Almost like home

2013-10-01 00:00

AUSTRALIA is being kind to us while we visit. Blue skies with cool breezes each day and beautiful birds. What fun it would be to start a new bird list for every Australian visit and to meet again old friends, with rainbow lorikeets, rosellas and noisy cockatoos everywhere.

For me, Australia seems a beautiful, gentle country, despite the image of the tough outback. Shopkeepers and till attendants are invariably friendly. “Have a wonderful day. See ya!”

Supermarkets are stocked with delicacies never to be found in Maritzburg or Durban. Almost every place is child-friendly. The trouble is that with the exchange rate, for South African visitors to this Garden of Eden nothing is affordable. The cheapest bottle of wine (a necessary accompaniment to minding young grandchildren) costs R70, a price I would rarely pay at home even when wishing to impress. A loaf of bread for raisin toast was on a half-price sale for R25. A cup of coffee sets you back R30. The humblest of houses, even in a country town, will cost R3 millon.

The expensive Australian dollar brings problems for Australians too. The economy is not strong. Property prices have slumped, although they are beginning to recover. The mining boom is over. Teachers in Western Australia are threatening to go on strike for higher wages. Goodness, we could almost be at home!

We arrived on election day; a fairly low poll even though, in theory, it is compulsory to vote. Fairly or unfairly, many see the politicians on both sides of the house as incompetent and avaricious. I have even seen the phrase “snouts in the trough”. We could almost be at home.

Although crime levels in Australia are comparatively low, as I write this, a policeman has been shot in the face while intervening in an armed robbery of restaurant patrons.

Although Centrelink means that there is little obvious poverty and no beggars at traffic lights, a weekend newspaper has a story about two schools in a country town. One is in a suburb, where aboriginal children make up less than 25% of the pupils. It has impeccable facilities. A few kilometres away, in an aboriginal settlement, there is a school attended only by aboriginals. The facilities in the second school are appalling and the toilets don’t work. It reminded me of the gulf between Model C and township schools. We could almost be at home.

The issue of particular interest to me has been an ongoing debate about tertiary education. The previous Labour government saw tertiary education as a means of social engineering. Having a degree, they believed, would raise prosperity levels for disadvantaged individuals as well as for the country. Their aim was to see 40% of school leavers going on to a bachelor’s degree.

Universities were urged to adjust entry standards to make access more available. Student numbers increased. Staff numbers did not. Indeed, in the worldwide shrinking of national economies, the government ordered vice chancellors to trim their budgets. For many years, Australian universities have padded their income by taking in foreign students, mostly from Asia, at higher fees. The expensive Australian dollar has meant considerably less foreign students.

Universities are in trouble. Smaller universities are battling to stay solvent. Many staff have been retrenched, or not replaced on retirement. The larger universities are still among the best in the world; rather than boasting of being in the top 300 like our local campus, they are mostly in the top 100 in international rankings. But rankings are done on the basis of research output. Academics are required to do international-level research, but also to teach increasing numbers of students, many of whom are ill-prepared because of lowering entrance standards. The way out for quality researchers is to rely on sessional, part-time staff to do their teaching for them. We could almost be at home!

So, does Australia need more students with indifferent degrees? An article in a weekend paper suggests that to the contrary, what Australia needs is more “tradies”. An apprenticeship rather than a degree is the way to secure employment (to Australia’s credit, there is little snobbery about social status).

Should universities be seen as instruments for social engineering, asks another article. “Force-feeding ill-prepared students to universities does nobody any favours”, it proclaims. If a government wants to assist disadvantaged people (as it should), so the article argues, the place to start is in disadvantaged schools. “Schools need to deliver students who can adequately read, write and add. If their skills of expression and grammar are sub-par, thrusting such students on the university sector sets them up to fail.”

Pay attention to schools first, before trying to make the tertiary sector what it cannot be. Does any of this sound familiar? In a perverse way it is comforting that many of the difficulties we face in South Africa are mirrored here. We could almost be at home!

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