The following is the text from Julie-Ann Robson’s talk at Politics in the Pub in Sydney on July 21st 2015
The 2016 federal election has come and gone and we’re still not clear on what the Government’s policy on Higher Education will be – apart from a hint that they may try to introduce deregulated fees for ‘boutique’ courses such as Law or Medicine. I think most people involved in the sector are increasingly aware that they work in institutions that have changed profoundly over recent decades. But they also recognise, with growing horror, that universities are in the process of implementing more radical change than any of us were capable of imagining, foreshadowed by the ‘Melbourne Model,’ or what Gary Newman has described as taking ‘a wrecking ball’ to higher education.
The profound change is made noticeable by the round of ‘brand refreshes’ sweeping through the sector as we speak. Western Sydney University took it to a new level with Deng Adut – making him ‘the face’ of Western Sydney not unlike the way Johnny Depp’s daughter has become the Face of Chanel (I had to google that) or George Clooney is ‘the face’ of Nespresso. Brand identity has become all-consuming in the sector, and marketing and communications portfolios are taking increasing control of ‘the messaging’ of their institutions.
Picture this. You have a Ph.D. in anthropology and are hired, as an adjunct, to teach an anthropology course on “colonialism, economic crisis, peasant struggles, nationalism, indigenous rights, independence movements, and struggles over development and underdevelopment.” That’s an actual job posting. The salary for the position is $3,413.
A tenured faculty member may receive about $10,000 to teach the same course.
Now answer this. How can you NOT talk about your own struggles when the subjects you are hired to teach on – oppression and struggle – apply to you? You are a flesh and blood native of Nacirema (“America” spelt backwards) standing before the students. You can provide insider testimony, as a key informant, about “the other.” And you are “the other.” You are a Ph.D. anthropologist who is actually working in the field.
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.