Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lonely students play varsity blues

I think Adele Horin has a point below.  My undergraduate years were in the '60s and I had an exceptionally  good time in campus politics at that time.  Being one of the few outspoken conservatives on campus in the Vietnam era was immensely entertaining.  But what I enjoyed most was my time in one of the university's army units.  So I was the complete counterformist.  Donning an army uniform when most of the campus was scared stiff of being drafted into the army was real defiance.  And I could tell of other adventures ....

Rather to my regret, however, my own son in his undergraduate years was rather like those Adele Horin describes below: Sticking to his studies and his old school friends.  Fortunately, however, he has now moved to Canberra to do his Ph.D. and he seems to be having there the sort of fun I would wish for him.  In his undergraduate years I kept telling him that your time at university is a time for having fun so I am glad he has finally realized it

Having just read the latest American literary sensation, The Art of Fielding, about college baseball, I am struck once again at the deep emotional connection young Americans feel towards their university; for the American college student the years between 18 and 22 are seminal when new friendships are forged and campus experiences can be life-changing.

It could not be more different from the narrow, often lonely and alienating experience of going to university in Australia.

This week, new figures showed record numbers of students from migrant, indigenous and otherwise hard-up backgrounds are going to university.

But I could not help wonder how these students will fare without a pack - or a pair - of high school mates as a ballast against loneliness.

Some parents once feared university might corrupt their darlings by bringing them into contact with strange and subversive elements. But nowadays parents are more inclined to worry that university is not the broadening and enlivening experience it once was.

The old school tie is more important than ever. Many young people cling to their high school friends for dear life as they progress through the university years, barely making a new acquaintance.

So big and inhospitable are campuses, so large are the numbers in tutorials, so depleted are university clubs, and so pervasive are the changes in life outside the campus that the university experience has become less vital, interesting and social for many students.

A few years ago the mother of a gorgeous and vivacious young woman from Sydney's north shore - now a journalist - revealed how friendless her daughter found university. The only sources of welcome and cheer were the campus Christian clubs that unsurprisingly had gained a huge following. If this young woman with bountiful social skills found university a bit lonely what hope do the shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged have?

My assertions are based on observations over the past five years of a group of young people still making their way through university and backed by three research reports since 2005 charting the engagement - and disengagement - experience of thousands of students.

To give credit where it is due, the universities are keenly aware that student disengagement is a major issue that needs to be addressed. But a lot of the forces causing the alienation are outside the universities' control.

The First Year Experiences in Australian Universities report, which traced changes from 1994 to 2009, found only half the students in 2009 felt a sense of belonging to their university and one-quarter had not made a friend - a significant worsening from previous years. As well, there had been a significant decline in the proportion that felt confident that at least one teacher knew their name.

Decreasing proportions participated through university sports, clubs or societies, and, of course, students spent less time on campus than in the past, and the less time they spent, the less they felt they belonged.

The report also points to improvements in student satisfaction with the quality of teaching, and enjoyment of courses. Academically, life is better.

If university is a less exciting and social place than it used to be for many, it is partly because students are holding down jobs, on average 13 hours a week, and not just to pay for ski trips. Another report, "Studying and Working", which looked at student finances and engagement, found many were in financial hardship and 14 per cent sometimes could not afford to eat.

The decline in shared houses due to soaring rents is another reason for the diminution of university experience. Thinking back, it was the network of shared houses that linked students into a constant party in the long-ago 1970s that made the era so vivid. Living with mum and dad will not be so memorable.

And then there's Facebook. Stephen Marche, writing in The Atlantic, posed the question "Is Facebook making us lonely?" If you use it to make arrangements to meet friends it is an asset. But when Facebook - and online interactive games - become a substitute for meeting people then it robs students of the richness and complexity of real relationships.

That is what makes Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding so fascinating. It is a novel, at heart, about the deep and complex relationships forged at university, with the central character being a shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged young man.

The American system is entirely different from ours, propelling students across the continent to reside at college. It is enormously wasteful. Students and parents rack up huge debts to pay for tuition and board when often perfectly good institutions of higher learning are in their home town.

But it does have the advantage of expanding student horizons and friendship networks, and of imparting a thrilling edge to the university experience, and a deep attachment to the institution.

For the 40,203 students from low socio-economic postcodes who started university this year, the opportunity is priceless. Previous research shows such students have more clarity of purpose, study more consistently and skip fewer classes. But they are also less likely to make friends or like being a university student.

Young people are lucky in so many ways with a world of connection and information at their finger tips. But the university experience seems less special and more impersonal than it used to be, and that's a pity.


PM faces defeat in house as Labor abstentions loom

Slipper obviously turns a few stomachs in the ALP

JULIA Gillard faces the risk of a Labor MP abstaining from a parliamentary vote on the future of Peter Slipper's tenure as Speaker, amid growing internal concern about the impact of the affair on the government.

A senior Labor MP has told The Weekend Australian that the Prime Minister risks the possibility of abstentions within her ranks if Mr Slipper attempts to take the chair on May 8, budget day, and the opposition moves a motion of no confidence.

"I for one am considering whether I'd abstain," the MP said.

