Last Chance for Universities?

There’s not much need for prophets who are in synch with their society. 

—Theodor Adorno

How bad will it be? Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, international-student revenue for Australian universities had been around 25 per cent across the sector, with many of Australia’s ‘sandstone’ universities relying on international students for at least a third of their income. The loss of much of this revenue for the near to mid-future represents the biggest crisis the sector has faced. The paucity of government support and the federal minister’s real or feigned ignorance of the sector mean that universities will act vigorously to manage their finances. Already some have announced forced redundancies and the likelihood of other ‘drastic measures’; many casual and contract staff are certain to lose work; and ongoing staff face a precarious future, with estimates of between 20,000 and 30,000 job losses. Meanwhile, many international students find themselves stranded with little federal support (the prime minister urged students to ‘go home’, even though he knew that most couldn’t), relying on universities and state governments for financial help and charities for food—they are unable to receive benefits, and the casual jobs that supported their income have vanished.

What is clear is that the revenue sources of Australian universities will not ‘snap back’ when conditions allow a reopening of borders. It’s not simply an issue of whether international students will be willing or able to travel again. The whole system of international education depends on families in (primarily) India and China accessing finance, and the availability of that finance assumes a model of economic growth that itself relies on global debt for revenue generation. At every level this model is failing. Meanwhile, the domestic-student market may also shrink due to the uncertainty around employment during and after study. The consequences of this funding shortfall will be devastating for many. However, much of the current discussion around the future of universities still reduces everything to a question of resources and revenue, as if universities could simply go on as before, albeit in diminished form. COVID-19 does not automatically mean the end of the corporatised university—not by any means. Indeed, its ideology could be reinvigorated with the argument that ‘there is no alternative’ but to embrace commercialism and entrepreneurialism as the only means of survival. Nonetheless, what universities stand for and how they are managed have become starker issues, exposing their priorities and ‘values’ (perhaps by their very absence) in a way that the insidious creep of neoliberal managerialism since the Dawkins reforms has not.

Significantly, those who lobby for the restoration of funding for universities have failed so far to generate broad support. One the one hand it appears that Australian universities have become a receptacle for a variety of prejudices—anti-intellectualism, elitism, distrust of experts—that have existed at various levels for decades but more recently have been amplified by reactionary media and politicians who bleat on about the evils of political correctness, deny the conclusions of climate scientists, and buy into paranoid visions of the takeover of universities by gender-fluidity ideologues and so-called cultural Marxists. This, combined with elements of wider xenophobia and the (in some cases justified) sense that domestic students have been sacrificed in favour of the billion-dollar revenues generated from international students—in relation to whom tales of overstuffed classes and lowered standards circulate—has created an atmosphere in which the prospect that universities might be taken down a peg or two is regarded as a necessary, even desirable, correction.

Such sentiments cannot be entirely explained away by prejudice. While it is true that the drive for international-student revenue arose out of a sustained shortfall in federal funding, in the last decade it has turned into something else entirely. Anyone who has wandered around some of the larger universities in recent years would have seen the scale of infrastructure development: the erection of world-class auditoriums, performance spaces, restaurant and dining precincts, multistorey buildings for administrators and so on. (Then there are the inflated salaries and benefits for vice-chancellors and senior managers.) In some cases universities have become property speculators, purchasing large buildings in central business districts at the height of the real-estate boom. These signs of conspicuous wealth—symptomatic perhaps of a vice-chancellery desire for legacy in the absence of anything more substantial, but equally designed to appeal to the international-student cohort—hardly form the basis for public sympathy when things go bad. Neither does the fact that university teaching has become a second-class activity, carried out by contract staff under poor conditions while the university diverts funds to research, marketing and infrastructure. 

Australian universities have done a poor of job defending themselves in this crisis. Arguments for the preservation of the university sector have been depressingly narrow, reduced to ‘the university as income generator’ (Australia’s third-largest exporter) or, harnessing the very pandemic now depriving them of income, advocating the practical dimensions of the modernised tertiary institution. This articulation of a newly discovered role of the university as crisis manager has been parroted across the sector, culminating in the quick-fire publication of the COVID-19 Roadmap to Recovery: A Report for the Nation by Australia’s ‘Group of Eight’ (Go8) universities. In itself this 200-page document, drafted in a matter of weeks and immediately presented to the federal government upon completion, seems innocuous, perhaps even marginally useful in canvassing Australia’s options after either ‘eliminating’ or ‘suppressing’ the virus. We are told that the report drew upon a range of Go8 academics ‘from diverse fields’ to elaborate on the economic, medical and mental-health consequences of either scenario. The report doesn’t add much to the current discussion, but it is ‘evidence-based’. Fair enough.

