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The University Does Not Think, by Simon Cooper

The fate of knowledge in an age of innovation

The slow death of the university—as an institution serving the public good, as a place for independent thought, as a vehicle for critical and deep cultural inquiry—continues well into the era of the Turnbull government. As with climate change, there are a few deniers, but most people recognise that universities are not what they used to be. Like extreme weather events, there are occasional incidents that bring the university into the realm of public debate—government attempts to deregulate tuition fees, bids to sack academic staff for public utterances that might damage the university ‘brand’, or shambolic schemes to introduce ideologically driven research centres such as Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘consensus centre’. But, as with climate change, there’s a dual reaction that leads to inertia. For those directly affected by the scale of transformation, the crisis of the university seems almost overwhelming. For others, the rate of decline is incremental enough to be pushed to the edge of awareness.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the university still trades off its older meanings and traditions and presents any changes—rises in tuition fees, the pursuit of business collaboration, the semi-privatisation of research—as mere extensions or add-ons to core activity, without recognising how the ‘entrepreneurial’ university simply cannot co-exist alongside the traditional one. In the London Review of Books Stefan Collini writes that:

much of our contemporary discourse about universities still draws on, or unwittingly presumes…the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on.

If nothing else, Malcolm Turnbull’s National Science and Innovation Agenda, with its vigorous redirection of university funding towards collaboration with industry, has highlighted the illusion of any sustainable balance between the older and newer versions of the university. Yet if Turnbull’s injunction for universities to ‘collaborate [with industry] or crumble’ reveals an especially narrow form of instrumental policy making, it extends a trajectory that has been in place ever since the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s expanded the university sector to harness knowledge as a driver for the economy. The traditional values and beliefs in Collini’s list are rapidly disappearing. There may be isolated pockets of intellectual activity not fully captured by market paradigms, but this academic ‘shadow-work’ is becoming rarer and cannot by itself contest the larger transformation of the university.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once claimed that ‘science does not think’. By this he meant that the positivist methods of the sciences (and much of the humanities) merely calculated and generated knowledge within established frameworks that were rarely questioned. Such frameworks encountered the world in a specific way: as a passive resource to be exploited. One could extend this claim to the present and argue for the most part that the university does not think—that the ‘frame’ that governs almost all thought and knowledge production within the university is the commodity form, and this not only precludes vital ways of thinking but fails to counter the baleful trajectory of our current market-centred society, indeed it exacerbates it. The harnessing of the university to the market, the key to its transformation, is not simply an economic shift but a cultural one that impacts the university at every level. It is ironic that, while ‘freedom of speech’ is a political trope dominating the current landscape, the freedom to speak and think within the institution supposed to enshrine such principles is rapidly eroding—at the very moment when the pervasive consequences of instrumental knowledge production most need articulation.

If we look at the various levels of university activity, from undergraduate teaching to academic research, to the relationship between the university and the wider social realm, it becomes quickly apparent how the university has been captured by instrumental logic since the expansion of the system in the 1980s. The increasing dominance of knowledge as a commodity (as opposed to other modalities of knowledge—critique, interpretation, wisdom and so forth) has played out across various domains. Starting with undergraduate education, we can see how the introduction of fees and debt systems creates a shift around the meaning of education towards a more narrowly instrumental one for both the student and the institution. As G. L. Williams remarks, ‘students have been metamorphosed from apprentices into customers and their teachers from master craftsmen to merchants’. University education as vocational training has become an increasingly central way of framing the student’s relation to knowledge, with a consequent decline in less ‘market-friendly’ subjects. The atrophy of the pure sciences, philosophy, social theory, literature etc. within many tertiary institutions is well established. In some cases, humanities departments have closed, replaced by ‘creative industries’ centres whose rationale is to marketise skills generated by an applied-humanities model, discarding all others.

