Seriously, Mister Jones

The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.

For Leon Fuller

With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.

The Campus is Dead: Long Live The Campus

Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will.

Do Trees Have Rights“?

In its series on the future of the university campus this week, The Conversation visualises the opposite of online learning as some kind of vanishing Hogwarts, illustrated very conventionally: a picture of one of Australia’s faux classical universities with its daft and out-of-place architecture, and its big spreading tree.

The older buildings at the university where I work look like a chain of multi-story carparks, and the new buildings like a particularly shiny technology theme park: corporate acronyms and industry partnerships monumentalised in brushed concrete and steel. And yet in survey after survey, when we’re asked about the three best things about where we are, we all chorus: the physical environment.

It’s true. The campus is something I find myself really missing in this year of time away from work.  Walking from modestly ugly building to really ugly building, I’ve been continually startled and impressed by the delicacy and detail of the ground-level planting, the just-rightness of the winding paths, the thoughtful interaction of seating, shade, water and seclusion that creates quiet places to think.

And above it all, the trees. We even have a tree walk, because the trees that provide all this shade (and natural cooling to many of the buildings) are locally appropriate species with little labels at their bases so that we can learn something as we walk about. Because of these trees, we also have birdlife, that birdwatchers come specifically to see. And as we rush from meeting to meeting, most of us will pause to watch a bower bird in the act of adjusting or decorating its bower; impatient and time-hungry drivers late for something or other will slow down as moorhens cross the road from one pond to the next.

This must drive the Vice Chancellor mad. Our green and growing environment, that actively produces all this contemplative dawdling, isn’t going to drive up our international reputation, because you have to be standing here to see it. But in thinking about why we don’t celebrate it more than we do, I wonder if this isn’t part of a larger problem that affects higher education more widely: that our performance metrics and ranking instruments are really bad at recognising indirect contribution.

We don’t promote people who get committee work done, straightforwardly and properly, so that universities operate as efficiently as they can. We don’t give awards to professional audit, governance or IT support teams whose very job it is to keep things ticking over so smoothly that we don’t know they exist. We don’t thank the academic colleagues who listen and ask questions and buy coffee when someone else’s article or grant proposal gets stuck in the delivery canal. And we really disrespect the army of casuals who make research output possible by showing up to teach in place of the hipster research superstars marketed to students on billboards and websites.

In the 1970s, feminist economists and historians argued that the contribution of unwaged women’s work in the home needed to be calculated into GDP. The case is straightforward: for wage earners to be out of the home, other work has to be done in raising families in safety, managing the home itself, and supporting the other institutions in the economy, including education. The pattern of workforce participation has changed since then, so that many of these services are now themselves outsourced to low-waged labour, but this has only reinforced the point: there is this everyday stuff that has to get done so that economic participation can focus on reproducing the future conditions for work.

And this all takes real human time, so it really matters that the undistinguished, uncelebrated domestic service of workforce participation is properly reckoned when we’re congratulating ourselves on productivity.

As it happens, the trees on our beautiful campus are also an indirect contribution from the seventies. They’re the living design and vision of Leon Fuller, a local curator of native species, who came to a “bare, featureless landscape” in 1975 and created what we have now from seeds he gathered himself:

Mr Fuller was appointed landscape supervisor at UOW in 1975, with the task of transforming the campus – a massive brief given the region’s diversity of vegetation. “The overall vegetation of the Illawarra is distinctive and trying to bring it down to one or two plant communities is not easy,” he said. “There’s a number of plant communities; there’s Illawarra grassy woodland, and Illawarra subtropical rainforest on the escarpment.”

As part of his UOW quest, Mr Fuller and his team made countless trips into the Illawarra escarpment bushland, identifying trees and gathering seeds that were propagated and planted on campus. Thousands of trees were planted in the six years he was with the university, a trend that continued after his departure.

