Inside Story

The knowledge factories

Books | Two opposing views of the university run through Hannah Forsyth’s historically based account, writes Simon Marginson

Simon Marginson 27 October 2015 2277 words

Australian universities are no longer the small, narrow, male and white. Nur Alia Mazalan/Flickr

A History of the Modern Australian University
By Hannah Forsyth | NewSouth | $34.99

A History of the Modern Australian University is not so much an orthodox narrative history as a commentary on today’s universities that draws on historical evidence to explain why universities are as they are. For Hannah Forsyth, what they are is a mixture of large parts of the good and the bad: exciting and frustrating, socially open and socially closed, authentic and deceptive, useful to the world but also self-serving and indulgent. As she sees it, these dual outcomes are rooted in the nature of the university.

Early in her book Forsyth rightly remarks that “the university” is an ambiguous term. It can be understood as “a collective description of its members,” which for Forsyth mostly means the academic staff and students, and it can be understood as “a singular legal and institutional entity,” a corporation and a brand, with its rankings and bottom lines and its interests distinct from those of its members. The corporate university is partly a product of the government’s performative systems and financial power, and partly an impulse from within.

Like most humanist scholars of higher education, Forsyth attaches opposing normative signs to these two different universities. The corporate university is not a pretty sight:

[M]ore rules, more paperwork to complete, more administration to stumble over, and a DVC [deputy vice-chancellor] epidemic that extends into every area of university life, poisoning and corrupting the authentic, passionate pursuit of knowledge and learning. The university system is left with wasteful research funding schemes, overpaid senior executives and “star” researchers; with DVCs employed to improve “quality” by doing nothing but play the system; with quality assurance systems that take academics away from teaching and research to compel them to sit in endless meetings and fill in form after form while their casual colleagues scrape by under enormous financial stress; all this creates a world that teaches everyone from top to bottom to play the system rather than focus on the actual quality of teaching and research.

On the other hand, it is “not all bad news” in the other kind of university:

In many respects, higher education has never been better. Universities are no longer the small, narrow, elitist, male and unerringly white British spaces they once were. There are more scholars than ever and the work they are doing is good. Indeed, with so many clustered so closely together, they seem to be pushing one another to new heights of discovery and innovation, and into new interpretive frameworks. Having relinquished long scholarly morning teas to focus on publication, collegial discussion happens nevertheless, over dinners, at conferences, through social networking and in the coffee shops that litter every campus. Administrators are no longer secretarial “girls,” but respected professionals able to voice their own perspectives in structures that now support them. Furthermore, if rebellion is a measure of success, universities still harbour rebels, both on academic salaries and in student bodies.

This dual perspective shapes Forsyth’s account of how universities came to be as they are. On the one hand, she tells a story of how the university moved from a marginal role in forming an elite within a British tradition to a becoming more democratised, massified and authentically local. On the other, she recounts how collegial academic cultures – rather closed to the world but open to the wellsprings of imagining and discovering – gave way to an “audit culture” that separates the work from the scholar and “reduces the messy and unique complexity of scholarly discovery to boxes that ought to be ticked.” Her critique of research funding and management is sharp and convincing. Yet the institutionalisation of knowledge has its origins in the same political and social transformations that opened the university to much wider social use.

Forsyth senses this tension. Perhaps her book’s strongest historical section is its account of the growth and management reforms instigated by federal education minister John Dawkins in 1987–92. Dawkins’s agenda embodied both sides of Forsyth’s Manichean university: the massification and diversification of higher education, enlarging its role in the economy and for the public good; and the shift to budget managers and executive culture, intensified competition, and more managed university minds. But does this mean that the Dawkins reform package was internally contradictory or incoherent? If so, it was an effective kind of incoherence, because unlike most government policies it achieved nearly all of its objectives and the system and rules it established remain normative.

So what stops Forsyth’s divided university from flying apart along the fault line between epidemic DVCs and feisty academics? When an empirically based argument is structured as a dualism, sooner or later the question arises of how to reconcile the two halves, which after all are meant to be part of a common organism. We have the thesis and the antithesis, so what’s the synthesis? The common thread running through A History of the Modern Australian University is an argument about universities as producers and controllers of knowledge. But this is not a strong enough line of reasoning to carry a whole theory of the modern university. Forsyth reaches the end of the book without solving her puzzle of the two kinds of university.

Nevertheless, it is to the author’s credit that she does not essay a superficial solution, as others have, either by despairing that generic management has broken the back of intellectual life, or hoping that sooner or later creativity from below will burst its Promethean bounds in a reprise of the 1960s. This refusal to come to an easy answer allows her to keep the possibilities open. It even allows her moments of optimism in which she celebrates universities, flawed and all as they are, like the sun peeking through the clouds. It also means that this is a work in progress rather than a definitive account of the university that establishes the ground for taking us all forward.

As Forsyth explains, the universities’ role in knowledge creation, transmission and dissemination is what drives the growth of higher education and research. “The story of universities,” she writes, “is the story of knowledge in Australia and who controlled it – and for whose benefit.” The argument has a number of strands.

