Why Universities Matter: A Conversation about Values, Means and Directions
Tony Coady, ed. St Leonards, New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2000; 254 pp; paper $24.95 AUD.
Technocratic neoliberalism is becoming a danger around the world. Corporate efficiency (or what is called that) and competent management (or what tries to pass itself off as that) modeled on private enterprise (or what is misleadingly described as such) are hailed as the solution to underdevelopment, dependency, bureaucratization and even to problems in environments and institutions such as schools and universities which were designed with a purpose in mind quite different from profit-seeking business-enterprise.
It comes as no surprise that Australia as well has been subject to "reforms" inspired by the neoliberal creed of management hegemony.
This book reviews and criticizes those tendencies which have entered into Australian tertiary education. It shows how there has been a shift away from time-honoured values such as inquiry into truth for its own sake, knowledge for its own sake, or universities as centres of learning in the sense of John Henry Newman. (p. 6)
A somewhat uninformed Canadian reader such as myself will, in fact, respond to the information and analyses presented in this book by asking whether the situation in Australia is not worse than the condition of universities in Canada.
A factor found in several of the essays in this book is that Australia has a national university system (Unified National System of higher education established in 1988). Thus while there may not have been Healy or Olivieri cases occurring in Australia - at least none of equal magnitude is mentioned - the nationwide regulation of higher education by the Australian Commonwealth government encourages a sort of tendency toward uniformity, toward new "national objectives" such as more emphasis on vocational training, connecting research with "practical and commercial uses," and treating "occupational skills and research outcomes" as "commodities", even to the point of reviewing their further "potential to generate foreign income." (p. 67)
Reading all this from the Canadian perspective, one begins to wonder whether a nationally integrated system such as the Australian one does not produce even more headaches for academics and more limited opportunities of educational development for students than our decentralized one.
The essays in the book - especially the three final ones dealing with the future - document that recent labour and conservative governments alike have imposed management models on universities which produce pressures toward commercialization and tangible payoff effects entailing a shrinking of spaces in which academic freedom can be exercised, as well as threats to foundational research and classical disciplines, but also leading to a constant weakening of academic self-government.
Strangely, however, whether one is directly subject to national policy objectives, in the universities such as in Australia, or subject to diverse forms of pressure by at least two levels of government, as in Canada, tendencies, issues and conflicts appear to be the same: the erosion of academic intellectual authority, grade-inflation due to regarding students as "business clients," pressure to be self-financing, debt-loads for students, quarrels over intellectual property rights, privatization of higher education, and the like.
Therefore we have to look more deeply and ask ourselves what the outside forces are that now reshape tertiary education and why they have so much power.
When read from this perspective, the book is less informative than it might have been. This is due to it having arisen from a local quarrel involving the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne University Press (Afterword) which, for several of the contributors to the volume, highlighted the problems in existence in Australian universities, especially the long- and short-term effects produced by central administrations which appear to be gaining power at the expense of teaching and research faculty.
I welcome the information and the arguments presented in this volume. But we need to push our analyses further and explore how higher education can once again be connected with a project for developing better societies than those which exist, societies which also value truth, criticalness, in-depth, long-term inquiry, and some form of equality and social justice among their members.
Dieter Misgeld is professor of theory and policy studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.