From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Degree of difficulty. We’ve had plenty of feedback to a Crikey story yesterday that asked if Australian universities were really offering the excellence they claim to — or if students are being ripped off with substandard teaching, as the unis trade on their research reputations to milk the international student cash cow.

Insiders are reporting pressure to pass international students regardless of their performance, PhD supervisors told to “write their students’ PhDs for them”, tutors who are not qualified or trained, and casual staff writing lectures on the fly. Here are some of the tips, uni by uni.

Got more insider accounts? Let us know, and feel free to stay anonymous.

James Cook University (Queensland)

Slogan: “has an international reputation for quality research and teaching”

This tip relates to a person who is an international student in computer science, who lectured at the uni.

“He was compelled to pass international students who didn’t have a clue what was being taught — they paid their $30,000, they expect a pass. He had a big argument with [management] as they were not deserving of passes, and ended up reluctantly giving them conceded passes even though they deserved less than that. Needless to say, his contract was not renewed.”

And we’ve heard that at the James Cook law school, a senior lecturer “resisted management demands that he up-mark failing international students, though he suspected the results were altered anyway”.

Melbourne University

Slogan: offers a “world-class education … Dream large”

“MU, or at least one school, is seriously broke. Talk of major staff cuts. The research side of unis is subsidised by the teaching side, with student fee income and government support syphoned off to pay for high profile but unprofitable research activities. Uni won’t cut the glamour stuff, so squeezes teaching and assures that teaching staff will work harder and students will get crap service.”

Another contribution on Melbourne Uni, from a current PhD candidate and recent tutor:

“In some of the more beleaguered humanities departments, sarcastic references to “dream large” are commonplace. It’s true that a lot of first-year tutors are under-prepared, but it’s important not to blame this on the tutors … Generally, tutors get thrown into classrooms with little more than a willingness to do the readings to keep them ahead of the pack, and only a token day of “training”. This makes them just as much victims as their underwhelmed students.”

Monash

Slogan: “Monash is a university of transformation”

You can take that slogan literally, it would seem. This from a second-year PhD student in law:

“On arriving, I was told by a fellow PhD student that staff were invited to a meeting by the admin department of Monash. The staff were told that they had to “write their students’ PhDs for them” if it meant their passing (given that the unis receive Australian Postgraduate Award funding only once the qualification is received).”

UNSW:

Slogan: “one of Australia’s leading research and teaching universities”

This arts graduate from UNSW commented on the original Crikey story.

“So many of the classes were a joke. Very nearly one-third of all the 32 classes I did to finish my double majors were completely unnecessary and unrelated to my degree (10 of them!). “Science and the cinema” was one of four mandatory “general education” subjects everyone had to complete. It consisted of watching Jurassic Park, Chain Reaction, Gattaca … My French class had foreign students who, after 14 weeks, still couldn’t speak English, let alone French, but they all passed. All of my psychology units (10 classes in all over the four years) had multiple choice exams.”

General tips (university not named):

“Don’t get me started on standards! Woeful! When a full-fee paying student (a $30,000 investment on a permanent residency) has difficulties with the language, standards have to plummet to accommodate them. My Indian student friends were not here for our wonderful education, all but one were here for a visa and better job than they’d get back home. One told me how he knew nothing of computers, but had bluffed his way through the course. I asked how. He said they were all given group assignments and presentations, weighted more than exams. All he had to do was do group assignments with friends who knew what they were doing and he was guaranteed a pass at least. And as we know, Ps get degrees.”

This casual lecturer who teaches at four universities (two of them Group of Eight) commented on the Crikey story.

“Vulnerable casual staff are driving a large proportion of teaching, they often write up lectures as they go and never really have regular courses that they teach. So I do think that quality has suffered, I would say that the education I received is much better than what students are getting now.

“It’s regularly the case that I am asked to teach courses I have never taught before — this is even the case when lecturing. Often you are given a couple of weeks notice to plan the lectures, familiarise yourself with new material and prepare for teaching. The lectures are written on the fly. I am regularly called in to teach material that is not in my area, that I have never taught before and on short notice.

But I do think there are pressures at play that encourage dumbing down. We are asked to mark at a rate of about 4500 words an hour. So if we are talking about 1500-word essays that is three an hour — read, correct spelling, correct grammar, check and correct footnotes, make marginal comments on ideas, check the bibliography, reflect on the overall content so that you can write up some useful feedback, grade it and record the mark. It’s not possible. So either you have to work unpaid or you cut corners, cutting corners does mean lowering standards — sorry, but that is just a fact.

“Also, where the teaching budgets are cut back this often impacts on the type of marking done — it is far quicker to mark an exam with a multiple choice component, or short answers then it is to mark essays, that means you spend less of the teaching budget paying people to mark.”

*Do you know more? Send your tips to [email protected] or use our guaranteed anonymous form