Some years ago I went to a three-day conference in Sydney where the opening keynote was given by a global academic star.
She arrived on the first morning of the conference, having flown first class from United States on a ticket paid for by the organisers. She gave a lively talk to a packed auditorium, fielded questions with aplomb and mingled charmingly with delegates at morning tea. Then as the first session of general papers was about to commence she gave her apologies and retired to the five star hotel room the organisers had booked for her to sleep off the jet lag. No more was seen of her at the conference. Late the same evening she boarded a flight to Tokyo where she would give another keynote the next day.
The heads of Sydney art colleges met yesterday and decided to amalgamate the senior management of the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales. This would, they argued, “be a first step towards creating a world class joint university administration”. The decision has created alarm amongst those who make up university executives – Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Human Resources, Information Technology, and Chief Financial Officers – many of whom stand to lose their jobs with the restructure. “We have to face up to the fact that in a diminishing funding environment, the duplication of management groups in universities located so close to each other is clearly unsustainable”, claimed Berthold Brick, the Dean of Sydney College of the Arts. “The rationalisation will allow us to offer centralised services and would remove the costly duplication of various functions – payroll, recruitment, strategy, timetabling. Such duplication is completely unnecessary in the digital era”, he argued. Senator Kim Bike, the education spokesperson for the Australian Greens, who will soon be sworn in as Minister for Education after his party’s federal election victory last week, said that this was “a welcome move to dismantle the costly competition policies of the past”. It will “free up resources to allow universities to perform their core function of intellectual and cultural enrichment of society”.
Neoliberalism has little to do with the liberalism of civil liberties. Rather, it asserts the untrammelled freedom in the market for capital to do what capital does: extract surplus and realise profits. Public institutions that are not capitalist corporations are pressured under neoliberalism to mimic them – so leaders of the neoliberal university behave like apes taking selfies. Principled management of higher education and research would refuse the unethical dominance of the market and the imposition of its priorities where they don’t belong. That would be ethical, by contrast with the ‘ethics’ of university ethics committees, which are about risk management and preventing loss-making litigation or PR disasters. Instead, human resources at universities have practically merged functions with marketing departments.
“When for any reason… the administrator of [a university] attempts to dislodge a professor because of his political or religious sentiments, at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university”. So affirmed the University of Chicago’s first president in 1892. Going on recent experience, it would seem that Australian Vice-Chancellors are pretty sanguine about their institutions not being universities any more. Following the 2014 Barry Spurr email scandal and 2015 Richard Kemp affair (in which I was involved), the Roz Ward controversy has once again required a university to adjudicate on the relation between academic work, the varied commitments and motivations of the people who do it, and the necessarily political context in which it is applied. The course initially taken by La Trobe Vice-Chancellor John Dewar – suspending Ward – was met with intense opposition. Support for Ward was mostly framed in terms of freedom of expression and its campus version, academic freedom. But this frame isn’t adequate: it’s not free speech, but universities’ overall purpose, which provides the grounds for opposing attempts to remove people like Ward.
This article was originally published by New Matilda. Read the rest here.
In 1991 American academic David Orr challenged graduating students to ask “What is education for?” In posing the question, Orr identified six myths about the foundations of modern education, including the notion that “the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success”. Orr then identified six principles to replace those myths: for example, “knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world”, and “we cannot say we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities”. Taking Orr’s challenge seriously could assist us in deciding whether Australian higher education is on the right track.
The public policy shift towards the neoliberal idea that higher education primarily benefits the individual began when the Hawke Labor Government introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in 1989. By making students contribute a significant proportion of the cost of degrees, governments were able to limit the budgetary impost from surges in enrolments.
It is now well known that the Vice Chancellor at the University of Western Australia chose to use his 2015 Christmas address to staff to announce that 300 of them would lose their jobs in 2016. Since then Academic staff and Professional Staff alike have been subjected to over 6 months uncertainty and many academics and all professional staff still have no idea what their future will be.
To justify this massive reduction in staff, UWA claims to have an “underlying deficit” and report that they need to eliminate jobs and expertise in order to build funds to pursue strategic initiatives. So, the university wants to save money and improve its bottom line. Even if we accept that premise (and many don’t accept that universities should act as businesses) surely a whole of institution approach to identify the strategic priorities that the University wants to keep and build upon, and what it now must abandon in order to save money, would be the way to approach it.
Instead what we have is a process whereby each Faculty develops a “methodology” to evaluate the worth of their individual academic staff.
La Trobe University has suspended academic Roz Ward, the co-founder of anti-bullying program Safe Schools Coalition, ostensibly because she described the Australian flag as racist in a Facebook post. In the recent past, Ward had been attacked by right-wing columnists and the Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham for her ‘extreme views.’ Ward’s university colleague, Julie Rudner, discusses the ways that free speech can be curtailed in the corporate university.
My initial response to the news about Roz Ward was visceral. I was and am filled with fear and pervasive disquiet. Although I try to dismiss it with my usual cynicism about the neo-liberal business model of public education, I can’t.
I can’t drop the feeling because what happened to Roz Ward could just as easily have happened to me or any of my colleagues in Australia or overseas. Some of us are more eloquent than others but we all have opinions. For me, I am at my best when being facetious – but that requires a context to understand the critique. Sometimes I tangle my words due to tiredness or distraction, but only later do I realise ‘it came out wrong’ and could be misinterpreted. I have no control if others take my words out of context or give me the benefit of the doubt – whether it is online, on the tram or in the class-room.