However, as a strategic document it might be read differently for what it says about university priorities: it signals a willingness by elite universities to foster the needs of government rather than remain independent from them. Indeed the report’s media release is very keen to highlight the ‘Message of gratitude to researchers from Minister [Greg] Hunt’, reminding readers of the Go8’s relevance to the state. One can only speculate on the fate of academics whose research questions the government’s approach to welfare, the environment, Indigenous affairs and so on in the light of this new attempt at a close relationship. Additionally, one cannot help but notice the strategic exclusivity of a Go8 report to government. Why were other university experts not approached? Is this an active attempt to influence the direction of the sector—to ensure that the sandstone universities remain robust after the financial ‘correction’, at the expense of the rest of the sector? Finally, while the report emphasises that it engaged a broad range of academics—from mathematicians to virologists to philosophers—it’s clear that disciplines that could supply accessible, non-controversial and pragmatic input were favoured over those that might construct broader critical accounts of society and culture. In other words, there’s not much room for philosophical, economic or social critique as the university rushes to return us to ‘business as usual’.

This marketing of the university as rapid-response problem solver might simply be strategic, but the current absence of any broader justification for the university in any public forum at all is telling. While the university may try to remind us in desperate times of its public status, it has adopted the corporate ethos at every level—from individual branding, executive packages and staff KPIs to conspicuous sponsorship of major sporting events. This transformation has partly transpired through successive government demands to make universities generate their own income—charging student fees, conducting R & D for business and the like—but universities have not been slow to profit from the knowledge economy. At a point when the pandemic is highlighting the unsustainable future of global markets and trade, revealing our over-reliance on consumption for meaning—and allowing ‘the social’ to be rediscovered in the state’s attempt (albeit in very mixed ways) to address the material needs of its citizens—the university has almost completely abandoned thinking about its relation to the social in general, let alone ways of conceiving it beyond the terms of the market. 

Given all of the above, those who speak the language of the neoliberal university cannot but expect the prevailing cynicism that the university is merely another corporation looking for government handouts. During a Radio National interview Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner and educational consultant David Phillips were asked if the current crisis should prompt a rethink of the basic mission of universities. Both replied that there was nothing wrong with the present model—apart from the amount of funding. When asked why there seemed so little sympathy from governments and the public for the current plight of universities, Gardner invoked the ‘data’ that showed that most Australian universities ranked highly in any global comparison—and implied that negative reactions to their plight stemmed from a failure to appreciate this data outside of the university. That neither considered that there might be fundamental issues with which the ‘data’ didn’t concern itself, or that over-reliance on data as a measure of value was part of the problem, spoke volumes. Such attitudes are not atypical. Those who speak of the importance of higher education invoke league tables, statistics of knowledge transfer, vaguely assessed impacts, commercialisation of research and other market-derived markers of value. This technocratic language of accountability may have brought the university ‘down to earth’, but in undergoing that change it may have become (to those not enamoured of the language of benchmarking and performance indicators) an even more alien institution than its ‘ivory tower’ predecessor.

The failure of the student market under present conditions opens up the possibility of a different university. While it is understandable that university leaders, peak bodies and unions have initially sought government protection for the futures of casuals, contract employees and ongoing staff, there needs to be a fundamental rethink of the settings that got us here—not merely the economic models for university funding but the commodification of its life-world. The university sector cannot legitimately make claims about public funding or its wider social purpose until it recognises its own complicity with the last three decades of neoliberalism. This would require examining not only its internal culture but also the impact of its practices on the world at large, and—to the extent that the university has enabled disempowering forms of economic and social transformation via an uncritical promotion of ‘knowledge’—its abetment of new forms of inequity and disenchantment.

In one version of the future, universities will simply use this crisis to shed programs, courses and staff that insufficiently mesh with the corporate world view—those deemed ‘inefficient’ or lacking the capacity to generate significant income (which amounts to the same thing). Many of these cuts will likely come from the humanities, and social and pure sciences, despite the fact that the biggest losses from international-student revenue will be in information technology and business. There will be pressure to make more higher education available online, taking advantage of the fact that many academic staff have had to become rapidly proficient in virtual teaching during lockdown. The temptation to extend the virtual classroom beyond the pandemic will prove attractive to managers seeking to economise—and the slow but sure degradation of teaching to ‘knowledge transfer’ over the last few decades makes it all too easy to implement the virtualisation of teaching. Witness consultancy firms such as KPMG already pushing for this outcome, no doubt because it allows them to introduce online-only players in a deregulated higher-education environment. That this would exacerbate existing social divisions—online teaching for the less privileged, face-to-face for the elites—goes without saying.

