Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career

A bushwalker found his body at the bottom of Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains in early August. The previous day he’d caught the train from Summer Hill where he lived and travelled to Blackheath. CCTV camera footage showed him with the bicycle and backpack that the police later found locked up at the top of the valley. John Dalton – the ‘unknown scholar’ – philosopher, contrarian, a member of the academic precariat had taken his own life.

It was a solitary death: no living relatives, no partner, no will or suicide note. The legal process was complicated and a small group of friends dealt with police, coroner and funeral arrangements. It seems that few people were very close to him in the last months and that he confided little to anyone about his state of mind.

But we know enough to tell his story – and that unemployment was part of it. In his mid forties, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy fifteen years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

George Morgan

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Stuffing the Classrooms

In trawling through the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings list published recently, I found that of the ten universities in the English-speaking world with the highest student-staff ratios, seven are Australian. This suggests that recruitment has not kept pace with the growth in student numbers in the era of the ‘massification’ of higher education.

Indeed if one looks only at universities in Australia and the UK universities, nine of the ten highest student/staff ratios are Australian universities. Only the Open University, with its mass distance-learning model, makes the list, despite the fact that Britain has more than double the number of universities. The same ratio applies when measuring overall student numbers. Again only the Open University makes the top ten. While numerous Australian universities enrol more than thirty thousand full-time equivalent students in the UK only Nottingham and Open Universities do so.

George Morgan

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