Even where traditional areas of knowledge survive within the university, the capacity for them to generate alternative ways of understanding the world, or alternative value systems, is radically circumscribed within the framework of commodification. The model of the student-consumer brings the expectation that education should prove demonstrably useful, an instrumental dimension perhaps always present in the modern university but which now dominates all other modalities of knowledge. University teaching must be linked to overt outcomes and vocational skill sets. The rise of audit schemes and regulations to guarantee ‘quality’, together with a standardisation of teaching methods, means that unorthodox content or pedagogical methods become marginalised. Ubiquitous teacher/course-evaluation surveys—despite the generally small rate of student completion (perhaps because students resist their configuration as edu-consumers)—become a means of disciplining academic staff, and direct that education take place in a largely risk-free environment where the temptation to ‘dumb down’ material to ensure popularity is ever present.

Indeed, while many deplore the ‘politically correct takeover’ of US universities and the rise of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’, and worry about their importation, these depoliticised and insipid practices are partly a consequence of constructing the ‘student experience’ as the measure of educational quality—where everything is geared towards a smooth and non-challenging transfer of marketable knowledge and skills for the student-consumer. Is it any wonder that difficult or confronting material is now pathologised into the language of trauma, with sanitised environments demanded within the very institutions that ought to be challenging subjective ‘experience’?

A parallel development has been the enfolding of digital technologies into higher education. If it isn’t MOOCs being touted as the great disrupters of higher education—apparently replacing staff in the same way that robots replace factory workers—it’s the more insidious reshaping of how we think (or precisely do not think) about education, so that the virtual and physical settings are interchangeable. The University of Adelaide’s vice chancellor recently declared that he was going to end lectures at the university and replace them with online material and the ‘flipped classroom’. A former Monash University vice chancellor questioned the need for physical libraries, as students now walk around with their library on their phone. That something might be lost in such a transformation—the complexity and depth of face-to-face teaching, or the university as social and cultural space—is obscured by the emphasis on the student as tech-savvy digital native whose individuated and flexible lifestyle demands a correspondingly flexible mode of educational-content consumption. Yet the more universities try to capture new markets though virtual dissemination, the more they face obsolescence. Digitally packaged forms of ‘knowledge transfer’, stripped of the multilayered encounters that can occur within the classroom, mean that students engage with knowledge in ways not dissimilar to the way they navigate online, reducing the university to an inferior form of Google. The easy conflation of digital and traditional teaching occurs in a context where university teaching is devalued as an activity in favour of research, so that teaching—once considered a core function of the university, connected to the transmission of cultural tradition and value, as well as the vigorous questioning of such—becomes something to be outsourced, casualised and virtualised.

Postgraduate research, too, is increasingly subject to market ‘efficiencies’. The federal government’s unwillingness to fund an expanding postgraduate cohort, together with a drive to produce industry-friendly research, is leading to an overturning of the model of doctoral supervision. Government policymakers are lobbying for a model, prevalent in the applied sciences, where the PhD student will be inserted into a research ‘team’, then given a research question to complete. Increasingly this research team will be sourced from industry, as the university is pressured to externally fund its postgraduate students. As a recent Australian Council of Learned Academies report on postgraduate training makes clear, what are now valued in the PhD student are the generic and transferable ‘skills’ acquired, more than any knowledge produced. This reversal, where the cultivation of ‘industry-ready’ skills is prioritised, is thoroughly conservative in that it inhibits the undertaking of radical or innovative research projects that operate outside established patterns.

While successive governments have tied research funding to competitive grant income and external industry partnerships, the Turnbull government’s National Science and Innovation Agenda makes industry collaboration the centrepiece of research income. Funding for academic publication has been abandoned, thereby removing the primary area of research activity for most humanities academics. In an interview Turnbull claimed he wanted to end the era of ‘academics just talking to each other’ (expressing a somewhat miserly understanding of collegiality), while then minister for education Christopher Pyne remarked that the alteration in university research funding was a ‘massive cultural change’ where funding will be dependent on ‘if you can show that your idea is going to be able to be commercialised’.

