More like this

Image: Faustin Tuyambaze, Unsplash

If you’re an Australian academic, you might have noticed an intriguing long essay by Tegan Bennett Daylight in the Guardian over the summer. Entitled ‘The Difficulty is the Point: Teaching spoon-fed students how to really read’, the article described Bennett Daylight’s struggles teaching education students a compulsory course in Australian literature.

Spoiler alert: the kids are not all right.

Bennett Daylight’s article makes some surprising, even hair-raising claims about the spoon-fed and dumbed-down nature of modern university study.

Spoon-fed, I hear you say? Don’t make me laugh. This is a feast of force-feeding, a Roman orgy of information and assistance, with students helpless and lolling while academics assist them in opening their mouths so the food can be tipped in, and then hold their jaws and help them masticate until it goes down.

Many of her students, she informs us, have barely read a book in their lives. ‘My students are, for the most part, education students who live in regional Australia,’ she writes, before going on to make some worrying observations about their literacy levels. While some of her students have read 19th century classics like the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, most have progressed no further than young adult literature like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. ‘None, unless they have been made to by their high school English teacher, has read anything by an Australian author.’

Needless to say, Bennett Daylight has encountered some challenges in teaching this cohort. ‘If you have never read anything more difficult than a Harry Potter book,’ she asks, ‘how are you meant to proceed?’

Who or what’s responsible for such disastrous spoon-feeding? Bennett Daylight blames the ‘logic of capitalism’ and ‘the idea of the university as business,’ taking some pot-shots at university administrators along the way. ‘We call them zombies,’ she writes of these benighted office drones. ‘They stagger across the campus from meeting to meeting, a tickertape of acronyms flickering behind their undead eyes.’ Ouch.

Bennett Daylight’s article makes some surprising, even hair-raising claims about the spoon-fed and dumbed-down nature of modern university study.

As sometimes happens when an essay of this nature is published, Bennett Daylight’s essay was widely read and shared on social media, often with approving comments tut-tutting at the ever-falling standards of modern universities.

But how accurate is Bennett Daylight’s description of the contemporary university in Australia?

First, let us admit that the modern university is indeed a business. Australia’s $140 billion higher education sector teaches 1.5 million students and employs around 120,000 lecturers and staff annually, with many large universities enjoying budgets upwards of a billion dollars.

Bennett Daylight is right to point out that our universities are growing. The academic code-word for this is ‘massification’. Across all 39 of our universities, we’re enrolling around 350,000 more students than we did in 2009, when the Gillard government began the ‘demand-driven’ system, allowing universities to enrol as many students as they like (although a recent government freeze on funding will slow this down).

The demand-driven system has helped many more poor and disadvantaged students to enter our university system. According to Universities Australia data, the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds has increased by 50 per cent in the last decade. The number of Indigenous students has increased by 74 per cent (albeit off a very low base).

But has this led to courses being dumbed down?

Lower standards are ever the complaint in a system that is growing rapidly. University student cohorts are very different today than they were a generation ago, when only a fifth of high school students went on to higher education. That figure is now well above half. In 1971, just 2 per cent of the Australian population had a Bachelor degree; by 2011 it was nine times this figure, or 18 per cent.

University student cohorts are very different today than they were a generation ago, when only a fifth of high school students went on to higher education.

As two academics who regularly teach students from diverse backgrounds, our own experience is mixed. There may be some evidence that university courses are dumbing down – for instance, in well-publicised recent scandals over easy marking and rampant plagiarism. We also see evidence of increasing standards, as many of our students are head-hunted for postgraduate opportunities, including to some very prestigious universities internationally. Importantly, there is no correlation between these success stories and those who have made it into university as part of ‘massification’.

In an expanding system, there are bound to be growing pains. But the available data suggests Australian unis are coping well. Most of those 350,000 extra students a year are completing their degrees and going into full-time employment; student drop-out rates have barely changed.

Many of those students are the first in their families to attend university. For working-class and migrant students, university can be an unfamiliar world. Some students come from backgrounds where reading novels is not a regular part of their lives; some are from households where English is not spoken at home.

Disadvantaged students also face work and life pressures very different from the privileges enjoyed by the middle classes. Most students enrolled today are working part-time while studying: the average Western Sydney University student works 20 hours a week while enrolled for their degree. This is not surprising: how else could they pay the rent in in Australia’s extremely unaffordable housing market?

Like the rest of us, students must also cope with life’s stresses and surprises. Some are expected to babysit younger family members, or care for parents or grandparents. Some are parents themselves.

As committed teachers, we were disappointed by Bennett Daylight’s essay. Teaching is hard. Education is a complex and demanding vocation. Not every student will engage. There will always be some who struggle with difficult subjects. But that is not their fault. We believe every student deserves our understanding, our support, and most importantly, our very best efforts in the classroom.

Education is a complex and demanding vocation. There will always be [students] who struggle with difficult subjects. But that is not their fault.

Massification is a double-edged sword: it does create challenges, but it also opens up university education to hundreds of thousands of younger Australians who historically have been excluded from its benefits. We should also reflect on the citizenship benefits of a university education. At their best, universities cultivate understanding and enrich the inner lives of those who study there. By learning about the world around us, students train their minds and enlarge their spirits.

University teachers enjoy a precious opportunity: to help our students learn about the world they live in. Just because our students aren’t always well read or well prepared doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent or ability to grapple with difficult texts or complex subjects. Indeed, as good teachers know, our students have much to teach us, if only we will listen.

As teachers, we look for the chance to teach ‘beyond the classroom’ – to arm our students with the language and knowledge to discuss complex issues at a bar, pub, cafe or with their racist uncle over Christmas dinner. Seizing that chance to make a difference in someone’s life: that is what teaching is.


At the end of the Guardian essay is a short bibliography of recommended works. We have some suggestions of our own:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire
The Passion-Driven Classroom: A Framework for Teaching and Learning, Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold
Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, Daniel Willingham
Other People’s Children: Cultural conflict in the classroom, Lisa Delpit
Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Ken Robinson
The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, Simon Marginson
Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol
The Citizen Scholar, James Arvanitakis and David Hornsby