Surely I must have better things to do? I was about to embark on the very familiar journey of writing yet another long and boring article about the parlous state of our universities. I’ve written dozens such articles over the years, as well as three books. I’ve also babbled on at conferences and seminars, done many radio interviews and talked to dozens of journalists—anyone, in fact, who’d care to listen.
Not that many people do. Once I start attacking vice-chancellors’ salaries, diminishing education standards, over-regulation and the exploitation of international students, most people glaze over. After five minutes or so, they look inebriated. After ten, catatonic. My partner, who has endured my complaining for years, tells me to ‘please stop’. So I do. My default response is to shuffle off to my office to broadcast my enduring discontents to the world. But what’s the point? I ask myself. Who the hell cares about universities?
My latest screed was to be a bitter denunciation of how my local university has all but abandoned the social sciences in favour of more ‘practical’ disciplines. ‘How can you have a university without a decent dose of sociology and political science?’ I asked my equally troubled academic friend who happens to work at said institution. ‘Beats me,’ she replied with surprising nonchalance, adding that ‘Nothing makes sense anymore’.
Two weeks earlier I was primed to draft a withering piece about academic celebrities: those former politicians, journalists, policy boffins and ‘thought leaders’ who are suddenly catapulted into professorial positions. There are dozens of them—think Mark Kenny, Stan Grant, Pru Goward, John Hewson, Andrew Norton, Peter Greste, to name but a few. While most run-of-the-mill academics are required to negotiate numerous hurdles like publishing extensively in learned journals, acquiring large competitive grants and demonstrating stratospheric teaching performance, these ‘distinguished’ few are parachuted into plum jobs and encouraged to ‘raise the profile’ of the university. I hesitated to write the article for fear of upsetting too many people, something I’ve been doing for years. ‘Can’t you write about something else?’ my partner asks. ‘You know, something a bit more uplifting? How many times can you keep doing the same thing, expecting a different result?’
It’s a good question. I suppose there is a kind of mad undercurrent to my obsession about higher education. I’m not sure how it came about. Perhaps because over the course of five decades as an undergraduate, postgraduate, academic and now adjunct professor, I’ve witnessed the wholesale transformation of universities from public institutions to what resemble rapacious private firms. I often wonder how on earth universities can claim to be bastions of excellence and high-quality education. It’s rather like the United States claiming it’s the global guardian of human rights, or that Boris Johnson is a man of great integrity. It simply doesn’t stack up against the evidence. And the evidence is voluminous. There are literally thousands of books and articles which are part of a scholarly genre called ‘critical university studies’, which in some ways is hilarious—a kind of Trojan horse masquerading as yet another metric. I giggle at the thought that splendid tomes like the aptly titled Bullshit Towers or my own (less splendid) Whackademia and Selling Students Short are viewed by the bean counters as just more contributions to ‘knowledge production’. Ah, the irony of it all.
Even the most cursory inquiry into what actually goes on in universities—the deceit referred to as marketing, the rubbery entry policies, the misgovernance of finances, the exploitation and mass sackings of casuals, the over-regulation of academics, impossible workloads and so on—leads one to wonder how all this has been allowed to fester. To be sure, there has been an Independent Commission Against Corruption, inquiries into the treatment of international students, and calls for a Royal Commission into university governance. But still, universities proceed as if nothing has happened. It’s as if they’re covered in Teflon. Very little sticks. That said, the furore sparked by vice-chancellors’ salaries has gained traction over recent years, as has growing evidence of diminishing education standards. But none of this is enough to upset the applecart.
