Our universities are in crisis.They are no longer fit for purpose?

Jul 29, 2021
University chairs
Credit- Unsplash

The urgency of transforming university education, and indeed all forms of education, lies in the need to render them relevant to the deep global crises we now face. These crises are reshaping every society on Earth.

Universities have been the subject of close critical scrutiny in recent decades, particularly since the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s. Countless books, articles, monographs and reports have documented the shortcomings of a system that has been thoroughly marketized, massified and subjected to the regulatory strictures of managerialism.

We are at a point, I think, where some fundamental questions need to be addressed. Has all this critical attention reached saturation point? What do we do with this volume of critique? What changes are being sought and how might these be achieved? And is it now time for a different sort of conversation about our higher education system?

In my view, the answer to the latter question is a resounding yes. If those focussed on the state of our universities don’t change analytical course towards a more activist – and progressive social change-oriented – agenda, then I fear the law of diminishing returns will set in, if it hasn’t already. Merely repeating the things we already know will not bring about change. Rather, we need to move from critique to concerted, collective action. As Naomi Klein has observed of the global climate justice movement: no is not enough. The same applies to our engagement with universities.

We are more than familiar with the system’s failings: its links to the neoliberal economy, business-centred governance regimes, over-regulation, top-down management practices, vocationalised curricula, commercialised research agendas, and the general fear, powerlessness and misery that pervade the academic workforce. We’re also acutely aware of the unstable nature of casualised labour (with thousands laid off as a result of the pandemic), the obscene salaries accrued by the managerial class, and the business orientations of university councils, senates, chancellors and vice-chancellors.

We are also privy to growing student discontent with high fees, debt, online teaching, bloated class sizes and lack of any meaningful sense of community. Numerous academic auto ethnographies testify to the soul-destroying nature of top-down, corporate management, the slavish devotion to market values and the tragic destruction of collegiality. We’re also aware of how universities conceal their operations, and how they misrepresent the realities of institutional life through stomach-churning slogans and taglines. And we know all too well – despite the usual protestations – about how universities exploit international students to make up the shortfalls in federal government funding.

There is, in short, a plethora of commentary, critique, deconstruction and descriptive analysis. Much of this is conducted through painstaking inquiry and has been entirely necessary for exposing how modern universities operate. Take the excellent Bullshit Towers by Margaret Sims: surely a classic of its day in terms of laying bare the dehumanising effects of university governance.

Meanwhile, some commentators have pronounced the death of the modern university, while others monitor its death throes, or have placed it in “hospice care.” Few believe the current system can be reformed, and more and more disgruntled observers are looking to alternative models of higher education around the world – and there are plenty of them. Despite the illusions peddled by what Rob Watts refers to nicely as “the manageriat” – including vapid claims of enduing excellence and high-quality education – you’d be hard-pressed to find an Australian academic who, post-Covid, thinks that things are going to get better.

Indeed, the pandemic has revealed the full extent of the problems facing the modern university, and the measures that have been put in place to ensure its survival – expansion of online learning, planeloads of international students flown in under heavy restrictions (as thousands of Australians languish overseas), mass sackings of fulltime and casual staff, cuts to courses and programs, and the selling off of land and buildings. And as typically occurs under the pretextual conditions of “disaster capitalism”, the organisational structures of universities are being overhauled to ensure greater concentration of managerial power, workforce compliance and a tighter fit with the neoliberal economy.

Truth be told, this process began long before the virus hit these shores, but Covid has provided a convenient excuse for the further neoliberalisation of higher education.

So here we are, in the twilight world of a dystopian tertiary system seemingly hellbent on gutting whatever remains of the idea of a public university. The core values that inform this system are not only free from challenge by the political class and manageriat, they have also been hardened as a result of the Covid crisis. Academics are increasingly shut out of key decision-making forums, like university Councils and Senates; their places taken up by business professionals, administrators and senior managers. Effectively, academics have been de-professionalised: reduced to service and brand-conscious income providers.

Such instrumentalism – defined as the prevailing common sense – has eschewed other possibilities; other approaches to higher education. The question that now faces advocates of the public university is not how to reform a system in rapid decline, but rather to seek to reimagine an altogether different system anchored in values and practices that can address the pressing problems of the twenty-first century. As fanciful or ‘utopian’ as it may sound (given neoliberal hegemony), this would be a university decoupled from the extractivist agendas of the fossil fuel industry and free of the means of violence by abandoning weapons research.

A transformed university would be free, open, diverse and concerned with advancing the common good rather than brute private interest. It would be focussed on what was once celebrated as a ‘rounded education’ that enables and encourages personal growth and what Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees refers to as “intellectual promiscuity”; that is the free and spontaneous flow of creative, exploratory and edgy ideas.

Its philosophy of education would not be tethered simply to the needs of industry or to promoting economic growth. A university for the common good would reflect principles of social justice (inducing cultural diversity) in its organisational arrangements, give proper voice to academics and students, and work closely with local communities. It would be actively involved in working with other institutions on lessening economic inequality, advancing peace rather than war; and dedicated to actively addressing the existential threat that is the climate emergency. It would seek to build ecologically-minded communities of learners rather than consumers, citizens rather than denizens, educators rather than service providers, and promote democratic forms of governance rather than top-down management. It would invite students from overseas and Indigenous students to help in reformulating and decolonising curricula and research agendas so as to foster respect for the Country and offer the prospect of regeneration rooted in Indigenous sovereignty, rather than environmental destruction.

There are many alternative models of university education that can be drawn upon: from the free university movement to Buddhist and Indigenous colleges and universities, from progressive colleges and cooperative universities in the global north to co-governed institutions in the global south.

The urgency of transforming university education, and indeed all forms of education, lies in the need to render them relevant to the deep global crises we now face. These crises are reshaping every society on Earth. Reconstituted, universities might be in positions to offer genuine insight and lasting responses to these problems by decoupling from the very system of which they are an integral part.

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