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Policies, Students

In service to justice

We’re really delighted to introduce a new CASA contributor, Agnes Bosanquet, who has been researching the changing values Australian universities have promoted in their institutional Graduate Attribute statements. Do universities hold to these values in their own hiring practices?

If wizards are responsible for making house elves what they are, who (or what) are our universities making? What are the qualities, characteristics and capabilities of the people universities create?

For one answer to this question, take a look at graduate attributes statements. These statements articulate an institution’s idealised vision of the students they seek to develop, and the knowledge, values and dispositions they wish to impart. With colleagues, I have analysed 20 years worth at 39 Australian universities, a task more interesting than it sounds!

Take these three (anonymous) examples:

[Our graduates] appraise and critique the potentially powerful social and economic effects of enterprise and business activities on particular groups and individuals.

The University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.

Our graduates should be aware of disadvantage and social justice, and be willing to participate to help create a wiser and better society.

For a different answer to the question about the people universities create, look no further than how institutions treats their casual staff. As previously posted on CASA, the hollow rhetoric of graduate qualities rankles. There is a great disjuncture between the values espoused in graduate attributes statements and the treatment of casuals. And the bottom line is that graduate attributes are predominantly taught by casual academics.

So what can we learn from this? For all their rhetorical flourishes, university graduate attributes do genuinely exhort university graduates to action. This starts in the classroom. Together, teachers and students need to question the role of higher education in the development of capabilities such as ethical practice or moral standards; to interrogate the principles and values that underpin institutional graduate attributes; and to challenge to what extent attributes are universal, inclusive and achievable.

The contradiction between graduate attribute statements and university staffing practices is somewhere to start—to hold institutions accountable for the values that they promote to their students, and to ask that these are expressed clearly in the way in the institution itself behaves.




10 thoughts on “In service to justice

  1. I’ve also written about this very topic. You might remember the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a woman who had been an ‘adjunct professor’ in the US for 25 years before becoming ill, being dismissed from her job, and shortly after that, dying of cancer at age 83. I wrote about the disparity between the way her university’s casual staff were treated and what the university says on its website about its staff being “the catalyst behind the University’s growth and prosperity. The University’s remarkable advances in higher education, technology and research are a testament to their hard work and drive”. You can find my article here: http://carondann.com/2013/09/21/the-sad-case-of-margaret-mary-professor-of-the-working-poor/

    Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | June 18, 2014, 9:14 am
  2. Hi Caron, this is generally something that has bothered me too — the very wide gap between the way institutions represent themselves both internally and externally, and the values expressed in their everyday practices. One thing that’s particularly painful is the gap between statements made in strategic plans about the creation of staff culture, and the actual experiences of casuals. Because of course these strategic statements are aimed at full-time, permanent recruitment, to whom we might very well want to appear as an employer of choice.

    The question for casuals is by what measure a university might have to compete for their engagement — to be an employer of choice for casual staff? At first sight this is only relevant where there’s a choice (major metro markets), but I feel that it’s important to imagine a situation where institutions had to work a little harder to attract the casual staff on which they depend.

    Posted by Kate | June 20, 2014, 2:10 pm
  3. Yes, that would be a great scenario, given we are now the majority of academic staff at universities. The other day, I was dreaming about what I could do for myself and other sessionals at my university, and I thought, what I’d most like is a casual common room, with comfortable chairs and tables, a place to charge portable devices, a kettle, sink and fridge, lockers in which to keep heavy books and bags, perhaps even a curtained-off day bed where anyone feeling ill could take a nap. Some sessionals have three or four hours between classes, after all. Then I thought, “But there are thousands of us here—it would have to be school by school, and there just aren’t enough rooms or resources for that.” Nevertheless, when universities plan renovations, they should be factoring in areas for casuals: and they never do.

    Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | June 20, 2014, 3:33 pm
    • This is such a straightforward suggestion, and I think you’re absolutely right that there’s a mindset that reacts against the idea of anything involving resources. But when you think instead about the impact of sessional working conditions on student engagement, it starts to make sense for institutions to invest properly in this area.

      So in some ways the issue is about changing the terms of the conversation away from “What will it cost us to do this?” to “What will it cost us not to do this?”

      Posted by Kate | June 22, 2014, 3:17 pm
      • Yes, I agree. There’s also the benefit of being able to converse with colleagues, run ideas by them, compare teaching methods and so on. Many sessionals work in an isolated environment, just turning up to their classes and having little to do with other academics except for at the odd meeting.

        Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | June 22, 2014, 3:20 pm
    • That is such a lovely dream, Caron – if only!
      Some universities don’t even want to dedicate empty space: it was suggested here that with the advent of online assignment submission, all those empty pigeonholes for paper assignments could be converted to secure lockers for casual and sessional staff in each department and faculty. The answer was a flat ‘No’. And so the pigeonholes lie waiting for …? pigeons, I guess.

      Posted by Karina | June 26, 2014, 2:54 pm


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