What follows is a segment of my Chapter 7: The DVC Epidemic for the book Knowing Australia due frighteningly soon. The preceding paragraphs (the ones you can't see) describe the growth of competitive research funding as a signifier of academic esteem. My argument is that universities make entry to academia excessively traumatic in order to prop up professorial esteem - and that it is the economic structure of the university system in Australia (and overseas actually) that enable this to happen. This structure is not simple - and in fact consists of three intersecting economies, which I spend much of chapter 7 describing: an audit economy, a money economy and an economy of esteem.
Quality could now literally be measured by money. But even within the university, where esteem was the ‘real’ item of value and funding just its signifier, money corrupted nevertheless. Little slush funds became attached to privileged members of the professoriate, while at the other end of the research scale, postgraduates struggled on inadequate stipends or casual work, earning little or no superannuation. Casualisation of the scholarly workforce made research at the junior end of university life needlessly difficult. But while the senior academics whose voices are loudest in the union pointed (in many ways rightly) to senior administrators looking to massify on the cheap, they did not look to their complicity in an exploitative and deeply unfair system. Far from seeking to restructure a system that has enabled some professors to travel first class and stay five star to do the kind of research that early career researchers were funding from their own well-worn credit cards, senior academics appeared to be looking for more ways to line their own pockets. Performance bonuses and top-up salaries, the dirty secret of Australian universities, began to prop up still further the esteem (and cost) of senior administrators and ‘star’ professors.
When we consider, by contrast, the circumstances of the casual academics and postgraduate researchers at the other end of the pay scale, performance bonuses (and the cost of the DVC epidemic) seem particularly crass. This situation is well known. A key element of postgraduate training in Australia is a kind of medieval Trial of Poverty. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations found that reality contradicted the assumptions underlying the place of this torture machine for postgraduates in Australia. Most postgraduates were not, in fact, young 20-somethings just moving off student income support (Austudy) and whose parents could help them out. Their average age was 35. Many had children. The struggles for a chance to work passionately to pursue knowledge they cared about were significant.
Since postgraduates conduct a very high proportion of Australian research – the Council of Postgraduate Associations estimates as high as 50 per cent ¬– the ‘real’ cost of knowledge is hidden beneath this suffering. The lucky ones are supported by partners or parents with the means to do so – indeed, we could well observe that perhaps only those with such support can really afford to do a PhD, even with the ARC’s stipend. I often thought that the really important pre-requisite for starting postgraduate research was a credit card with a decent limit, and a heart filled with the (potentially misplaced) faith that money will be available later on to repay it.
The life of a scholarship-funded PhD student, however, is in some ways sheer luxury compared to many an early career academic. I was reminded of this recently, after I gave a talk in which I argued that academics should whinge less and look optimistically towards building the kind of university we want. Afterwards, a young, exhausted-looking woman approached me, her whole body tensed, shoulders permanently hunched slightly as long-term stress etched itself into her body. I could sense tears were not far away as she told me how passionate she is about her research and teaching and asked – almost begged – for a way to stay positive under these conditions. I had no answer for her. Living off casual teaching, as this woman was, is a highly stressful, excessively uncertain life. Even when teaching does (or, in straitened years, doesn’t) come through at the last minute, this life combines the postgraduate’s Trial of Poverty with the anxiety attached to producing research no one is funding and the knowledge that, unless you do so, better conditions will never be forthcoming. It is very difficult to concentrate enough to do good work while feeling such urgent desperation. This system is not only wasteful of the nation’s best talent, but also unnecessarily harmful to humans who deserve more.
The issue is not just to contrast the earnings of the top and the bottom, it is that one caused the other. Competitive research funding, particularly that which was based on the purchase of time, resulted in widespread casualisation. Buy-out of teaching is understandable in the box-ticking economy, but the sub-industry it created not only damaged the prospects of a new generation of academics, it also damaged the next generation of research. And when cash-strapped universities push professorial salaries further upwards with performance bonuses and top-up salaries for ‘star’ researchers (how long until all scholars want that status, do we think?), it also made them less able to afford continuing salaries for junior scholars. The poorer of Australian universities who felt compelled to keep light on their feet with flexible short-term academic teaching contracts showed themselves nevertheless prepared to pay some of the highest salaries at executive level. Accountability, despite the stringencies of audit culture, seems located in the wrong places.