International rankings are increasingly important to universities. Rightly or wrongly, they are taken as markers of success. Mostly, they are determined by research as measured by publication in prestigious international journals, and they are what draws prestige-conscious students, especially from China.

It’s one of the unfailing rules of human institutions that if you introduce a measurement, the system changes to meet it, like the leaves of a plant turning to face the sun. So it is that the research output measured by the international rankings grows lush at universities, and those sides of academia not rewarded can dwindle in the shade. One of those things is teaching. Another is the kind of industry-connected research that can be useful but doesn’t reach the international journals.

The students lured to our leading universities may never encounter the academics behind the research that attracted the ranking. Instead, they are often taught by sessional staff and those on short-term contracts. According to the National Tertiary Education Union, only one-third of Australian university staff have secure employment. Forty-three per cent are casuals — their contracts end at the end of each semester; 22 per cent are on fixed-term contracts, typically of between one and two years. Universities have become big employers but not particularly good employers.

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