Illawarra Mercury, “Field Guide to the Landscape We Love

Leon Fulller’s thinking ahead, so carefully, about environmental integrity is exactly the kind of invisible work that’s in trouble in Australia at the moment.  Our current Prime Minister seems genuinely to believe that logging is a kind of nature conservancy, a way of thinking about trees purely for their potential to become productive timber or to make way for mining or gas interests. And in the same way, the efficiency calculations tearing up our economy—including our public institutions—are making it thinkable that humans defined as unproductive can be pruned and uprooted, as if for their own benefit. Because, you know, dead wood.

But like any large organisation, a university is complex living ecosystem of human care and reflection. Some of this is inefficient by technical standards; because technical standards are very limited in their range. These standards are not yet developed to match the complexity of human interaction: the long term impact that we have on one another’s thinking, the way we sharpen one another’s skills, or even just the way we sustain each other’s confidence to go on. They really can’t see the trees for the timber they might produce.

And as the recruitment culture in universities speeds up because as Gianpiero Petriglieri smartly points out, we currently applaud the career trajectory of leaders who are globally mobile, there’s a risk of failing to understand that local history is what grounds a university in the place where it is, where its seeds were harvested and planted:

Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.

Here’s to you, Leon Fuller.

What you have when you don’t have tenure

Over the holiday period there’s been a flare-up among US higher education bloggers, that began with important questions about the miserable process of tenure-line job searches conducted at big annual conferences (do candidates really end up sitting on the bed in front of the search committee? Good Lord), and jumped from there to whether those currently tenured are doing enough to change the system that gives them their privileges. Understandably, tenured US bloggers wrote back, most substantively agreeing that university work is broken, and pointing out some of the reasons other than tenured privilege that higher education can’t afford to pay its staffing bills properly.

For those of us in other places, where neither hiring nor tenure work in the same way, it’s been like visiting someone else’s family for Christmas dinner and watching them fight. Every old thing gets raked up. Seething alliances form. Insults are defensively reexplained and stuff gets overstated. Once there’s a crowd, reactive escalation becomes its own self-sustaining energy. So then tone-policing becomes a thing, a penalty dive, in much the same way that “political correctness” was used by Australian conservatives in the 1990s: claiming to be silenced in order to silence others back.

Something that Australians would recognise is at work here: the art and tactic of sledging (which has nothing to do with snow). Sledging isn’t just there to unsettle your opponent, but to build solidarity among the team dishing it out. Sledging is a public test of team loyalty and commitment to the cause. Whose side are you on anyway? Whenever critics of sledging say that that it’s gone too far and is tipping into bullying, and indeed when it does evident harm to some of those on the receiving end, sledgers amp it up a bit while disavowing it in the same neat move. It’s just a game, and off the pitch we’re all mates.

Social media sledging in the current climate is tangling with the ways that universities (and governments) are mobilising to minimise critique from higher education workers, by widening the definition of inappropriate speech online to include anything that brings the institution or its brand into disrepute.  And to this powerful audience, some of the obvious strategies for breaking up this brawl while clawing back more money from university staffing are already on hand. So if we want to get beyond sledging and make workplaces worth applying to, really we need to try to think about these other options and familiarise ourselves with what they might mean.

First: outsourcing. Universities are generalist institutions made up of lots of little divisions that do different things, and academics are often not aware how many of these are already outsourced to specialist providers.  We could be better at sharing administrative services; even research time is able to be lent so that cross-institutional teams can function. But in teaching, the idea of outsourcing was hushed until MOOCs blew it out of a big trumpet. (The exception is LMS contracts; and even then few academics get to find out much about the vendors that they’re partnered with, because that partnership is sequestered within a specialist bit of the institution, and sometimes actively covered up with in-house support.)

So academic work itself remains the least outsourced part of the institution’s activity, and this could change. Public universities could run on outsourced online labour quite straightforwardly—other major corporations do, as do MOOCs, and many private education providers. Casualisation itself is already both outsourcing and sharing, but it’s still relatively costly compared to how cheap it could be if it was unbundled and the cheaper bits put out to tender. Of course this work then wouldn’t go to those who are currently trying to find local employment in higher education, because there will always be cheaper sources of piecework labour in other states or other countries, just as there are in other industries. So this wouldn’t create more just employment, but it would save money.

