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Student perspectives, issues and solutions addressed at UA Higher Ed Conference

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Among the many panels featuring distinguished industry reps, VCs and professors, one gave voice to students from all walks of life.

What would a conference on higher education be without students? This panel was one among three others happening concurrently, but seemed pertinent to attend. Although the student representatives presented were exceptional and perhaps unrepresentative of all demographics, they did provide a much-needed perspective.

The panel was chaired by Professor Annabelle Duncan, Vice-Chancellor and CEO at UNE, who introduced the panelists as they addressed the room individually. First to speak was Mr Mark Pace, immediate past president of the National Union of Presidents. His primary focus was on financial struggles students face, citing several worrying statistics, such as 22% of students living below the Henson poverty line, with 80% of those being from low SES backgrounds. 25% regularly go without food, with a quarter of all students regularly skipping classes for work. He then brought up the discrepancy between the income support one third of all university students receive ($230 p/w) and the poverty line ($433 p/w).

To Pace, there’s much that can be done to remedy the issue both by universities and the federal government. He cited the University of Adelaide as a successful example of contributing to the solution. The institution has been providing free breakfast to its students since 2012, which has since fostered a sense of community around the regular meals and earned the gratitude of struggling students. To cap off his address, he asserted our obligation as stakeholders in the higher education sector to request change from the government.

Mr Kasum Kalhara, National Welfare Officer of the Council of International Students Australia, was next. His perspective revealed lifestyle issues common to many international students, who he sees as “confined to a cycle” of university, work and home. This is further exacerbated by the visa complications that arise from deferring study. International students must also find work placements in order to graduate, so if companies don’t take them on, they don’t get to graduate. Therefore, they must stay in the country longer, which in turn requires wrangling with visas some more. He contrasted these difficulties with high suicide rates among international students during summer breaks (27 suicides between 2009 and 2015). In his opinion, isolation is further built up by cultural differences within academic communities. An example is the way we see plagiarism in Australia. In other countries it’s seen as resourcefulness, which is an attitude some carry into their studies here.

He offered two main ways of alleviating stress on international students.

  1. Provide more units over the summer break so there’s opportunity to accelerate their programs, or take study breaks, where needed.
  2. Improved flexibility (more online material and understanding from lecturers or tutors).

Third to speak was Ms Julia Barton, a physiotherapy student with a manic schedule. Her life as an athlete entails rigorous training and meticulous organisation. This address was primarily a walk through her life as an example of why academic flexibility and associated provisions should be made to students. Her long days and many outlets are a double-edged sword that cuts when given little opportunity to dictate her 4:30am - 9:00pm days. Her solutions echoed Kalhara’s.

The final address was given by Ms Natasha Abrahams, the National President for the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. Her address highlighted the comparatively diverse range of postgraduate students and the complications in serving them all. Although undergraduates no doubt come from all manner of backgrounds and study different disciplines, different ages and desires vary quite considerably among postgraduates. From high income, mid-career professionals doing their MBA to impoverished history PhDs coming straight from honours, it’s hard to define a uniform list of considerations.

She illustrated further concerns using a few statistics. For instance, just 20% of postgraduate degrees are eligible for income support, with only 18% of postgraduates being on it. Research students in particular are working full time in the form of their research, yet they’re being charged and are sometimes in desperate need of financial assistance and not getting it. The issue of funding for students in disciplines without lucrative career paths was foremost on her mind, stating knowledge shouldn’t be valued by what it pays. She turned to the federal government for assistance here. Universities, in her opinion, can also provide more on-campus work experience opportunities that split shifts between multiple people (one person for each day as an example). The prominence of “top up” scholarships is also of little use to those who need them most: students without a first scholarship.

The Q and A saw each panelist break from regimented speeches, yielding further heartfelt insights into student problems with easy problems. Barton was first to offer hers, insisting the early release of assessment dates and exam timetables would be of significant benefit. Kalhara added by suggesting lecturers might do well to see the timetables of their students, should students wish to submit them. This may help them empathise, he thought.

It wasn’t long before the issue of finances rose again. Abrahams insisted “little handouts” from the government simply weren’t enough to remedy these problems, stating a “united front” between universities is required for better results when petitioning for funding.

Regarding simple solutions that could be implemented for the benefit of international students, Kalhara thought more time for after-hours questions would be excellent, as international students have “countless questions” at any given time. This was a sentiment shared by Barton, who expressed all students stood to benefit from this.

One audience member asked the panel what they’d do if they were VC for a week, which yielded some intriguing responses.

  • Pace said he would make sure his office is at the heart communication.
  • Kalhara agreed and expanded, wanting to appoint student representatives for different categories that can speak with the VC freely in one-on-one sessions.
  • Barton said she’d consider the creation of a ‘life skills’ course, which would teach basic soft skills like time management and essential activities like washing clothes.
  • Abrahams wanted to implement domestic violence leave.

The final question was on how we might improve student engagement with lectures, given they’re all online. Several ideas were shared between the panelists, such as the formation of project teams or groups accountable to one another. They also felt holding lectures in the format of a Twitch stream, namely with an active scrolling chat ripe for participation, would necessarily engage participants. More peer assisted learning groups would also contribute to greater engagement with course material. Abrahams concluded this answer by flatly stating seminars simply don’t work because they lack the same engagement as a tutorial. To her, small group discussion in some form, be it traditional tutorials or otherwise, is key.

This panel was fairly unique among the others, as few students or representatives their age were present. Theorising new models of education or content delivery is fruitless without they who would be taught, after all. For the most part it yielded some useful insights that are worth exploring, although others may require more consideration. Among the most compelling ideas are simply greater transparency among student-facing university faculty. This would require no drastic curriculum changes or budget reassignments, yet may be of significant benefit to students.

Other ideas, like forming a ‘united front’, requesting more funding from the federal government or splitting on-campus jobs between multiple people, bear economic problems. Questions of what purpose higher education ought to serve are also worthy of consideration. What are we trying to do with our higher education institutions? Is it possible to serve the many diverse needs of undergraduate and postgraduate student bodies without treading on some for the sake of others? These are worth attempting to answer if it means mitigating student stress and improving their results.