to the injustices of the institution perhaps even more than your students are.

And yet, it's a job, and maybe a stepping stone to establish yourself within the only remaining institution that can give you space for your research and writing.


"It is a similar fear to that which drives the performance of polite conversation in an uber. But to translate that fear into contempt for students is the wrong way round."


For the new sessional academic — Australian universities now employ more than half their staff on a casual basis (!) — your work functions as scab labour. But the alternative, the commercial workplace, is ever so slightly worse.

In this 'crisis', a strand of critique has emerged that targets the unruly behaviour of students. Students are feared. But students are not the problem, not really.

To cite one common student-oriented fear, for example, student feedback surveys, or 'subject scores' can determine whether a sessional academic gets employed the following semester. In this nightmare, your least engaged student can take issue with the fact that you didn't collude with them on an essay, or that you weren't available on email on a public holiday, and give you a zero-star rating. It is a similar fear to that which drives the performance of polite conversation in an uber. But to translate that fear into contempt for students is the wrong way round. They did not set these precarious industrial conditions. Your employer did that.

Subject scores act as an incentive for insecure workers to overwork. Untold hours responding to student queries, and meeting them for coffee, and working with compassion for students in precarious situations is a teacher's duty, and often it is a pleasure. Yet many of these hours are unpaid, except for in the high rating a teacher might accrue.

Except when they engage in direct action, which is now an activity most often reserved for mostly economically privileged students, students have little power to change these conditions. Their only power is to act out minute transgressions. Which is behaviour that is read, I think, as 'oversensitivity', or at perhaps as a brand of specialness that comes from the new status of students as 'consumers'.

The perceived oversensitivity of students gets a lot of press. Calls for more trigger warnings, or for sensitive content to be stripped from courses, are the subject of many articles and teacher confessionals, and Monash has committed to adding trigger warnings to course materials in 2017.

There are of course problems with not discussing certain gruesome elements of war, perhaps, or texts that make use of anachronistic and offensive language — the injustices they often detail are still operative and we need to discuss them in order to dismantle them. But if a student cohort is assumed to be diverse, courses need to be developed with the knowledge (or at least hope) that survivors of torture and trauma, and survivors of systemic racism, ableism and myriad forms of sexual discrimination are going to be present in the classroom. And that for discussions about the legacies of ongoing injustice, those students need to be in the classroom. If they're not there, their absence betrays a failure of policy and society. Not every text in a living canon needs to be centred at the expense of alienating students; substitutes can always be found.

Fears of growing anti-intellectualism among students is real, but rare. For example, a student refusing to read a certain text because they may be offended could betray their laziness, or their privilege (they simply don't need the avenue of education to better their social options the way many others do). This is a classic strategy for agitating young teachers. But teachers should probably reward whatever currents of curiosity underpin a declarative objection. The rewards for being curious are greater than the rewards for being right. And learning opportunities go both ways: rigid students need dynamic teachers.

The emerging fear of students is a stand-in for something else. They are the monster figures embodying the real concern: that a shift is taking place that may well leave many thousands of workers (and students) in intolerable industrial conditions. What happens to education when the machine running it can't, or won't, incorporate the critiques of its own scholars/employees? How could a student possibly dream large while they consult with their teachers by the entrance of the male urinary?


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is Editor at The Lifted Brow, and is undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Monash University.

Main image via Flickr



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Submitted comments

University life was never easy, but it was reasonably secure employment, when "tenure" meant something. It had its pitfalls of course, with lazy or inept academics who managed to slip through the tenure barrier in place and immovable for life. The swing in the other direction for me seemed to start with the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s when the whole notion of a University, and indeed of a University student, changed. The mid-level institutions were abolished and the University sector seemed to descend to fill the gap. I taught at a G8 for most of my career but now I am an adjunct at another G8 where I work with junior staff and graduate students as a mentor. The situation now is far, far worse than when I left the sector in 1999. Thanks for this incisive and insightful article, Elena.