The second option is potentially more attractive to people who want to work in higher education: remove tenure and make universities like other sectors, where security of employment is based on continuation of demand for what you do, matched to your continually tested capacity to do it better than the next person.  This is exactly what life on the open market is like for car workers, basketballers, miners, IT workers, business professionals and farmers, not to mention journalists, artists, and people who make cricket caps.  Demand for what you do can change, and someone younger, fitter, taller or cheaper than you can offer a better deal to your employer.

So if you’re sitting on a CV that’s more impressive than someone currently in a tenured position, maybe this would work in your favour. And maybe the younger, fitter, taller, cheaper person would never come along to replace you either.

As it happens, this one’s also already here, because the underlying bargain also favours the employer. Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

It’s a high risk strategy for both employers and elite performers, who are bought in at the expense of an international search, and then bought out of governance and/or teaching so that they can bring in research funding. But if demand trends away from them, then they can be difficult to redeploy, because it turns out that universities are within rights to argue that a senior academic can’t simply be plonked in front of first-year undergraduate students to do generalist teachingIn a very recent judgment, the Australian Fair Work Commission has decided in favour of an Australian university that:

A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

The judgment is clear on the climate for thinking about security of academic employment in Australia; and shows how little impact we have had on assumptions about the time it takes to teach conscientiously, patiently or well, especially where students may be underprepared or poorly supported.  It differentiates between the value of contact hours based on an individual’s salary, and by these apparently reasonable means finds it appropriate to service first-year teaching at the lowest possible cost, which is precisely how casualisation is endorsed as a strategically good response to “commercial imperatives.”

So if you still really think that people who talk about structure are avoiding the struggle for fair work and turning a blind eye to humans harmed by it, or that it’s possible to separate the struggles of the academic precariat from the management of those on salary, then read this judgment closely. Because this is the court of opinion where real power is at work, and where the structure is already being redesigned.

Big thanks to Stephen Matchett (@SRMatchett) for daily higher education reporting in Australia. His Campus Morning Mail is where I first read about the judgment discussed here.

The value of bad ideas

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. … Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!

It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

Jon Bell, “McDonalds Theory

Here’s my theory: the MOOCs we’ve got at the moment really are just a bad idea. This is awkward, because so much money has now been sunk into them, it feels defeating even to imagine their failure. But there’s a bright side: what if MOOCs are the icebreakingly bad idea, whose gift is to inspire us to come up with something better?

MOOCs wouldn’t be the first bad idea to be taken seriously and attract major capital investment, about which people later look back and wonder: what were we thinking?  I once met the man who co-designed the Sinclair C5, an infamous battery-powered vehicle that was expected to transform the way people got around in crowded British cities in the 1980s. The design had been feted on news programs and TV shows, and the project had a major backer with serious money. But then the prototype was tried out on an actual road, and people noticed that the battery didn’t work in the rain and it was disturbing to change lanes on wet roads at 15mph in a low lying tricycle that barely reached the wheel arch of your average road haulage vehicle. Cartoonists had a field day.

Last month, the Sinclair c5 was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time, topping a list of mostly entertainment technology formats or communication devices that failed, and pizza scissors.

Some of these had enjoyed brief success before being overhauled by a competitor or successor, but the C5 was distinguished by being panned from the moment it showed up on the road, when all the ideas that had seemed so convincing in prototype collided with the realities of scale and use. As Rodney Dale, who has written a loving history of the C5, noted sadly, the “seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic.”

But the principles and the concerns behind the C5 didn’t evaporate. The problems it was attempting to address—and the commercial opportunity it was attempting to exploit—were real. Since 1984 we’ve found out more and more about the impact of excessive oil consumption on our environment and our global economy, and we’ve continued to explore alternatives to the ways in which we use and fuel private cars. It was a visionary idea, just a really awful design.