To understand why this scenario is likely to be the case (but not inevitable) requires us to fully appreciate the cultural shift after the Dawkins reforms in the 1980s, which echoed a global trend to promote higher education as a tradable commodity. At that time the discourse around education changed from one focused on rights and needs to one focused on markets and choices. Paradoxically, a marketised higher-education landscape requires more, not less, government intervention, as the state monitors teaching and research through creating bodies that evaluate every aspect of university activity. The point is not merely that such monitoring has worked as a means of control (though it undoubtedly does) but that it fundamentally alters teaching, scholarship and research—how they are done and what they come to mean. After several decades universities have internalised this culture of auditing and evaluation fetishism so successfully that they rarely consider how their core activities and larger purpose could be thought of differently. Indeed, while international-student revenue continued to flow there was little impetus to do so.

Commodification and auditing effectively combine to reconfigure the value of academic labour. If commodification is essentially nihilistic (emptying out embedded forms of social and cultural value), auditing practices compensate by creating market-style value indicators so that knowledge, teaching and research still mean something—just not what they used to mean. The introduction of fees and loans in universities is thus accompanied by the demand that the results of higher education be transparent. Governments now fund universities according to graduate-employment data. University teaching privileges student satisfaction via questionnaires, quantifiable learning outcomes and demonstrable acquisition of ‘real-world’ skills—everything is geared towards improving the student ‘experience’. Such measures insist that the impact of teaching be immediately evincible, and while this is often a performative exercise as much as anything else, it has consequences for what gets taught and how it gets taught. Much current higher-education teaching occurs in a risk-free environment where the temptation to ‘dumb down’ material to ensure student satisfaction is ever-present. While a few academics have called out the existence of lowered standards in relation to international students (and have been conspicuously punished for it), university teaching more generally is reduced in complexity and variety to align with auditing requirements and the experience of the student-consumer.

The commodification of knowledge extends beyond the undergraduate classroom. It is evident in the drive to produce an industry-friendly model of doctoral supervision. As an Australian Council of Learned Academies report into postgraduate training concluded, what are valued in the PhD student are the generic and transferable ‘skills’ that potential employers will recognise, over and above what a PhD might reveal or discover. A similar instrumental frame governs academic research as a whole. The quantitative ‘publish or perish’ model (deeply flawed in itself) has been abandoned for publishing in highly ranked international journals, with the ranking process determined by problematic indicators—citation counts, rates of rejection and so on. The result is an increased hyper-specialisation as academics seek to publish in highly ranked (and sometimes obscure) journals, advancing micro-debates at the expense of broader critique or inquiry. Many of these journals, owned by a handful of transnational publishers, charge inflated subscription prices, restricting access for individuals and less wealthy institutions. What is essentially a hugely profitable publishing racket that exploits the labour of researchers and privatises the flow of research is enabled by research quality indicators that insist that specific journals become the destination for published research. Yet this unethical practice of academic communication goes largely unquestioned within universities.

Similarly unquestioned is the embedding within the university of a commercialised research culture. Extending the logic of previous governments, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull pushed for the funding of commercially driven research over any other kind, reframing universities as largely another R & D operation. Consequently, ‘research quality’ is overwhelmingly measured by the quantity of research dollars obtained, a system that conflates market utility with intellectual value. Turnbull’s wish to end the era of ‘academics just talking to each other’ has largely come to pass. University research is polarised between hyper-specialisation in terms of publication and the banality of intellectual inquiry through commercially oriented research. Indeed, if you attend conferences or university research seminars you may find that the description of a successful research project is more important than the ideas or arguments contained within it. In this simulation of academic exchange academics spend less time reading or debating each other’s work and more time celebrating the ‘performance’ of research. Intellectual content is subordinated to the ranking of the output, the strategic importance of the research field for the university, or the amount of grant money obtained. ‘Academic freedom’ in this context is curtailed less by censorship than by the dictates of the latest research algorithm, while commercial grants and industry collaborations work to preclude forms of inquiry that upset the relationship between the university and its funding partners.

