Inside Story

“The preservation of pure learning”

The pandemic has exposed longstanding problems in Australian universities. But it’s possible to map a way out

Frank Bongiorno 4 June 2021 3196 words

Along with the arts, the universities have been the also-rans of the pandemic. Katharina13/iStockphoto

Liberal Party types are fond of referring to the title of Robert Menzies’s famous “The Forgotten People” broadcast, but they quote less often from the script itself, unless it’s to distinguish lifters from leaners. Among the passages they seldom mention is the one in which Menzies says that universities should not be “mere technical schools” but should also aim for “the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.”

Compare that with former education minister Dan Tehan, speaking in June last year: “To power our post-Covid economic recovery, Australia will need more educators, more health professionals and more engineers, and that is why we are sending a price signal to encourage people to study in areas of expected employment growth… Universities need a greater focus on domestic students and greater alignment with industry needs… If you are going to do ancient Greek, do IT with it.”

Or the present education minister, Alan Tudge, on university research: “Too often, our research does not make it through to translation and commercialisation — it falls into the ‘valley of death’ between academia and industry, between theory and real-world application… How can we strategically direct our investment to de-risk universities and businesses reaching across the valley of death, and drive a higher return on public funding?”

Menzies matched his sentiments with actions. Before he looked at the report of the 1957 inquiry into Australian universities, he asked its chair, Sir Keith Murray, to record the essential points on a piece of paper. When Murray wrote down four or five rather expensive recommendations, Menzies didn’t bat an eyelid, telling him that “he thought he could promise to meet in full the essential proposals.” Murray wondered whether “any chairman of any government committee in any country ever had such an immediate and such a generous response.”

It is perhaps unfair to counterpose the giant of twentieth-century Australian politics and a couple of less outstanding members of the modern political class. But both, like Menzies himself, have built careers on the back of university degrees from prestigious institutions. Both went on from exclusive private schools to complete a string of degrees from Australian and overseas universities. Both did a Bachelor of Arts; Tehan even wrote his master’s thesis on the Frankfurt School Marxist Jürgen Habermas.

In fact, it would be hard to conceive of two politicians who have taken greater advantage of the educational opportunities provided by that globally unique mixture of private privilege and public provision that underpins what we call meritocracy in this country. And yet it’s probably unfair to single out this pair for any special blame when it comes to Coalition higher education policy. It was a mess before Covid. It will be a bigger mess after it.

That bigger mess is the result of the Coalition’s opportunistic change of heart about the future of “the enterprise university.” Researchers Simon Marginson and Mark Considine used this term about twenty years ago to describe the university that had emerged from “the Dawkins revolution,” that series of reforms undertaken by Labor minister John Dawkins in the second half of the 1980s.

Of course, what happened in Australia was part of a global trend. As Raewyn Connell argues in her excellent critique, The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why It’s Time for Radical Change (2019), “The face of the modern university, as it smiles out from the television news, is a neat middle-aged man or woman in a well-cut business suit, speaking with confidence about markets, league tables and excellence.”

Marginson and Considine drew attention to the replacement of collegial structures with strong executive control, corporate governance, an increasing reliance on marketing, and the adoption of performance targets. Traditional departments based on recognised disciplines now competed with centres and institutes funded by “soft” money from government or business. Chronic underfunding of most activities, despite the reintroduction of university fees for domestic students, drove a “pseudo-market” in which universities filled the gap with international fee income and the aggressive pursuit of research funding.

The quest for international students, in particular, unleashed something of an entrepreneurial, some might say buccaneering, spirit among university managers. Judgements about quality increasingly came down to what the customer — otherwise known as a student — thought good, bad or in between. Despite diverse histories, universities came to look even more like one another. The model of the enterprise university presented them with an increasingly narrow set of possibilities.

In the years since Marginson and Considine, universities have increasingly focused on international league tables, despite their obvious flaws. University administrators have reinvigorated the worst kind of cultural cringe as they seek to imitate the elite universities of Europe and North America. Interestingly, Tudge has identified a preoccupation with these league tables as among universities’ many sins. This is of a piece with the larger hypocrisy of the Coalition, whose policies have given universities every encouragement to pursue this dubious measure of excellence.

It’s true that the Coalition didn’t create the enterprise university. Rather, its contribution has been to reduce public funding and increase student fees, forcing the universities to become more reliant on non-government sources of funding. It has sometimes tried to make the pseudo-market more like a real one, in this case driven by students — both domestic and international — transformed into walking ATMs (to borrow an image Connell picked up from a student at the University of Sydney).

The most recent example is Tehan’s Job-ready Graduates Package, which manipulates fees to redirect students away from the humanities disciplines supposedly incapable of leading to gainful employment and into the areas favoured by the government. It sets prices in this pseudo-market that bear no relation to demand for the “goods,” but if its real goal is to push an even greater share of the cost of education onto graduates, it is highly successful. It also cuts funding to the science disciplines. As I said, a mess.

