With Universities in crisis, democracy is under threat

Sep 16, 2023

Gratifying it may be to see three of our top performing universities outranking Columbia and Johns Hopkins (with Melbourne even outranking Caltech and Yale (QS World University Rankings)), but as a sector our universities are in crisis. And such a crisis has dangerous implications for our democracy.

The model democracy in ancient Athens may have had its shortcomings and moral failures, but as a community it was characterised by openness to strangers and freedom of expression. Socrates may have died for antagonising his critics, but the Athenian citizen Plato was free to lay the very foundations of western philosophy without hindrance, critical though he may have been of the democratic institutions of his homeland. The immigrant Aristotle of Stagira explored the universe through empirical study and set down ‘guidelines’ for a democratic state. Historian and Athenian citizen, Thucydides, reported the democratic leadership’s declaration that the only shame of poverty was ‘not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it’. The immigrant, Diogenes of Sinope, taught an outrageous contempt for the norms of society flouted moral standards in his personal conduct, and allegedly gained the admiration of Alexander the Great. Here was the paradigm of an open society, whose ruling institutions were democracy in evolution.

There is a real if indefinable connection between the educational practice of an open society and its political formation. While we in Australia congratulate ourselves about the high rankings of our top universities, we scarcely pause to consider the internal conduct and government of our institutions of learning. Richard Hil has exposed (P&I 29 July 2021), the universities’ wholesale absorption into the structures of a neoliberal economy (and its counterpart, a constricted civil society).

The problem goes back at least to the Hawke administration, a triumphant Labor government determined to rid itself of the electoral encumbrances of the previous Labor administration under E. G. Whitlam. It is one of the great tragedies of our era that Whitlam was dismissed by a travesty of unconstitutional constitutional manipulation, and that the next Labor government sought to repudiate the Whitlam vision (aside from the revival of Whitlam’s hopes for a universal health-care system). Whitlam was unequivocal that education was a public good, rather than a mere instrument of personal advancement. Preparing to abolish student fees for universities and institutes of higher education, Whitlam declaimed: ‘We are all diminished when any of us are denied proper education. The nation is the poorer – a poorer economy, a poorer civilisation, because of this human and national waste’ (Policy speech 1969).

We are so diminished now. Many students live in dire poverty, forced to work long hours in part-time work just to stay alive. Hawke’s imposition of the higher education contribution scheme has landed many graduates with debts stretching forward for years. Hawke’s focus was now one of individual advancement with persons firmly locked into the neo-liberal economy. He planned to open educational opportunities through enhanced technical education, but the notion of ‘job-ready’ degrees has placed shackles on university autonomy to this day. Autonomy was at peril under Hawke, because ‘institutions’, the preferred bland terminology apparently designed to diminish the aura surrounding ‘universities’, were placed under direct government control, with seemingly endless reports being required by the federal Department of Education, and submissions required of overworked teaching staff.

In all this, Whitlam’s vision was subverted. Hawke’s minister for employment, education and training (see where education was positioned), John Dawkins, told students that they would now have to pay for their education, because having a degree meant making more money. They would pay partial fees through a higher education contribution scheme that would saddle many with vexatious debts, now harshly indexed. Not all graduates enjoy great prosperity, which in any case could have been requited through progressive taxation. There seemed to have been some antipathy in certain union organisations to university education. The much-honoured leader of the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union, John Halfpenny, once visited my University to address the students. I had been in a position to listen to many tales of poverty and hardship among the students, and some of these stories were addressed to the distinguished visitor. He replied that he would be concerned about apprentices in his trade, but he referred to the students as ‘you pampered members of the community’. Those were the very words once used by a police chief when he addressed students at the University of Sydney during orientation week.

We have not progressed beyond Dawkins’s squinting vision. The current Labor minister for education, Jason Clare, defended the 7.1 per cent indexation on student loans by telling students that going to university ‘makes you more money’ (Guardian 1.6.23). It is high time to recognise that education is about much more than money and that a healthy university system makes for an enlightened community, which we do not have. It was the security and assuredness in the societies of Northern Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of ancient Athens, of Europe and the Anglosphere in the twentieth century, that provided space for intellectual and cultural achievement. Why have we departed so far?

But it is hardly time to enter the debate whether education makes you ‘good’. A community is more than good and bad individuals. A properly functioning university system conduces to open debate, the airing of contrary ideas, avoiding a ‘cancel culture’, and respectfully exchanging ideas. Under pressures of egregious underfunding by successive governments, some major universities have treated their casual academic staff abominably, sometimes with wages theft (of 8 million dollars in the case of Monash University) (see Crikey 22 Aug 2023). Imposed chains of authority have scandalously opened the way for bullying. There are reports from around the country that junior staff in particular are mercilessly overworked and often underpaid. There is much stress, even breakdowns and serious illness, with staff leaving not merely their positions, but also the workforce altogether. And some students are sold short on the attention they should receive.

It is time to stop an infection, debilitating for democracy at all levels, spreading outward from the ‘institutions’ into the wider public.

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