The consequences of audit cultures are threefold. They provide a measure (or more rightly a simulation) of accountability to governments and taxpayers, though as we have recently seen this has not given universities any leverage, and in actuality it has eroded more robust articulations of why universities matter. Simply, it hasn’t been worth it. Secondly, they have worked to realign the behaviours of academics as audit cultures dissolve any form of participatory democracy expressed through collegiality, replacing the exercise of substantive judgement for outcomes determined through data collection. Finally, they alter the practices and value of academic work. Only work that can be counted, counts—the strategically aligned field of research, the top-quartile journal, the commercial partnership. What falls outside—and this would contain much of traditional scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the pure or natural sciences—has little value, given that it cannot be ‘captured’ by counting regimes. In the language of Martin Heidegger, universities have taken themselves as ‘standing reserve’, and have subjected themselves to the very kinds of calculation and instrumental methods that they ought to be countering as reductive and exploitative ways of understanding.

The ‘logic’ of auditing is entrenched in universities to such an extent that it’s not only managers but also many staff who now seem unable to articulate an alternative conception of academic value. Nowhere is this more evident than in the obsession with global university rankings. What started as small-scale, nationally focused guides for students and parents has become a global business. Global rankings—constructed though bodies such as the Times Higher Education rankings and the QS World rankings (there are now, ironically, dozens of ranking organisations competing with each other)—are intimately connected to the international-student market, which is why, despite the fact that nobody within universities believes in them as accurate measures of anything, they are taken completely seriously. Rankings have become a shortcut to assessing the worth of a university, providing easy copy for journalists—who love any sort of league table—and marketing departments alike. Ranking techniques have become integral to the reconstruction of universities from institutions of the public good into corporations and brands, and in constructing education as a global commodity. Ranking creates a circular process where a university’s position on a league table is used as a branding feature to attract international students, and then the revenue from those enrolments is reinvested to further ‘game’ the ranking process, so that even more students become attracted to the brand. Anyone who wants to know how the money from the international-student trade has been spent might start with how Australian universities have invested so heavily in the rankings business, poaching international staff with offers of generous salaries and conditions in order to boost the reputation of a specific department. (The institution’s consequent rise in the league table will undoubtedly have been calibrated in advance by a team of strategists.) Global university rankings may not be indicative of much of what transpires within the university, but they do reflect its corporatised mission (replacing publicly oriented values for those steeped in elitism, competition and profit): flogging the accreditation value of Western higher education as a means to social and material privilege.

One can only hope that the collapse of the trade in international students might undermine the investment in university rankings and the values they embody. Yet this would require those in the university community to be more critical than they have so far proved to be. The extent to which many within the university have positioned themselves as willing advocates of knowledge and research as boosters of economic development has left them bereft of any wider critical response to the current situation. Moreover, the corporate university has been entrenched long enough that a generation gap exists between those who can remember/imagine a different version of the university and those recently incorporated into the higher-education system. Any point of difference enabled though institutional memory can no longer be relied upon, which means that the struggle for a different understanding of the university must begin anew.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the occasionally invoked principles of free inquiry and the intrinsic value of knowledge were always half-understood, operated within a semi-nostalgic vein, ignored questions of power, and failed to effectively counter Dawkins-style reforms the first time around. Perhaps it takes something like the massive crisis we now see within higher education to open up the possibility for something else, given that the university is now struggling on its own corporate terms. It is not as though the culture of higher education was healthy before COVID-19. Like the global market economy upon which it relied, and to which it provided both material and ideological assistance, the university was deteriorating in terms of its legitimacy: exploiting students as customers, trashing staff collegiality and morale, and showing little independence from state or corporate power. One only has to think of controversies over the Lomborg or Ramsay centres, the attacks on free speech in the cases of Roz Ward or Gerd Schroeder-Turk, the descent of Melbourne University Press into pseudo-populism and so on to see the willingness of universities to abrogate their role as institutions that could stand outside the state and the market.

To ask for the balance to be redressed, for universities to return to some version of their former selves, is unlikely to achieve much if the reaction to the current crisis is only framed in these terms. A different model of the university would require those within it to examine the extent to which narrow modalities of knowledge (instrumental, pragmatic, technocratic, econo-centric) that have led to short-term profits for the sector have not only eroded much within university culture but also contributed to wider and extremely problematic social and cultural transformations that are now coming home to roost. The almost mythic elevation of ‘knowledge’ as a form of social mobility—leading apparently to creativity, aspiration, connection and so on—worked to mask other less desirable transformations that resulted from the shift to a post-industrial society. For all those who did gain temporarily from intensive but often transient forms of knowledge work, there have been many left behind—in manufacturing and rural sectors, indeed those who undertake most forms of manual labour—replaced by outsourcing and/or automation.