Bill Venables 02 September 2016

Crikey! If this is an accurate picture of today's universities, they are much worse than I ever imagined. Indeed, if accurate, the country is well and truly buggered. I entered university in 1957, a member of the power underclass of those days, with 25 pounds in my Commonwealth Bank savings account and like 85% of undergraduates with a government funded scholarship based on academic results in the final year of secondary school. There were 185 of us in the first year of a 6 year course. After the second year only 75 remained with class numbers refilled year by year by failed students repeating the year, finally with 105 graduating. Never got the sherry with the teachers, never spoke with or otherwise contacted any of them for advice, and certainly not at the door to the loo. It was, nevertheless, the "golden age" ruined by that towering Labour politician who gave us "free" universities and abandoned all government scholarships which precluded the poor and the country students from entering university. I taught at six universities in Australia and England for 42 years but never in one that fits this description. Our problem is that we followed America downhill with the establishment of Mickey Mouse cartoon faculties, the admission of students who failed the senior high school year, and introducing fees to make up for the funds lost in removal of government funding in the delusionary "free universities " era. We now live in the age where anyone can go to university provided they can pay, where every second man and his dog has a doctorate, where professors see their prime task as making money for their faculty. I think we have entered the "cheap champagne age" of university life, full of froth and bugger all bubble.

john frawley 02 September 2016

'What are universities for?' The debate continues. Your article builds up to the crescendo in your last paragraph when you show what the problem is. My feeling is that, in Australia, we have always lived in the world of 'Lucky Jim'. That needs to change. Tenure is an important issue. Traditionally, at the great universities, most teaching staff had tenure. We have also made a false master of student feedback. It's now the tail wagging the dog. It must not be.

Edward Fido 02 September 2016

i remember having to sit in a room full of students with one student scathingly reducing that teacher/lecturer to dirt through their unreasonable questioning on a point of order in scholarship. I've also been at a University where anyone who wished to apply to receive an Award could do so (none were offered)! For someone with a curious and wondering mind, it was a revelation to learn that the way through a course was to listen to what the lecturer indicated was important and to follow that through to the letter. The whole idea of 'learning' and wrestling with big questions seems to have been binned. Everyone is compromised in that sort of culture. Sadly.

mary tehan 05 September 2016

A gloomy article on superstructure, and with good reason because whatever else Marx might have been mistaken about, everything boils down to the economy. The paradigm of a job is permanent and full-time. The justification for temporary or part-time jobs is that the social good is served by some not wishing to volunteer the time taken up by a permanent and full-time job because they have competing priorities which they find desirable. A function that cannot be monetised (but monetisation can be fudged) cannot produce a job because we don't live in a barter economy. Exchange of goods and services is by money. Not even the 'neoliberals' know where the future paradigms of a job are. They can only soothsay that if 'conditions' are freed up, undefined creative energies will be released, undefined functions will be made monetisable and undefined permanent and full-time jobs worthy of a First World will be created. They sell hope. Hope is one of those consumables that can't be given away. It has to be purchased with optimism and, because it is consumed, needs to be repurchased. But where are the monetisable functions which replenish employee optimism by competing against the employers of involuntary casuals?

Roy Chen Yee 06 September 2016

This use of sessional academics as it now exist in our universities is a bad thing. Certainly, you used to start off as a temporary tutor in the old days. That was OK as there was a genuine chance of permanency. Even places like Cambridge (and the other place where they formerly manufactured cars) has this system where people can be Lecturers but not College Fellows. I know of people who have been temporary lecturers for years without a hope of obtaining a fellowship and tenure. Most go on to school teaching. I am not sure that their hearts lie there, but, hey, it's permanent, you can get married, have kids and buy a house. If you don't marry it still provides security. Australian universities need urgent reform in many ways. The worst people to reform, or advise on reform, are the legion of former Vice-Chancellors et sim who are, basically, the cause of the problem. Their advice, in the main, needs to be axed.

Edward Fido 07 November 2016

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