That all this occurs under the sign of ‘innovation’ is a bitter irony, as the government’s policy entrenches the conditions under which the university produces knowledge within an environment antithetical to the kind of thought necessary for real change. Moreover, it further isolates non-commercial research—so that large sections of the humanities and the pure sciences now have little reason (or capacity) to exist. The move towards the exclusive funding of commercially driven research positions the university as another R & D institution with little scope to operate outside this framework. Research ‘quality’ is now measured by the quantitative number of research grants obtained. The positivist methods critiqued by Heidegger and a host of philosophers and social scientists in the middle of the last century are again driving the university, not because they are intellectually superior—on the contrary—but because the reconfiguration of research income as research quality demands that this be so. Research income needs to be spent on something—hence research that relies on equipment/data/quantitative measurement triumphs over other modes of thought: theoretical, interpretative, critical.

Beyond this, the demand for close ties with industry can only invite the corruption of intellectual work—whether overtly, as in the case of US campuses distorting research for pharmaceutical industries, and in the corrupting power of big energy and others in sponsoring research, or insidiously, as academics face pressure to self-censor when conducting research that militates against the needs of the industry partner.

It’s clear, however, that the oft-parroted principle of ‘academic freedom’ as a counter-measure to corruption is disappearing. Not only are universities shaping what can be thought by way of research policy, they are also policing what can be expressed by academics in the public domain. La Trobe University’s suspension and reinstatement (under pressure) of Roz Ward cannot be regarded as an isolated example of management overreach in an environment where Murdoch University wished to include in its definition of ‘academic misconduct’ actions that might risk the ‘reputation, viability or profitability of the university’, or reports that University of Melbourne management recently proposed (then retracted) that academics’ ability to comment publicly on their areas of expertise should be restricted. That universities are openly considering actions that encroach on academic freedom—who is going to engage in a protracted battle with management about the boundaries of their expertise?—indicates a narrowing of universities’ role within the public sphere. In an age of industry collaboration, what are academics permitted to say in public about the actions of a mining company or a tech company that is, or might become, a research partner? Will public debate in future simply be conducted by thinktanks and social media as the university retreats?

Rather than coexisting with the traditional university, the logic of the commodity has reconfigured the university so that its core values have atrophied. To many within universities now, to even speak of disinterested inquiry, academic freedom or engagement with an intellectual or cultural heritage is to be marked as indulgent or beholden to an impractical and outmoded value system. Yet it is not enough to try to combat the assault on the university by appealing to these ideals, as important as they are. Equally important is tracing the impact of instrumental knowledge production on the ‘outside’ world. At a time when the irrational rhetoric of ‘elites’ holds sway, the university seems destined to breach the distance between itself and the rest of society, having abandoned its autonomy and critical distance for an embrace of the ‘real world’—on the way to being assimilated into the needs of industry or collapsing into the general morass of thought, opinion and exchange that marks our culture of ubiquitous information.

Yet this demolition of the ‘ivory tower’ is anything but democratic. In their own way, reactionary attacks on ‘elites’ are on to something, in the sense that the rise of the intellectually trained—knowledge workers in the applied sciences or humanities—have helped create the social and cultural divisions that have become increasingly stark. Intellectual techniques—methods of abstraction, synthesis and the like, derived from university training—have been instrumental in shaping the consumerist-mediated landscape we now inhabit. In other words, the collapse of the university’s autonomy has created new divisions rather than healed them, as the intellectually trained construct a high-tech world of images, products and information that benefits some but leaves others behind, and which, predicated upon ceaseless growth—via the production of desiring consumers, and the constant proliferation of saleable culture—is untenable in the long term.

That there might be limits to a world shaped by such intellectual techniques—particularly when they are in service to the market—is a crucial recognition. The university, if it can regain a critical distance, would be well placed to reflect on the uses and limits of ‘ideas’ and ‘innovation’. This distance would require a return to a certain type of intellectual activity removed from the logic of the commodity—able to critically interpret the role of thought in the production of the social. That is a different kind of ‘elitism’, if you will—one that recaptures the university for the purposes of altering our destructive trajectory, not one based in the generation of knowledge fodder for neoliberal societies.