The degradation of the University

Jun 29, 2023
To have know-how or to have knowledge.

Like other large public and private sector organisations, universities have now been pervaded by the activities and influence of consultants. This represents a degradation of the social and educational role of the university as well as a determined shift towards the privatisation of knowledge.

The Age (25/6/23) has showed alarming figures of how much the “ten top universities” have spent on consultants in 2019 ($204 million) and 2022 ($249 million). These figures would no doubt have been much larger had Australia’s other 26 odd universities been included in the aggregate number. As someone who first wrote on consultants [Mythologies of Change and Certainty in Late Twentieth Century Australia, (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne 2001], Ch.5) I am not surprised that university management has so easily fallen into the pattern of using them in the manner that has been the hallmark of governments and large corporations over the past three decades. Consultants have been with us in various forms for the past two millennia, if not more. Yet it is the number of consultancy firms and their penetration into all aspects of government, semi-government and corporate organisations which has now become a highly conspicuous phenomenon.

This expansion and penetration is one of the fundamental outcomes of neoliberalism where the production and outsourcing of knowledge has been privatised like so many other things. Paradoxically, it demonstrates how much the corporations and consultants which have won so much out of the neoliberal turn have in truth depended upon government handouts for their prodigious growth. Simultaneously, widespread use of consultants has shown the extent to which the organisations who have used their services have in truth changed as well. This has been very well documented in the case of the commonwealth public service which has been so hollowed out at the top and middle levels under the aegis of the Howard government and its successors on both sides of parliament.

Within the university sector it has been manifested in the considerable numerical increase in management at the upper and middle levels since about 1990. This is a management usually divorced from the real functions of universities which are teaching and research, both strongly interrelated. A highly likely result of this management dominance has been the constant restructuring occurring in the organisation of academic departments and faculties in universities, which in my own university (La Trobe) was intended, though not explicitly stated, to centralise power in the hands of upper management where previously it had been more decentralised. Ultimately, and likely with the imprimatur of consultants’ advice, this has produced the alarming rate of casualisation of the academic workforce, justified on the grounds that universities need to be flexible in order to meet changes in market demand for subjects.

Universities should be creators and givers of knowledge. In contrast the consulting firms are sellers of knowledge, of a kind often derived from university research and spruced up to seem original and consistent with the neoliberal jargon of the day. And it is well known that they will tell the provider of their fees what they want to hear. In contrast, universities produce knowledge that is subject to critical scrutiny and not what some putative employer or market might want.

For the universities, the increasing use of consultants represents a major failure on the part of senior managers, whose salaries have gone up exponentially whilst the number of subjects being offered–especially in the Humanities/Social Sciences and the hard sciences–have dramatically diminished. Senior management now share the same profit orientated motives of the partners in the large consultancy firms and see knowledge as a product to be sold, not something offered as a gift to the larger society.

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