For the previous 20 years, Australian universities have been undergoing reform in order to become more profitable, efficient and relevant to Australian society. Though funding reform stretches back to the early 1970s, it was the “Dawkins Revolution” of the late 1980s and early 1990s that jump-started this process and made neoliberalism the dominant paradigm in university management and administration.

The academy’s purpose is to generate social capital through research and teaching. The Dawkins reforms and continued restructuring of funding under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments has seen this pushed aside in favour of generating financial capital through the sale of educational product to students and collaboration with business to produce “research-based outcomes”. Ironically, the quality and prestige of our universities’ education is completely unsustainable – and incompatible – with a system that seeks to ensure the greatest profit through cost minimisation: faculties and subjects that cannot turn a profit or do not attract many students are cut in favour of those that do, often with little or no regard to their cultural or academic importance.

The attitude held by governments and senior university administrators towards the operation of universities is well illustrated by the outbursts of Florida Governor, Rick Scott. In October last year Scott earned the ire of anthropologists in his state and around the world for comments made during a number of interviews. As the Huffington Post reported at the time:

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degree where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Later, in a radio interview, Scott reaffirmed his beef with anthropologists, stating: “It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.” Setting aside the fact that his own daughter was an anthropology major, perhaps Scott needs to be schooled on what modern-day anthropologists actually do. In many cases, our research involves not only understanding other cultures but also enhancing productivity, improving efficiency, and yes, strengthening the economy as well.”

Anthropologists in Florida and around the world responded in a variety of ways, though most prominently through the creation of a website that showcased the value of anthropologists in modern societies in their own words. The very first testimonial, from one Margeaux Chavez, points out that anthropologists created the data and statistics used by Scott “…to extoll the virtues of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] education at the expense of other disciplines.”

Kevin Rudd’s approach to education was quite similar, though described in much grander terms: the “education revolution” and the “knowledge nation” were oft quoted soundbites during his Prime Ministership. Despite its name, the education “revolution” failed to challenge the systematic problems in our education system and instead reinforced the notion that good education builds financial capital. This is not much of a surprise, given that Rudd had no intention of creating systematic change:

“KERRY O’BRIEN: But what will the revolution be? I mean, are you actually – are you going to rewrite concepts?
KEVIN RUDD: No, no, not at all. If you look at how we best empower the economy of Australia for the future, it means, for example, let’s look at what’s happening in early childhood education. There are 30 countries or so assessed recently by the OECD – this is how we get in at the ground level for educating our young Australians. What we do with four year olds, for example. Guess where we come out of the list of 31 countries which have been assessed and measured by the OECD? Stone bottom last. That is a rolled gold failed performance. We have to lift the game there.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Sorry, but does that mean simply finding more money or does it also mean trying new approaches in education?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, Kerry, the document I put out today foreshadows both. It says we have, against all the measures from early childhood through to universities, a problem in terms of the quantum, of the investment in these areas but, at the same time, what I’ve said is, I’m not proposing a blank cheque to the sector, I’m proposing conditions be attached because the parallel part of the education revolution I’m talking about is lifting the standards, lifting the actual quality of the outcomes, the outputs of our education system. More money, but in exchange a better performance, and that’s the way we intend to go.”

For university courses to generate optimum financial capital they must start earning immediately upon completion. For professional degrees – such as law, medicine, nursing, engineering, marketing – in which students learn a skill set with a particular job or industry in mind this is less of a problem as these degrees are designed to produce immediate employment outcomes. For the sciences and liberal arts, however, this is a monumental problem.

Science and liberal arts degrees are intended to train students in a particular discipline and give them the skills (and hopefully desire) to acquire further knowledge. They are degrees with further inquiry in mind, not necessarily employment. (That having been said, a well taught science or liberal arts degree should enable a graduate to find employment in a position requiring analysis, policy creation skills, problem solving and communication; and one can hardly ignore the value placed on Oxford’s PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) course amongst the British élite.) One explanation I have been offered in the past is that a science degree should allow you to investigate and understand the natural world while a liberal arts degree should allow you to do the same for the social world.

From reading Dr Donald Meyer’s ebook, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline, it is clear that even in spite of the proclaimed importance of STEM degrees, some elements of the science faculties are facing the same problems as their peers in the liberal arts faculties:

“Courses not attracting the customer’s eye are cancelled and staff made redundant. Even prerequisite courses, typically in first year science, that form the foundation for advanced work but which students consider boring or difficult (or both!!), are made non-compulsory or cancelled. Apart from cutting a swathe through the Arts faculties of the nation, many physics and mathematics departments have been closed or radically downsized and merged with other departments. The logic of purging the system of physicists and mathematicians when the modern economy is all about technology is simply unfathomable.
“Many of the less popular and/or difficult courses have had their content reduced and been merged to further lower costs, irrespective of the importance to the degree program of the sacrificed material or the extent to which the merged material is complementary.”

