Can Australian universities come back from the dead?

Jan 22, 2022
university of adelaide
University of Adelaide. (Image: Flickr/bram_souffreau)

Academic freedom has been slowly and steadily eroded, with academics turned into service providers and students into consumers.

A few years back — 2013 in fact — a few creative academics put together a book titled Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. At the time, I thought this a playful commentary on the changing nature of universities in Australia. I was wrong.

This is a serious book highlighting the emptying out of our universities; or rather, their transformation into a landscape populated by the living dead. At first, this might seem a hyperbolic observation of the various parties that inhabit such places, and I for one would hesitate to call myself, or any of my colleagues, a zombie. To be sure, there are many outstanding academics who continue to beaver away and produce outstanding teaching and research, but this is often in spite, rather than because of, managerial oversight. Many also try to resist regulatory excesses as best they can through skilled manipulation of workloads, occasional acts of sabotage, and participation in collective action.

Nonetheless, the deadening process described in the book reflects the instrumental purposes to which most higher education institutions have been consigned. In Australia, the policy initiatives of the Hawke-Keating government of the late 1980s ensured that the university sector morphed from what neoliberal apologists considered an elitist, antiquated system into a modern ‘industry’ that could take its place in the global higher education market.

Suffice to say, the consequences have been profound: from the vast expansion of student numbers and the concentration on vocationalised curricula, to the imposition of corporate management and obsession with market share. Under the rubric of ‘public management’, universities have been encouraged to operate like private businesses, hence the focus on profit (aka “income generation”), huge executive salaries, overreliance on casual staff, and the rest.

The upshot is that universities have been totally absorbed into the neoliberal economy, academics turned into service providers and students into choice-laden consumers.

The disciplinary architecture of these places has also ensured that academics, indeed all staff, are now subject to the most stringent regulatory requirements of central command. This includes endless performance measures, reviews, and increasingly, gag orders aimed at brand compliance and conformity.

Academic freedom, that seemingly quaint relic from a bygone era, has been slowly but steadily eroded, and meaningful collegiality all but vanquished.

Ask most academics about whether they’re happy or not, and they’ll burst into laughter, or tears. The 40,000 or so casual academics summarily dismissed in the wake of Covid have little or no voice at all. In effect, they’ve been disappeared.

Bad as though all this is, what makes the situation even more dire is the growing absence of human presence on our campuses. Despite all the manufactured attempts at creating “community” in a transactional context, the soul has been slowly sucked out of the modern university.

Venture onto any campus — even before the pandemic — and you’ll get a sense of what this means. There’s the appearance of hustle and bustle, of connection, but its all an illusion designed to mimic the hallowed halls of yesteryear, even though most campuses now resemble shopping malls rather than centres of learning.

The fact is that most students have to work to make ends meet (there are all those fees and charges to meet, after all), and only the lucky few can afford to live on campus. Increasing reliance on online learning also means that more and more students have been further ensnared in the spiritual dungeon of human disconnection. Academics on the other hand, who in previous times hung around bars and cafes, are now so overburdened by impossible workloads, that they’re permanently chained to their desks.

As an adjunct drifter, I often venture down school/departmental corridors only to find academics feverishly banging away at their keyboards, often oblivious to the world around them. They can sit there for hours on end, ergonomically poised, but spiritually depleted. Tea breaks and staff meetings are a rarity, and the end of the week piss-ups at the staff club hall but disappeared — most such clubs closed long ago. The last time I attended a morning tea with academics and general staff, it was clear that most didn’t know what to talk about, other than the usual default reflections on workload tyranny.

Not surprisingly, as the brilliant Margaret Sims observes in Bullshit Towers, for most academics the modern university is a dispiriting and intimidating place of employment, all sanctioned by the ridiculousness of management speak.

The zombification to which our brave academics referred is indeed an accurate descriptor of today’s universities. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

With the rise of so-called online learning, transactional relations, instrumentalised job ready curricula and the rest, universities have, for many, become functional, drab places bereft of the spark or soul imagined in all those glossy brochures. Their primary goal when it comes to teaching and learning is, supposedly, to prepare people for jobs rather than for active citizenship and joyful social participation.

Direct human connection — that most fundamental of learning requirements — is being whittled away before our very eyes. Fewer academics and students are to be seen on campus, and where connection does occur it is generally transient and transactional. More meetings are held online (even before the pandemic), increasing numbers of academics now work from home (often permanently, sometimes using hot desks), and less and less time is given over to student consultation.

Predictably, in response to this whinging, you’re likely to hit the institutional wall of denialism, accompanied by grand statements about excellence, high quality education and stratospheric student satisfaction.

But few are fooled by this noise. Peel away the veneer of university propaganda and you’ll find a seething mass of discontent and disillusionment. Some students will say they loved their tertiary experience, until that is, they are exposed to alternative forms of higher education. Many like my own son, will leave university with a massive debt and a nagging sense that the whole thing was less than exhilarating.

One of the main tasks facing critics of the modern university — and there are droves of them, including me — is to make public what actually goes on in such places.

Policy mandarins and university chiefs are very adept at covering their tracks. It’s what the brand demands of them.

Over the years, the university sector has proved Teflon-like: all criticism slides off the discursive surface. Expose poor governance, bullying and exploitation and still, the “export industry” continues to flourish — until Covid, that is. The latter has exposed all the failings of a system in terminal decline — undemocratic nature of governance, the over-reliance on international students, massive pay gaps, the cavalier treatment of casuals, diminishing education standards and escalating academic workloads.

But there’s hope. And it rests with Public Universities Australia (PUA): a newly formed coalition that has finally taken the fight to where it needs to go — right to the heart of the university system and its governmental overseers. There’s no more sliding off the surface.

It has set about forensically exposing the misgovernance of universities, following the money trails and highlighting the attempted muzzling of potential whistle-blowers.

Don’t take my word for it, look at its website and the many articles written by members of PUA.  They’re talking to journalists, politicians and any who’ll listen.

What PUA wants is a return to the idea of the university as a public institution, not a private enterprise. It wants to implement genuinely democratic forms of governance that include academics, students and the wider community. It wants universities to be decoupled from the diktats of the neoliberal economy. And it seeks a new imaginary around higher education and what such institutions could become if handed over to a broader constituency. It wants universities to become relevant to the challenges of the 21st century rather than simply meeting industry needs. It wants students to become active learners in real-life campus communities that value education for its own sake and which sustain the common good rather than private interest. Above all, it wants academics and students to feel free, alive and passionate about the education process.

It wants, in short, to de-zombify the academy. Not asking for much, is it?

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