And this is where we are with higher education. Different systems all around the world are facing different problems, but the problems are real, and the systems we’re using to address them are underpowered and unimaginative. More lectures, bigger lecture theatres, overcrowded tutorials, staffing flexibilities that are appalling euphemisms for sustained and harmful exploitation of the academic precariat, standardised curriculum and unvarying assessment practices, inflexible approaches to student creativity, timed exams, grades and escalating student debt: all of these are the bad ideas we live with and defend. So let’s not romanticise our current situation just because the alternative that’s getting all the attention is an even bigger bad idea.

Where I work we’re now seriously asking the MOOC question: should we? why? with what? for whom? And what are the risks involved in us adapting those that are being made elsewhere?  Wouldn’t it be good to have some Stanfordy things in our curriculum, especially when it comes to the foundational material in the disciplines that genuinely need their students to cover at least some of the same ground no matter where they study? Obviously, the situation’s trickier for the humanities, but don’t the world’s MOOCs give us access to new areas of curriculum that we can’t supply ourselves, in such a small educational economy?

Provided we put aside the daft and insulting conceit that we’re lucky to gain access to the world’s best professors all of whom naturally work at the world’s elite institutions, I think the answer to some of these questions has to be: well, yes. We all benefit when students access new and different curriculum, for the same reason that we gain when those who can afford it travel as part of their study program. And we all have something to share in return.

But first, we need to move beyond the bad bits of the idea: that massive enrolment is a cunning alternative to overcrowding; that volunteer tutoring is sustainable or just; that recorded lectures solve the problem of lectures; that institutional research brand is a guarantee of individual teaching excellence; that timed exams and peer-reviewed short answer papers are anything other than roll call; and that any of these services are going to remain philanthropic once the testing phase is over.

The good ideas trapped behind this wall of nonsense are starting to emerge. This week I had a lovely day sitting about with the people who design our rooms and choose our carpet tiles and light fittings, and make our award-winning outdoor spaces, which really are appreciated by everyone. Talking together we started to imagine how new kinds of campus spaces and educational technologies should work together to support international collaboration among students in ways we haven’t been able to offer before; about facilities where students could meet and create their own digital materials or remix ours; and about the need to reform our outdated business rules in relation to wireless access. It was exciting, and fun, and offered one of the best conversations I’ve listened to on the value of courage in institutional planning.

But a caveat, before we throw open all the doors and windows to the winds of change blowing from the global north: bad ideas don’t always move aside like the Sinclair C5 to make room for the better ones that follow. Here in Australia there’s a lesson from the history of imported innovations that have had long term environmental consequence: the cane toad.  Cane toads were brought here in 1935 from Hawaii, in a well-intentioned effort to reduce crop damage without excessive use of pesticides, and we can recognise those principles as basically good.  The scientist who arranged their introduction to Queensland wasn’t blinded by greed or lacking in awareness. It’s just that, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it with heartbreaking understatement, “the toad proved less useful than had been hoped, and itself became a pest.”

Let’s just keep this in mind: whatever problems we’re trying to solve, and whatever ideas we think are good, we are taking care of a complex and fairly fragile educational ecosystem here. And if a toad doesn’t prove as useful as you hoped, you can’t always get it to go home again.

Own goal

It’s been a dramatic and painful week around the world, and a week for scepticism about the value of “breaking news”. Here’s Australia’s contribution to the world of redundant announcements, from our busy Minister for Everything*, Craig Emerson:

No one’s surprised at the news that if elected Tony Abbott will hang on to the cuts made to higher education without passing them on to schools. We’re a risk averse sector with a sharp eye for the unforeseen. And this risk was exceptionally easy to see: it’s the elephant that’s been sitting in our kitchen all week, helping itself to cake. When the Labor government announced cuts to Australian universities in order to save Australian schools without securing the support of the mostly conservative State governments, with all the polls and pundits predicting Tony Abbott as the PM of a new government, our lunch money was gone.

And although the government has spent the week downplaying the Efficiency Dividend as a modest speed bump of 2% followed by 1.25%, the detail written in small print is that this is cumulative: 2014 at 2% followed by 2015 at 3.25%; and its impact will extend beyond the two years in which it’s applied by pegging the indexation of our operating grants after that to the lowered rate. In other words, we’ll continue to feel the Efficiency Dividend like shadow limb pain for quite some time.