However, universities have not merely played a key role in expanding the knowledge economy; they have driven qualitative and quantitative changes in intellectual technique that have profoundly reconstituted social and natural environments. The expansion of the university sector that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century was possible because of a transformation of intellectual activity, moving from a relatively narrow group of practitioners who lived through ideas and engaged in a fundamentally reflective practice to a more expansive and practical mode, where a subgroup of the intellectually trained relied on intellectual technique as a condition of their professional life. Knowledge workers, information workers, and professionals working within the techno-sciences—engineers, etc.—fell within this category. Rather than interpreting the world, we find that the scope and constitutive power of intellectual practice have been radically enhanced via the techno-sciences and the collapse of cultural/moral frameworks that might have set limits on intellectual activity. Intellectual practice renders abstract its object of inquiry: cultures become systems of information, natural objects are taken apart and reconstituted, the human body becomes a genetic map and so on. The result is a world where long-established frameworks of social and cultural meaning recede, replaced by a frame derived almost entirely from technology and the market—the generation of cultural identities via the consumption of media and information, or the techno-scientific reconstitution of physical bodies and natural spaces into commodities. Any attempt to ‘reclaim’ the university must understand the full implications of its expanded role, and accept that the implications of corporatisation go well beyond its internal culture.

While there is no doubt something of a ‘culture war’ in the refusal of the federal government to give the university sector anything near the kind of support it needs to remain viable in its current form, it is clear that to mount a counter-strategy based on spruiking the economic and technocratic achievements of the university is to learn nothing at all. Not only has the sector’s embrace of knowledge-as-commodity created an unsustainable trade in international students, where rankings work less as indicators of quality than as indicators of paid-for status and power, it has led to universities shedding their capacity to stand outside, or attempt to understand, the consequences of the knowledge economy they have underwritten. That at least some of the university’s residual critical activity became co-opted by narrowly focused forms of progressivism and identity politics provides a partial explanation for the lack of resistance to its corporate transformation. Indeed the uncritical celebration by contemporary progressives of mobility, plurality, transience, virtualisation and so forth as political values in their own right led to these attributes’ close affinity with the dis-embedding flows of neoliberal capitalism being rarely questioned—even within the university.

The disruptive effects of COVID-19 have caused many to question the ‘norm’ of globalised, fully marketised societies. Given that universities were a central driver of this process, they should bear similar scrutiny. The likelihood of massive job losses in the university sector is a terrible thing, but it will be worse if the chance to reclaim and refashion the university is also lost. The exposure of the current model as broken, economically but also culturally, creates a crucial opportunity to generate a different kind of university. Even before the pandemic, we knew that we faced a multifaceted crisis in relation to the environment, the foundering of the global-credit economy, the transition towards high-tech societies of surveillance and control, and so on. What will academics, university leaders and commentators do now? Simply wait for a weaker, more precarious version of the current failing university system, and hope that theirs is not the next job facing the axe? Or will they demand a different university, one unshackled from the knowledge economy and the instrumental advances of the techno-sciences—a university able to counter these larger crises, rather than contribute to them?

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper teaches in film and literary studies at Federation University. He is an Arena Publications editor, an Associate Editor of Arena (third series) and part of the editorial team behind Arena Online. His research areas include literature and film, philosophy, social theory and techno-science.

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The ease with which you have weaved all these ‘problems’, the way they relate to context and define our analytical grid, is truly impressive. Plainly put: well done!

While it hurts to read about corporatisation, league tables and the commodification of knowledge, there’s more than a glimmer of hope for a restoration of the intrinsic value of learning. Here’s to hoping the COVID fires release a phoenix of self-determination.

As I say below the problem is that thousands of people able to do this will likely be fired in the next few months. And there are no more jobs.

“What will academics, university leaders and commentators do now? Simply wait for a weaker, more precarious version of the current failing university system, and hope that theirs is not the next job facing the axe? Or will they demand a different university, one unshackled from the knowledge economy and the instrumental advances of the techno-sciences—a university able to counter these larger crises, rather than contribute to them?” The irony is that those of us that have been writing about alternative models for universities for years, and have taken risks to do so, are about to be fired – at Melbourne by the end of the year for example . So while it is nice to think we might be able to envision alternatives, the reality is that many of those equipped to so so are about to be unemployed. And that is not an effective place to be envisioning anything.

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