Unsurprisingly, universities turned to international students to fill coffers that could not be filled by domestic student fees or by research grants that invariably fail to meet the full cost of the research. Meanwhile, governments helpfully established an immigration system based on a bewildering array of temporary visas that provided international students with the inside running towards permanent residency. In these ways, universities and governments have been partners in creating the discredited business model that has made Australia’s universities so vulnerable to the pandemic, and which the Coalition suddenly finds so on the nose.

Before the pandemic intervened, though, the flow of income from international student fees was paradoxically bestowing ever-greater independence on universities and ever-greater power (and, usually, higher salaries) on their vice-chancellors. Further down the ranks, if you were a dean who happened to be running a faculty raking in the dollars from this source — and needless to say, business degrees were more popular than those in the arts and humanities — you were one of the university’s princelings. The rest of us waited hopefully, like Lazarus at Dives’s table (and not in vain at my university, I’m pleased to report).

Now that Australia’s borders are mainly closed to international students, the Coalition has discovered a new mission for universities. Their main purpose is “to educate Australians.” According to Tudge, they are also supposed to “produce knowledge that contributes to our country and humanity.”

The reality, however, is that as long as Australian universities are teaching an overwhelmingly domestic student cohort and research funding remains at its present level, there is no business model operating or in prospect that will allow them to maintain the quality of their research and achieve the commercialisation being urged on them. Along with the arts, the universities have been the also-rans of the pandemic. Thousands of staff members have lost their jobs. A sector already too reliant on casual labour is becoming more so. In its recent budget, the government cut funding to universities further, virtually assuring further job losses and course cuts. An already demoralised sector almost seemed too exhausted to care. It certainly wasn’t surprised.

Commentators have puzzled over why the government felt compelled to help almost every corner of the economy except the universities. The belief that the Coalition hates the universities simply because it sees them as dominated by its “lefty” critics probably contains some truth. Similarly, universities contain few men in high-vis clothing, a demographic that Scott Morrison, in particular, sees as the key to keeping his job.

Still, all of this seems a bit simplistic. Instead, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the very independence and affluence that the lucrative international student market conferred on the universities created resentment among conservative politicians. The universities became too big for their own boots. The best-paid Australian vice-chancellors — with salaries around $1.5 million — earn several times the salary of a federal government minister. Even the average salary is several hundred thousand more than that of the prime minister. Reward for talent and responsibility is all very well, but this is probably not the best way to win friends and influence people in government. Universities who cry poor are likely to elicit a degree of cynicism.

Also influencing the political right is a lingering perception that universities are institutions of a vaguely socialist kind whose workers enjoy a level of feather-bedding unavailable elsewhere in the economy, courtesy of strong unions and vice-chancellors prone to softness in dealing with them. On this view, academics, and perhaps especially vice-chancellors, talk the language of public interest but are at heart rent-seekers looking for more resources, power and prestige.

To this cocktail has been added something else — long a presence in Coalition politics and on the political right but magnified in the era of Brexit and Trump: a know-nothing populism that sees the pursuit of culture wars as both the means and the end of political life. Its strains are much weaker in Australia than in the United States, but they exist, and they fuel a suspicion of science — especially climate science — and an outright hostility to university humanities and the arts sector.

This kind of warfare is believed to be good for votes, and especially for votes in marginal seats in regional areas and outer suburbs. The stereotypical tradie supposedly regards academics as wankers and universities as cesspits. He — and we are talking about blokes — doesn’t associate universities with (useful) medical science but with (false) climate science and (useless) humanities. In reality, of course, public trust in universities remains high, though there is no evidence that this attitude translates into a popular desire to hand over more of the taxpayer coin to keep them going.

Meanwhile, parents who agonise over the quality of school education seem strangely uninterested in universities. Once their kids are in — and able to enjoy the advantages that we know tertiary education can bestow in terms of career and life — keeping an eye on quality seems to be rare. Parents who would revolt if the science lab in their kids’ local high school wasn’t up to scratch don’t seem to care much if, say, there are gaping holes in the university library roof, even if they found out about them. Universities Australia, which claims to speak on behalf of the sector, has been able to do little to mitigate this indifference, and nor has the National Tertiary Education Union.

If there are too few votes in universities, governments will also find it hard to get interested. Australia’s federal system might be a hindrance here. I suspect your average state government, which doesn’t provide the funding, cares more than any federal government about the prestige of its local universities, and certainly more than any conservative federal government. There is little sense of national ownership, and only an attenuated belief that “great” universities help make the country “great.”

In the universities themselves, the pressures on staff and students have been significant. Despite its financial challenges, life at my own university, the ANU, is probably much better than in many of its counterparts. But teaching loads are certainly on the way up, and morale is fragile. The pandemic has drawn attention across the economy to the exploitative nature of much casual work in the Australian economy, and has magnified its social costs. This is also true of universities, some of which have found themselves accused of wage theft by casual employees.