It’s hard not to see this as an own goal by the current government, a parting gift for their successors. We’re a really small and efficient sector. We’re on track to meet the targets we were given for increased participation overall. We’re a star exporter of services. We’re already floating on a cushion of volunteered time and work. There’s not that much more to cut without suffering pushback from students and industry partners, not to mention our actual partners and families, and Australia’s full-time university workers and managers have been fairly vocal about this. (Do read Tseen Khoo’s post, which is packed with helpful links.)

We’ve said a bit less about the likely impact of the reforms to the ways in which Australian university students are funded. There are two small but significant shifts to the current income-contingent loan system, and although one will hit middle class families harder, both have had to be managed by pretending that student debt is a virtuous and low-risk investment in a very sparkly future. Firstly, there will no longer be a discount rate for those who pay their fees upfront; and secondly, the existing scholarships that help some students meet the set-up costs of participation (especially in terms of textbooks) will now be added to their loans.

Expanding investment in student debt isn’t such a gift to the next government; really, it’s more like the prawn heads left in the curtain rods.  Not only does Australia already have a hefty unpaid bill from Australian graduates who have either left the country or died with their debt intact, but this week we also have compelling evidence from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that young Americans with a history of student debt reacted very negatively to recession after 2008. They retreated from the sectors of the economy they had traditionally been expected to prop up, particularly home ownership. They became slightly less likely to buy cars that required loans. And the overall impact on the consumer economy of their inconfident spending and debt exhaustion is bluntly put:

Despite unprecedented growth in the student loan market, student borrowers appear to have participated fully in the recent consumer deleveraging. This was possible only through a collective retreat from other standard debt markets.

Student debt isn’t just bad for the economy, it’s also bad for students. It’s sold to the electorate with the image of doctors and lawyers who surely owe their fair share; less is said about the fact that those who owe most are those who are slower to reach the income threshholds at which they’re required to repay — those graduates who become parents and then spend a long time in the part-time workforce, for example, or those in remote and regional areas who remain underemployed relative to their qualifications. It’s also one of the only major debts that can be taken on in Australia without the obligation of the lender to counsel the borrower about their fitness to repay. Quite the opposite: universities market the benefit of participation on the promise of a graduate earnings premium, and keep the image of the lender and the future debt nicely vague.

Awkwardly for all concerned, the Grattan Institute has just pointed out that the graduate premium in Australia isn’t as high as it is elsewhere (p.40); and is off-trend in relation to other OECD countries. This is partly because the real growth in jobs and increases in wages has been in unskilled and construction work in the minerals and mining boom, and it might level out. But as the Grattan Institute also point out, it’s precisely by increasing the supply of graduates overall that we are playing our part in keeping the graduate premium low (p.39).

School-leaver students are unlikely to be experienced in risk calculation. This is the first big debt for many, especially those who have never had an car loan or a credit card. Meanwhile academics, who do know about the impact of personal and household debt, are so testy about the suggestion that students are consumers that we turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re actually borrowers. It’s something we rarely discuss, and we certainly don’t encourage them to let debt shape their decisions, just in case this results in attrition.

There’s a lot being said at the moment about how we should innovate and what we should do to achieve efficiency. I agree completely with Richard Hall that these calculations are framed within a far bigger crisis, and that the enclosure of academic labour and hedging of student debt are complexly linked with the deeply scarring patterns of social exclusion upon which capitalism increasingly depends. But while we’re here and making decisions, I think that whatever curriculum we draw up, whatever resourcing or delivery decisions we make, whatever cost savings we attempt and whatever justification we give ourselves, we need to keep in mind throughout it all that university students’ debt is also our debt to them for showing up.

Because with both sides of government now treating us all with equal contempt, we’re really in this together.

* The longer version: Minister for Trade & Competitiveness, Minister Assisting PM on Asian Century Policy, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science & Research.

(Thanks to Andrew Vann for much explaining of the sums.)