With independent MPs Tony Windsor, Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott favouring Mr Slipper remaining on the sidelines until both Cabcharge misuse and sexual harassment allegations have been dealt with, an abstention by just one Labor MP would leave the government facing a humiliating defeat on the floor of parliament.

Mr Slipper, who has denied wrongdoing, intends to return to the Speaker's chair once the investigation into the alleged misuse of Cabcharges is complete -- even if the sexual harassment allegations are still pending.

Some within Labor ranks believe the Prime Minister or the leader of government business in the house, Anthony Albanese, should have a "quiet word" with Mr Slipper ahead of the resumption of parliament.

While the Slipper affair has raised fresh questioning of Ms Gillard's judgment, sources described as unrealistic Hawke government minister Graham Richardson's suggestion that she had a month to get her act together and that Kevin Rudd's return to the leadership remained a possibility.

Amid the fresh rumblings, senior ministers backed the Prime Minister, including two touted as potential replacements.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the caucus had resolved the leadership issue in February, when Mr Rudd failed in his bid to wrest back his former position as head of the party. "That issue is over," Mr Smith said.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, also flagged as a future leader, rejected the prospects of a leadership change. "I just think that's complete nonsense," Mr Shorten said.

Mr Albanese said it was the government's view that Mr Slipper should be free to return if he had been cleared of criminal allegations and the other allegations remained unresolved.

"It certainly is the government's view that you can't have a situation whereby people are held to account because of civil proceedings," Mr Albanese said yesterday. Tony Abbott said he would be surprised if Mr Slipper attempted to come back before all allegations were dealt with.

"The Coalition's very firm position is that the Speaker should not attempt to retake the chair until all of the allegations against him, including the very serious sexual harassment allegations, have been fully dealt with and resolved," the Opposition Leader said.


W.A.: Education Department Director General calls for calm over NAPLAN fears

WA's education chief has urged parents to ignore the "fear campaign" surrounding national literacy and numeracy tests amid calls for parents to boycott the tests next month.

Education Department director-general Sharyn O'Neill called for calm as Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students across WA prepare to sit the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy tests from May 15 to 17.

Her comments followed a call from the Literacy Educators Coalition for parents to withdraw their children from the tests because they "create fear and stifle creativity".

“This kind of testing has been active in WA schools for the past 12 years, and the information we gather from NAPLAN is for teachers to better educate their students,” Ms O’Neill said.

“NAPLAN can be a call to parents to talk to their school and gather information about their child’s results, and we have an overwhelming response from parents who do just that.

Ms O’Neill also denied claims that the tests put undue pressure on students, likening the anxiety a child might feel ahead of the tests to that of a sports carnival or music performance.

“It is reasonable for teachers to do some preparation with students just like they would for a concert, for example,” Ms O’Neill said.

“However, if parents feel their child’s anxiety is caused by undue pressure from teachers, I encourage them to contact their school to discuss this.

“With these results a teacher can be at the forefront of diagnosing a problem, and parents have good information on the performance of their child.”


Employment is a contract, not a right

Australia’s industrial relations system does not treat the employment contract as a simple contract between two equal agents, but as a relationship with unequal constraints and expectations. Toyota’s sacking of 350 workers last week has brought the issue of ‘unfair’ dismissals to the public sphere, but while the debate centres on the manner and basis of these dismissals, the more fundamental issue of consent has been ignored.

A defining principle of contract in common law is its voluntary nature. A contract is an agreement between two parties that is valid only as long as both parties consent to it. One cannot contract with someone who does not consent, and if one party no longer wants to be involved with the other, they can simply terminate the contract. If employees want to leave their employer, they don’t have to explain why they want to leave. All that matters is that they no longer consent to the contract for their labour.

Unfortunately, the law as it stands today is not a two-way street. Employees may quit work for whatever reason they see fit, but the employer cannot fire employees without ensuring that their reasons for terminating the employment contract are ‘fair.’ No longer is it a simple matter of consent but a case of arbitrary value judgments forbidding dismissals deemed ‘harsh, unjust, or unreasonable.’

Because of unfair dismissal provisions, employers often hang on to undesirable staff. Workers who would have already lost their jobs, and received an important market signal, are kept on out of fear of legal action. Employees may be unproductive, skip work often, not adhere to safety protocols, have a poor attitude, or simply have personality clashes. Whatever the reason, if the employer deems an employee no longer fit to work, keeping the worker employed can be detrimental to both productivity and workplace culture.

Firing workers is not a decision made lightly. Employers must be certain that the worker cannot improve. They then must consider redundancy payments and the cost of finding and training a replacement. This is a time-consuming and costly process in itself, but with the addition of unfair dismissal laws, the employer must also consider the costs of conciliation and arbitration arising from an unfair dismissal claim, and the extra ‘go away’ money needed if the claim is successful.

As a result, employers often try to sack undesirable staff under the cover of economic hardship. They may cite falling consumer demand, a financial crisis, a strong currency, high input prices, etc. It doesn’t really matter. They are simply carrying out a process long overdue and getting rid of employees who have long overstayed their welcome.

The charade needs to end. The law must reflect the reality that employment is a voluntary contract, and when one party no longer consents, the contract must be terminated.


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