But all this may be about to change. Public Universities Australia (PUA), a coalition of various higher education associations and advocacy groups, along with the Australian Greens (via the Next Gen Guarantee and other policy initiatives), have drawn attention to various policy alternatives that would set universities (and TAFEs) on a radically different course. Some of the proposed measures include, among other things, doing away with student fees, increases to Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy, more funding for universities and TAFEs, more secure employment conditions for casual staff and those on contracts, increased academic autonomy, and an enhanced role for academics in institutional governance. The PUA has highlighted some questionable governance practices that require attention. Not least is the alarming fact that university councils—the major governance bodies at most institutions—are heavily skewed towards people from business backgrounds, often with little or no knowledge or experience of tertiary education. It’s rather like putting proctologists in charge of an NRL club. Most company boards—say, in the mining sector—are comprised of members with relevant professional backgrounds. It makes sense, doesn’t it? But alas, not when it comes to our universities, for which the devotion to business principles per se seems to be the main rationale for ‘public management’. Senior managers may talk of ‘income generation’ rather than ‘profit’, but the motives are much the same, with many universities now gambling on the stock exchange and acquiring property portfolios for sundry purposes. Meanwhile, the pay and conditions disparities between senior management and casual academic staff, made worse during the pandemic, couldn’t be greater, with the former presiding over a top-down system in which patronage and tight regulatory control are the order of the day. It’s worth noting that during the pandemic an estimated 40,000 or so casuals lost their jobs, meaning that remaining academic staff had to toil under hugely increased workloads. No such major privations appear to have been experienced by senior management.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of today’s tertiary system, especially if you still subscribe to the quaint idea that universities are truth-seekers and bastions against tyranny, is the assault on the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS). For several years universities have been accused by those on the political right of being infiltrated by ‘cultural Marxists’, and by extension, of promoting ‘woke’ culture and ‘political correctness’. HASS disciplines have been viewed as the harbingers of such pernicious tendencies. In a sort of belated rear-guard action, various right wingers have sought to restore ‘balance’ in knowledge production through a greater emphasis on ‘Western civilization’. Too much, they say, has been made of postmodern relativism, neocolonialism and multiculturalism, which have played down the historical influence of Western thought, thereby diminishing its contribution to the development of the modern industrial state.
Such lofty arguments have been accompanied by more mundane concerns, namely, that of ensuring a steady supply of job-ready HASS and other graduates which, in effect, means that employers are granted subsidised training. So whereas HASS disciplines may once have been considered vital to a functioning democracy, as well as intrinsically worthwhile and interesting, many universities now view them as tethered to more instrumental concerns. It’s interesting, for example, how ‘critical thinking’—that once cherished intellectual endeavour—has itself been commodified: that is, turned into a workplace ‘attribute’ to be sold on the open market to prospective employers.
The transformation of universities into vocational training centres is, under the logic of the prevailing ideological order, all about meeting the needs of the neoliberal economy. To achieve this, institutions have been into market savvy corporate operations. It’s no surprise that their internal organisational cultures so resemble what transpires in the private sector. They do, after all, adhere to the same free market ethos. The virtues that should guide the public university—the pursuit of truth, academic freedom, promotion of democratic citizenship, social justice and human rights etc—have been increasingly eroded. How often, for example, do we hear the university sector referred to as an ‘export industry’ or as being ‘vital to the Australian economy’, as if these were the most pressing concerns?
This is certainly not how most current and former academics think about universities. It perhaps explains why Australian scholars are so discontented. They feel trapped in a system that demands institutional obedience and devotion to market values rather than an education for the common good.
These days, I survey universities mostly from the outside. I find campuses too anodyne, too much like strip malls. Yet I continue to wonder about the lack of public outrage over what is occurring in these supposedly hallowed (hollowed?) imitations. Why aren’t people out on the streets protesting fee hikes or diminishing educational standards? Where are the public demands for urgent reform, or an inquiry? The fact is that while universities blather on about ‘excellence’ and the like, the reality is that they have been in an acute state of intellectual, political, and cultural crisis for many years. They now find themselves, mainly because of their entanglement in the neoliberal state, increasingly irrelevant to the complex global crises we now face. Indeed, as I along with Kristen Lyon and Fern Thompsett have observed in Transforming Universities in the Midst of Global Crises: A University for the Common Good, universities are of the crisis: active participants in a system that is taking us to the brink. They appear entirely incapable of changing course: anchored in a free market ideology that has run its course. If ever there was a time for urgent public discussion about our universities, it is surely now.
That sounds like a good rallying cry, doesn’t it? In which case, perhaps I’ll sit down and write one more article about the futility of writing articles like this, or I could simply extol the activist virtue of never shutting up.
Here, the cruel irony (of destroying people’s working lives in order to balance the budget) shifts into a further phase: what might be called ‘structural cruelty’.