DON AND PATRICIA EDGAR. Universities as Failed Critics

Apr 8, 2019

Back in 1997, Mark Davis complained that the Baby Boomers were monopolising public comment and should make way for the next generation – meaning him – to lead us out of ‘Gangland’ to ‘a new generationalism’. We’ve heard little since and the key public intellectuals are still (as in Pearls & Irritations) those ‘cultural elites’ he bemoaned, from the Baby Boom years. In an era when we have more graduates than ever before, informed social critique is in serious  decline.  

Recently, Barry Jones, the one-man Wikipedia phenomenon, presented a wide-ranging Dean’s Lecture at Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education (19 March, 2019). He asked why Australia’s graduates are so disengaged from political and social discourse. Whereas in 1950, there were only 33,000 university enrolments, in seven universities, there are now 40 universities with a total enrolment of 1.3 million, 300,000 of whom are overseas students.

Yet few of our 6.5 million graduates (a result of that huge growth) engage in public discourse. Jones pointed to the rise of self-absorption, short-termism, disenchantment with the democratic process and lack of faith in news media as toxic influences on the public’s sense of powerlessness. And within the universities themselves, he deplored the academic rivalry and management caution which stifle anyone venturing into the public arena.

As someone who seems to have read everything there is one more recent contribution by Raewyn Connell, for Barry to consider:The Good University: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change (Monash University Publishing, 2019). Connell, an academic sociologist with long experience of the changes that have swept our higher education scene, paints a scathing and detailed picture of how financial cutbacks, corporate managerialism and the competitive race for university rankings have undermined the quality of teaching and what he calls the knowledge-production process.

Neo-liberal market principles have taken over to the point of absurdity in university slogans and advertising campaigns; academic and support staff have little say in decisions about course offerings or financial priorities; morale is low and 70 per cent of undergraduate teaching is done by insecure, ‘casualised’ staff, ‘Taxi Professors’ he calls them, who don’t dare to criticise and who fail to inspire in their students the ‘joy of learning’.

Connell rightly points to the 1970s shift towards ‘credentialism’, with universities moving ever more into professional/vocational courses at graduate level, and to the 1987-89 Labor Government shift to a market-based university policy, introducing tuition fees and HECS ‘loans’, both of which, despite claims of opening up higher education to the less privileged classes, made universities what he calls ‘privilege machines’ exacerbating social inequalities and leading to a focus on getting a job rather than a broad education that might serve the social good.

We suggest two other trends have further damaged the quality of public discourse. First, the systematic undermining of independent statutory authorities such as the Australian Institute of Family Studies (no longer independent, and answerable to the Minister, not to Parliament), the Institute of Multicultural Affairs (abolished), the Institute of Criminology (defunded), the Law Reform Commission (wings clipped) and the Human Rights Commission (under regular attack), combined with an insidious use of language to undermine the credibility of educated, experienced experts: they are dubbed  ‘the latte-sipping elites’, ‘the chardonnay set’ and called  ‘so-called experts’ . No-one knows who they can trust any more.

Secondly, as a major cause of the declining role of universities in public engagement, the recent Coalition cuts to university and research funding have led to an increased reliance on full-fee-paying overseas students who now make up some 300,000 of Australia’s university students. Without them, our public universities risk collapse. Bob Birrell’s recent research (Bob Birrell & Katherine Betts, Australia’s Overseas Student Industry: in a precarious state, The Australian Population Research Institute, November, 2018) shows that Chinese students comprise 40 per cent of new entrants to the Group of Eight universities. Australia now accepts students with lower English language skills than do the US, Canada and the UK, and these students overwhelmingly enrol in courses such as business, accounting and IT, not in the arts or sciences.

Overall, they compete for places with our domestic students, dragging down standards and making the universities shopping malls for job qualifications rather than intellectual gathering places. Small wonder few academics speak out publicly on pressing social issues. They are either too insecure, working in casual teaching positions to make ends meet, or they are flat out writing applications for grants to support their own research. Only one in five will succeed; the rest are wasting effort. And if they win a grant, or benefit from those fees supporting research and post-graduate teaching, they don’t seem to question the dubious claims of ‘quality’ made by their corporate managers competing to attract the highest number of fee-paying enrolments.

Connell argues that the ‘good university’ should be one that is democratic, with all employees sharing the decision-making and having workplace security. They should be ‘engaged’, and not shy about using their knowledge to address social needs, involving students in face-to-face discussion and challenge. He says it is ‘a university’s job to serve its society, not to agree with it’ and to be creative in its teaching, sustainable in its practice. We agree.

But Connell is not strong on solutions, citing small-scale, pie-in-the-sky examples of ‘the good university’. Individual pressures from students or parents will not lead to change unless we have ‘a university system with solid public respect’. The fact is, we don’t. The first step forward is to face the fact that what is happening now is undermining universities and what they should be contributing to a good society. Because universities are so circumscribed by funding and the need to obfuscate what is really happening to the quality of their work, they are not living up to their responsibility as ‘critics’ using their hard-earned knowledge to challenge the untruths and injustices that are arising from a market-driven global economy.

The role of public intellectual, with a respect for true expertise, has to be renewed and championed by a more enlightened government and by the universities themselves. We need a better articulated higher education policy aimed at the social good of both present and future generations, before universities can regain a place of respect in the wider community. Job training can be done anywhere. A good university is one where the production of new knowledge and the challenge of ideas or practices that damage the social fabric are central to their very being.

Don Edgar and Patricia Edgar are sociologists. Don was foundation Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Patricia was foundation Director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.


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