A response to opening keynote by Prof Alastair Summerlee at HERDSA2016, or why I worry that Australian students are pragmatic, pessimistic, and petrified

It was a great opening keynote at the HERDSA conference today by Prof Alastair Summerlee. He covered the ground to which I have already been converted, and how am almost zealously evangelical about it – ‘We have to reshape education for students who live in a globally (hyper) connected world facing problems that have a global impact and need global solutions’ (I paraphrase badly). These same students are influenced and shaped by the global imagining thanks to films, television, pop culture, music, fashion and other such good things. There are then localised responses to these global forces – more focused responses that are not necessarily a resistance to the global but ones that account for local specifies and anxieties. And these often give birth to the dreams and nightmares of these students.

The students in Guelph University in the response to the question of “What should a university be?” answer that it should liberalise society, serve as society’s conscious, and advance ideas. I know little of Canada, and even less of Guelph so I apologise in advance for my simplification. Canada is a country famous for it politeness, and to a large extent as a counter-point to the popular stereotype of the ugly American. Its Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is – I dare say – the first Canadian politician to be popular internationally. I googled “What are Canadians like?” and pretty good. A Chinese migrant to Canada wroteon Quora “living in this country makes one feel as close to being a global citizen as any country on this planet could possibly do.” Thats a pretty good recommendation. So it makes sense that the university students there would want their universities to serve a ‘higher calling’.

What about the students here in Australia?

While there are several commonalities between Australia and Canada, I am not sure that our university students would answer that same question – “What should a university be?” – with such grace. I ask my students why they have come to university and what they hope to achieve in every course I teach. This often leads to discussions about about their hopes, ambitions, and – if nudged enough – contributions to their communities.

Unfortunately, that discussion does not go the Canadian way. Australian students tend to answer in ways that would suggest that they are pragmatic, pessimistic, and petrified. (Of course there are exceptions but I am referring to a general trend).

They are pragmatic in terms of the outcomes they want from the classes and education programs. Teaching in common core courses (shared by 6 degrees), electives, theory-driven courses, and courses – there is one question that I have to answer every time – how is this relevant to getting me the job that I want. And the answer has to demonstratedly immediate. Students make ‘strategic’ decisions to prioritise the courses that are explicitedly about their intended profession – skipping classes to attend optional ‘professional’ activities, asking what was enough to pass the course, and so on. There is also the student on the other side of the same pragmatic fence – the one who wants the highest mark for the sake of having the best looking transcript. The difference between the two students is only the mechanisms by which they think they will snare their jobs; the approach for both is ends-focused pragmatism.

Then there is the emotional state of the students – pessimistic. But they have iPads, fashionable clothes, drink craft beers, so what are they pessimistic about? They are the generation of the budget emergency, vengeful and petty politics, incredible property prices, underemployment, and ‘free-lancing’. They are a generation who have been told that they won’t be able to afford a place to live, that there are less jobs for them, and that they will have to work longer and harder than their parents for a lesser payoff. And we tell them that they are lazy, have it easy, don’t want to work, and Facebook too much. As a student said to me, almost everyday in the newspapers there will be articles lamenting about unaffordable house prices, jobs lost, bickering politicians, while at the same time, there are articles about how difficult it is to manage and motivate millennials – where is the good news? This refrain is repeated over and over. One lecturer told a class of 80 that there were only 6-8 jobs in their profession in their location so only the best will make it, and even then they will have to compete with graduates from other universities . I am sure the lecturers intention was to motivate the students but it had the opposite effect. We spent a lot of time in my class trying to lift the students mood, and show them all the different opportunities in their industry.

This leads to being petrified – which is strongly linked to being pragmatic and pessimistic. To the students mind, the cost of not getting it right is too high. While we talk about innovation and entrepreneurship, the students are often on the other side of the debate wondering what lies beyond the slogans. Its like the word ‘free-lancing’ – its a code for you might be able to make some money some times in the profession that you got your degree in, and the rest of the time you can work in the sharing economy.

It is not their fault – its ours.

Its too easy to blame the millennials. But its not like they came to existence in a vacuum. No. They are our kids, our nephew and nieces, they are our friends’ kids, they are our audiences, our consumers. We have to take responsibility for what we have helped create – their mindset. I have been called an apologist and an enabler for the millennials. So be it.

There are many reasons why the students have the mindset I wrote about above, but I want to focus on our Australian imagining. And that where the differences between the Canadian and Australian imaginings screamingly diverge.

I moved to Australia in 2001 and my memories of the my early years here are children overboard, Tampa, 9-11, the Bali bombing, the Pacific solution, and the Australian Defence Force (who have been on a war footing since 2001) going into Afghanistan. Since then the continued demonising of refugees, Muslims, those horrid people who want to do something about climate change, Julia Gillard (women in general), globalisation and so on. The long discussions on interest rates, housing prices, petrol and milk prices – lamentations of how hard things are – how do these help in national imagining. Australia was the only country in the OECD to come out of the GFC well, but you would not know this if you were listening to the chattering classes.

The national imagining of Australia is one built on fear and is fired by the selfish and petty discourse of politicking. And then we ask why our students – who have grown up in this miasma – are pessimistic and petrified, while being instrumentalist and pragmatic about their education.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Usually, thoughts are have gestated, the writing itself has not. It is essentially a first and only draft – proofread once – if at all. If there are mistakes, you feel it necessary to address my mistakes, or challenge what I say, I would appreciate that .

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