Charivari is a publication of the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU), a group formed in 2014 when the Australian government tried to reduce public funding to universities and allow them to set their own fees. The successful campaign against deregulation galvanised university staff and students, and the scale of public opposition to the proposals demonstrated that higher education had become a mass concern perhaps for the first time. As unemployment and job insecurity rise so young people rely on post-school education as never before. ‘Qualifications’ that might once have guaranteed secure professional employment may simply now lead to years of low paid precarious work in cities where the cost of housing is spiralling out of control. In these circumstances there is a grim irony associated with making students pay more for degrees. It adds to the popular sense of intergenerational injustice. Young people ask why a group of privileged politicians, most of whom enjoyed free university education, is lumbering them with more debt.
Most Vice Chancellors supported the proposals arguing that with declining public funding, the universities cannot absorb rapidly increasing student numbers without deregulation. Australian universities have grown enormously since the government lifted caps on undergraduate enrolments and many now have annual turnovers in excess of one billion dollars. It may be the case that funding per student has decreased but this has not prevented many universities from embarking on ambitious building programmes and recruiting more and more highly paid managers at a time when the ratio of students to teaching staff has expanded alarmingly. Deregulation appears logical to many of those who have built their careers promoting a particular version of institutional growth.
So it was left to others to express the principled voice, to argue that university education is primarily a public good; that many young people have nowhere else to go when they leave school, particularly those from poorer backgrounds; that in circumstances of mass higher education, it is less clear that degrees provide the economic benefits that they did in the past. As Australia enters an election campaign in which the funding of universities is sure to figure prominently, Charivari will advocate for the principles of the public university as expressed in the NAPU Charter. We offer an alternative to the conventional higher education press, the ‘industry publications’ that tread very softly around managerialism. We will advocate for university democracy and academic freedom. We will represent rank and file academics, general staff, and students, who rage silently against the excesses of the neo-liberal university while trying to conserve the space in which to do good work.
For too long university managers have relied on this silence to allow them to manage neo-liberally. In the Orwellian university, where up is down and black is white, the role of scholars is not to engage in institutional dissent, but to beaver away in their fields of scholarship uncomplainingly, and to produce the goods – publications, citations, external research income, glowing student survey results, evidence of ‘impact’. This gives managers the chance to do what they do best:
- Manufacturing meaningless ‘benchmarks’;
- Pontificating about transparency and accountability while burying all of the bad news;
- Undertaking ham-fisted institutional restructuring programmes that boost managerial career prospects but provide few institutional benefits
- Generating red-tape under the banner of risk management;
- Burying clear thought in the quicksand of bureaucratic language;
- Marketing ‘quality education’ while at the same time creating the conditions that degrade the quality of teaching, research and learning;
- Enslaving scholarship to private sector R&D imperatives rather than encouraging independent scholarly enquiry;
- Undermining job security and consigning more and more scholars to the treadmill of casual work.
Charivari’s role then is to challenge this uneasy détente and to highlight the waste and dysfunction of the managerial university and the corrosive consequences of the competitive system: the institutional jingoism, the scrambling for students, the obscene senior management salaries, the corporate governance structures, and the dissolution of the last vestiges of collegial control. We are an Australian publication but we hope that Charivari will resonate with university staff and students in many parts of the world. So while we begin with a focus on Australia, we hope to expand our scope and contributions from elsewhere.
So please join our contrarian project! Help us play rough music to the neo-liberal university. Submit contributions/ comments to charivari – firstname.lastname@example.org -and spread the word by sharing our posts through social media.