Universities as businesses: a cultural disaster

Australian universities are in crisis. Under pressure to corporatise, they have become over-dependent on income from overseas students. The pandemic has exposed the fatal flaws in this model, sparking fresh debate. The outcome is critical to the culture of society as a whole.

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The university as an institution basic to civil society has two purposes: original research, and the training of young minds; and the two must go hand in hand. Teaching methods are supposed to be based on the Socratic techniques of challenging assumptions and asking questions, with lectures by leading researchers, and tutorials enabling students to engage directly with highly qualified mentors.

A healthy campus has a lively cultural life – a dramatic society that attracts mathematicians as well as literature students, a debating club open to students from all disciplines. It’s an education that produces the kind of well-rounded minds that have served Australia so well in the past.

The experience of most students today is far removed from that ideal. Young friends tell me of tutorial groups larger in number than the average primary class; of lecture halls filled with overseas students struggling to follow by running translation programs on their laptops; of campuses where most of their peers call in only for a lecture, then have to rush off to casual jobs in order to earn a crust. And that’s largely the middle-class students. For working-class kids, faced with the prospect of massive HECS debts, it’s a lot harder to get in than it was almost 50 years ago, when the Whitlam government opened up free university education.

After decades of neoliberalism, universities are being turned into businesses. Vice-Chancellors operate as CEOs on vastly inflated salaries, with University of Sydney VC Michael Spence on upwards of $1.5 million. (An honourable exception is ANU VC, Nobel Prize-winning Professor Brian Schmidt, who requested a 25% pay cut when he signed up in 2016; he’s a man with a vision for education that’s all too rare these days.)

Meanwhile teaching staff are casualised and either given crushing workloads or left without enough hours to make a living. Wollongong University staff have just been forced into accepting a pay cut of 5-10% as an alternative to further job losses.

Experts have long been warning about the consequences of under-funding, especially since the Turnbull government cut funds by $2.2 billion in 2017. Apparently we can afford $50 billion for obsolete submarines, but only $17 billion for the entire university sector.

The immediate crisis requires an emergency bailout of $4.5 billion that would be a relatively small item in the overall federal budget. But the Government says no. In February PM Scott Morrison’s excuse for an education minister, Dan Tehan, warned VCs that instead they should “wring every last dollar” out of existing funding. In May the government explicitly refused universities the JobKeeper allowance, even though they face the loss of 30,000 jobs.

In NSW the lean and hungry Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, is offering universities not a bailout but a $750 million loan guarantee, with the proviso that he expects them to make their operations more “sustainable” – neolib-speak for commercial.

Under this pressure the Group of Eight major universities, led by their well-paid Vice-Chancellors, are looking at a “Research Roadmap to Recovery”. Sydney’s Michael Spence said that without the return of overseas student in previous numbers it’s “all over red rover and it gets really ugly” for research budgets. The alternatives the Group is examining include mergers and that has set alarm bells ringing for Universities Australia and the Regional Universities Network, which fear losing research facilities at smaller institutions.

Australia is already well down the road of corporatising universities on the American model. The century-long undermining of liberal education there was documented by Frank Donoghue in his 2008 book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Of business interests he wrote: “Their distrust of the ideal of intellectual inquiry for its own sake led them to insist that if universities were to be preserved at all, they must operate on a different set of principles from those governing the liberal arts.”

It’s no accident that in Australia the humanities are under the gravest threat. Wollongong is considering abolishing its Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts altogether. The University of Sydney is planning to cut eight per cent of courses in the arts and social sciences faculty, which it projects will lose almost a quarter of its students.

Students and staff have published an open letter to VC Michael Spence warning: “The sudden and dramatic drop in the university’s course offerings, coupled with the devastating loss of talented and committed staff members, will lead to a long-term decline in the quality of education offered by the university.”

More than 2,400 years ago Socrates said: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” His dialectical method for training minds was anathema to the conservative authorities of Athens. They executed him for “corrupting young minds”. Whose side would Morrison, Tehan and Perrottet be on?

In his 2010 book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literary and the Triumph of Spectacle, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges wrote:

“For Socrates, all virtues were forms of knowledge. To train someone to manage an account for Goldman Sachs is to educate him or her in a skill. To train them to debate stoic, existential, theological, and humanist ways of grappling with reality is to educate them in values and morals. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilisation is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, holds two degrees from Oxford University, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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