There is an abstract strand, in which knowledge is joined to power (with a brief nod towards Foucault) and “operates a bit like money.” Knowledge is a quasi-private good, although it doesn’t have to be, and universities control the flow of knowledge like banks control the flow of money. Then there is a strategic strand: after the bombing of Hiroshima the potency of science and technology was obvious; and in the postwar consumer economy, innovation was key and it too rested on research. There is also a political science strand: Forsyth describes the 1960s–70s student revolt as a contest over the contents and applications of university knowledge (though at the time it was more about democracy and university governance).

And there is a strand about labour markets. Forsyth argues that higher education positioned itself as the essential gateway to an ever-growing number of occupations, channelling the aspirations of families onto the campuses. It came to control the knowledge people needed for work. “This, more than anything, was the cause of university growth in the middle of the twentieth century and the reason they have kept growing ever since.”

In sum, research and credentialism, both of which rested on university control of knowledge, enabled the “clever people” inside the universities to “bolster their institutions” by pushing them to the centre of Australian life. Forsyth calls this the universities’ “grab for power,” a phrase she likes enough to repeat ten pages later.

This is too conspiratorial and inwardly focused. Data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics show that between 1970 and 2013 the worldwide gross tertiary enrolment ratio rose from 10 to 32 per cent, and it is now rising by 1 per cent per year. What has happened in Australia is replicated everywhere. In fifty-two higher education systems, more than half of the age group enrols in universities or colleges. This includes countries where per capita incomes are a quarter those of Australia. In North America and Western Europe, about four-fifths of all of today’s young people will enrol in a program of two years or more.

University executives, however clever (or power hungry), are not strong enough social agents to secure change on this scale. The power of universities to frame, control and promote occupational credentials is part of the rise of the institution since the second world war, but it is a subordinate part, more a condition than a cause. Too often universities are explained in terms of forces internal to them or at the crossover between universities and government. There is a larger modernity at work.

The most common external explanation is that the growth of universities has been driven by demand for skilled labour. But this is no more the principal driver of growth than is credentialism. Across the world, participation in tertiary education increases regardless of the economic growth rate or the industry configuration of the economy. What drives the expansion of universities everywhere, above all, is social, not economic (or educational or conspiratorial). It is the aspirations of families for their children.

After the second world war, mass aspirations for higher education began in the middle class and grew with it, and have now spread down the income scale to nearly all families because of the lifelong costs of not enrolling at tertiary level. Sooner or later all governments, whatever their political stripe, respond to those aspirations. It is easier to give families an average education than to create jobs, and government can withdraw part of its financial support without lowering the participation rate. Higher education is now essential not only to ongoing full-time work but also to social esteem.

Social status, not knowledge, is the key to explaining the university as an institution. It is also one element in disciplinary cultures. Status production underpins the rise of the university in modern life and provides the explanation for the internal coherence of the institution: it is the missing piece of the puzzle that eludes Forsyth. The diverse prestige economy on campus, together with a common interest in the social standing of the institution, join corporate executives at the hip to the scholar-researchers who complain about them, and in turn join both executives and critics to the students who use the university. Those with greater reason to complain are those in society who are shut out of this world of social distinctions, cultural capital and credentialling.

Forsyth’s thesis about the university and knowledge is not well grounded, and we need a more inclusive explanation of the social role and limits of the institution. Nevertheless, a strength of this book is that she has opened up and popularised important issues rather than closing them. It is both readable and worth reading, ironic and fresh, with more than the normal share of insights and ideas. Forsyth cuts through the policy and marketing myths that clog conversation about universities.

Despite its reputation as the site of social opportunity, she shows, the university does not provide enough upward mobility. It creates and maintains privilege. The connections between school success and class “are there for all to see” and school success is the pathway to the leading universities where career value and intellectual power are concentrated. Most people hope higher education will help them get a job, but human capital theory’s idea of education/work is unreal. “Some economists believe that people want and need a calculation that demonstrates to them the financial value of their investment before embarking on university study,” Forsyth writes. “I have never met anyone who did such a calculation.” She gives a vivid account of the important but little-known legal disputes over intellectual property, in which the Federal Court and then the High Court blocked the bid by corporate universities to secure the ownership of research work and confirmed the agential relationship between creator control and academic freedom.

The term “Australian” in A History of the Modern Australian University is underdeveloped. The sensibility is a little Sydney-centric, in that odd Sydney way whereby Australia is seen as a subordinate part of New South Wales. More importantly, there is no comparison with universities elsewhere, which would help to explain the Australian institution. It is not essential to be global in temper to write a good book about universities, but a larger perspective might throw light on mysteries of Australian universities that are not explored here.

Why is it, for instance, that a country with a genius for applying knowledge and solving problems of social organisation under pressure (think the second world war, postwar reconstruction, the 1980s reforms) finds conceptual originality much more difficult to achieve? Why is it that in a settler state with so much space to act and freedom of ideas, the Australian universities have been much more mundane than their American cousins? Why is it that in smaller countries with similar national wealth (think Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands, and now Hong Kong and perhaps Singapore) the intellectual climate is often more exciting, and ideas, not the pragmatics of survival, are the currency of universities? Let’s hope Hannah Forsyth and others stay on the case. •