One must note that where the professional degrees are often reliant on accreditation from professional bodies (such as the Law Society of South Australia or the Victorian Institute of Teaching) Science and Liberal Arts degrees were often regulated by the relevant faculties; now that faculty Deans and university Vice-Chancellors are more interested in generating profit these standards have been allowed to slip to the point that undergraduate students are able to complete certain three-year degrees with no formal training in the discipline their degree is in. And this is not a problem limited to Australian universities, either.

My own undergraduate experience is an excellent example of how profiteering has bastardised tertiary education in Australia. I enrolled in the B.Arts program at the University of Adelaide in 2007 (and later also began the B.Soc.Sci program), the last year that the classic three year degree structure was offered. Under this system, students completed 24 units per year: eight three-unit subjects in First year, six four-unit subjects in Second and four six-unit subjects in Third. Though there were fewer classes per semester as you progressed you were still expected to study the same amount of hours each week and use the time to research your topics in greater detail. Assessment requirements also grew each year.

Under the new system students still had to complete 24 units per year but all classes (with the notable exception of the Arts Internship and other ‘professional’ subjects) were only worth three units. This meant students had to complete eight subjects per year regardless of their level, thus eradicating the possibility of in depth study. Second and Third year were also removed: students would now complete Level I (First year) and then take “Advanced Level” classes during their second and third years – assessment requirements for both years were generally revised to be the equivalent of Second year. None had the assessment equivalent of a Third year subject.

With a stroke of genius, my faculty only permitted us to proceed with the old structure for two years of a three year degree, thus requiring most students to seek several appointments with faculty staff to work out just how many subjects had to be completed for graduation and leaving those of us who completed in three years with a degree that didn’t fit the old or the new degree structure. And I was lucky to only be going through a structure change: psychology students at the University of Adelaide began Third year by discovering that they couldn’t enroll in classes as they hadn’t completed pre-requisite courses the year before, despite those courses never having been offered before.

These changes were introduced in order to ‘professionalise’ the degrees. It is a strange world where to professionalise something means to dumb it down and to remove all challenging obstacles (such as black-listing students for plagiarism or penalising them for poor work). One imagines that our Vice Chancellors and faculty Deans are well aware of this.

Most remarkable about the professionalisation of degrees is its removal of discipline based teaching. When I graduated in 2009 with a degree in History I had never studied any historiography: imagine a doctor graduating without exposure to the necessary amount of training in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pathology (especially postmortem examination). Oh, wait. That’s exactly what the Australian Doctors’ Fund submitted to a government enquiry into the quality of medical education in Australia.

I guess the professions are suffering too.

It has been clear for some time that educational standards are slipping and it has now reached the point that even those responsible are increasingly unable to dismiss it. In the last week, both the Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide and of the University of New South Wales (both Group of Eight members) have highlighted dissatisfaction amongst students and the poor quality of tertiary education.

Warren Bebbington, the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, called for more small-group learning to ensure teaching quality could be maintained after the growth of enrolment in recent years. One can not help but wonder if this is a precursor for a repeat of last year’s disastrous tutorial cuts, initially explained as facilitating greater small-group and self-directed learning, only to later be exposed as a cost-cutting maneuver.

More worrying is Professor Ian Hilmer’s (UNSW) article. There are promising elements: recognition of stagnation and mediocrity in Australian universities and the economic and time impacts of over-regulating universities through quality assurance frameworks (which Meyers discusses at length); and a call for vocal opposition to further cuts imposed on universities by state and federal governments. Yet all of these points are underpinned by Hilmer’s (and the Group of Eight’s) belief that Australian universities will only return to prominence by deregulating student fees, something I have addressed previously.

Apart from showing a remarkable lack of hindsight given the massive and sometimes bloody protests launched around the world to fight rising student fees, the move for deregulation of student fees is nothing more than cowardice and avarice illustrated. Deregulating students fees shifts the responsibility for funding courses on students, rather than the university, with Vice Chancellors and Deans having the benefit of protective layer of academic staff upon which students will inevitably vent their wrath.

Although I must admit that the issue of fee deregulation has finally prompted the federal government to admit that rising fees do impact on university enrolment. (Senator Evans does say that Australia’s HECS system is regarded as best practice but it is unlikely that the comparison was made with tertiary systems providing free education. If that is the case it is a comparison between a mildly appalling and a completely appalling choice.)

One must also question the benefit of raising fees: given that Vice Chancellors have been keen to inflate their own salaries and benefits, establish overseas campuses (which are renowned funding blackholes) and collaborate with their private sector chums through the establishment of sometimes disastrous private universities (such as Melbourne Private University, which was closed in 2005 after losing between $20-150m in only seven years of operation), not to mention that they have been willing to accept the costly and wasteful quality assurance systems for nearly 20 years, it is hard to imagine that they would not use the extra revenue from increased fees to continue to line their own pockets.

But most importantly, further entrenching universities reliance on enrollments to fund courses will only exacerbate the current problem of dumbing down degrees and catering to the lowest common denominator. To quote the Executive Dean of La Trobe University’s Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty, Prof Tim Murray, (who is currently trying to dumb down and ‘professionalise’ degrees in his faculty):

“Students have been telling us for years that traditional arts degrees are no longer sufficiently enticing and relevant. They’ve been voting with their feet – their HECS fees – enrolling in law, commerce, business or journalism courses.”

Instead of moving to ensure that La Trobe offered the best courses possible (thus attracting more customers students) Murray opted in favour of culling programs such as gender and sexuality studies, Indonesian, politics and, unsurprisingly, anthropology. All of which flies in the face of his claims that,

“[La Trobe’s] aim is to have a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary approach to teaching without losing focus on the traditional skills, knowledge and issues. Academics will still be able to teach in their specialist disciplines. Archaeology will still be archaeology, while contributing perspectives and expertise to broader discussion of human history; for example, why are some societies more resilient than others in the face of massive change?
Or if you are going to address problems of human security, you have to be able to deal with everything from environmental history, water and resources, and global climate change to international relations and anthropology.”

Anthony White, Senior Lecturer in the School of Communication and Culture at the University of Melbourne, is quite direct in his refutation of Murray’s claims:

Murray argues that solving issues of contemporary significance such as ‘problems of human security’ requires dealing with everything from ‘environmental history, water and resources, and global climate change to international relations and anthropology’. Yet he conveniently overlooks that this breadth of approach is precisely what art history, gender studies and religion studies have been engaged with for many years, each bringing into play a whole range of methodologies that would otherwise fail to connect.
As evidence of this, not long ago I heard a public lecture at the National Gallery of Victoria by one of the art historians in Murray’s own faculty presenting her work on the impact of climate change on art, ecology, disease and the environment of the Roman countryside in the early modern period.
As for relevance, the programs singled out for closure at Latrobe have vitally important contributions to make to the broader discussions of human history and are global in their reach. For example, the importance of images and visual media in general in the contemporary world makes the removal of art history a rather curious choice when their relevance for how we understand the world around us is increasing, rather than decreasing.
Part of Murray’s justification for these cuts is that students are ‘voting with their feet’, implying that no-one wants to do art history, gender studies or religion studies any more: yet students at La Trobe are indeed ‘voting with their feet’ by turning to art history in increasing numbers, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

It is clear to academics, students and graduates and pretty well anyone who doesn’t directly benefit from the current organisational and funding structures of our universities that change is needed. If we want to see our universities return to institutes of prestige we need to cast out the philistines, restore the independence of the academy from business and governmental interference and provide sufficient funding to allow broad and specialised programs to be run – even if there are only a few students in each class. This funding must come from wider society to ensure that the creeping élitism of cost-barriers are not allowed to take hold again and to remind Australians that the benefits of tertiary education are reaped by society as a whole.

Excellence can never be achieved through mediocrity.

One thought on “Our University Crisis

  1. Hi Wil,
    Great article . Really enjoyed the message, but will it fall on deaf ears! The ‘Corporation’ mentality applied to education has always been a disaster. Those who propose it know ‘the cost of everything,and the value of nothing’.
    Has anyone heard the Mitt Romney mantra ‘ A Student should get as much education as they can afford’ OMFG!
    Up against Obama ‘Higher education cannot be a luxury reserved for a privileged few.Education is an economic necessity’ But this is what we are hurtling towards. Why is it that the Students rally. When it should be the Heads of Depts? Why don’t the parents rally, and leave the teachers in school.Marjorie Kelly said ‘concern for the public good must and will become the thing that motivates us to demand a balance ……’ We need to turn the tables, but there are are some great thinkers out, you included who have to get their voices heard. Thanks R

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