The online technologies deployed to keep teaching going during lockdowns are not going away, although there is quite rightly impatience among many students about the lack of personal connection with teachers and other students. Much of the teaching in my own department is now done in person. Initially, students seemed greatly enthused to be out of their bedrooms and back in classrooms. In time, though, attendances — especially at lectures — tailed off to the levels familiar before the pandemic.

Some predict Covid has finally killed the lecture, and wish it good riddance. But some of us are less certain that this is a good thing, or if the lecture is truly on the way out. The art of listening is worth cultivating, as that champion listener Hugh Mackay argues so persuasively in his new book, The Kindness Revolution.

Where do Australia’s universities go from here? As the former Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis has pointed out, path dependence ensures that change is not easy. Universities have long had an orientation towards professional training, and the expectations of parents and students will ensure that continues.

But what does professional training mean in the 2020s? The pandemic has dramatically illustrated that professionals can only operate successfully in their own field if they are able to use knowledge generated in others. Medical experts have had quick-and-dirty lessons in the complexities of mass communication. Economists have learned that their ideas about how governments should respond to the crisis won’t work if they are based on a faulty understanding of the epidemiology. Public servants have had to grapple with the complexities of mass psychology. Some journalists — perhaps the ultimate generalists — have made complete fools of themselves with their suddenly acquired DIY medical expertise.

What we might need in the post-Covid university is a new degree program — the BIH, or Bachelor of Intellectual Humility. But the virtues it would teach should form the foundation of all university education.

We could also take up Davis’s notion that we should encourage greater variety in our institutions. This is, of course, easier said than done. The Dawkins reforms were supposed to do as much by requiring each institution to enter into an agreement with the federal government that effectively set out what it would do in exchange for its funding. In reality, powerful impulses towards standardisation and rationalisation produced a national system in which institutions amalgamated and grew. The new behemoths then plunged money into persuading prospective students, here and abroad, that they were better than the rather similar place just up the road.

The mega-universities that emerged from these processes are problematic institutions. They often have terrific cafes, but they are large, bureaucratic and unwieldy. They make a virtue of scale, as if there were not first-class universities around the world that are a quarter of their size and one-tenth as managerial. They are too big to have a distinctive identity or sense of community beyond whatever nonsense the marketing department happens to be pushing this month. They have become alienating to many staff and students. Several are parade grounds for some of the worst excesses of managerialism.

As institutions, they waste resources by competing with one another instead of doing what many academics do every day, and what would be both practically and ethically more sensible: cooperating in the pursuit of knowledge, understanding and education. Why, for instance, have two competing law schools in one small city when you could cooperate to enhance the education of students across institutions? A government that wanted to create a better university sector — and one more responsive to the needs of the nation — would break up the mega-universities and give them incentives to achieve excellence on the back of their smaller scale, including by working with their local communities.

Academically, these big universities are each trying to do pretty much the same kind of thing: what’s a university these days without its own business, law and medical faculties? This is not a pathway to either teaching or research excellence. It’s more likely to create a dull common standard — good enough for your politician seeking to make it through to the next election, but not for a democracy seeking to make its way in a complex world.

Most interestingly, the prevailing model departs from the norms that have otherwise been heavily influential in this country, those of the United States, where variety is taken for granted. Where Alan Tudge seems to imagine that every institution across the land can take up commercialised research, the elite universities of Europe and North America recognise a range of different ways to create sustainable excellence — including, God forbid, by being elite teaching-intensive institutions.

Of course, getting from here to there is very difficult. In theory, the revenue generated by international student fees could have given universities room to manoeuvre, but those funds often went into a seemingly chaotic and unplanned expansion. And now they are gone.

One way out of these problems may well be to provide funding incentives for institutional distinctiveness. This should mean something better than doling out extra money to regional universities to keep the bush happy or secure marginal seats. It would require governments to recognise that excessive central control of universities will create a system more likely to stifle creativity and excellence than to promote it. In fact, these changes would almost certainly need a more independent funding authority, along the lines of what once existed, and which Davis has more recently advocated.

Thinking thoughts like these on a recent Saturday, I found myself on the ANU campus. Specifically, I was in the precinct known as Kambri, a sparkling redevelopment of the old student union area now full of retail outlets, cultural facilities, student residences and learning spaces (formerly known as classrooms) that opened in 2019. In many ways, it epitomises the modern university as a location for consumption.

Students were milling about: chatting, eating their lunch, drinking coffee, even whispering sweet nothings to one another on quiet benches. Music came from some speakers in the middle of the courtyard. Some of the businesses had remained closed after the pandemic, but most were trading. Here was the university as a living, breathing organism.

But the ultimate test of that, of course, is toilet graffiti. I recall one of my fellow politics students writing a thesis on the subject back in the 1980s. And there it was, in the Kambri men’s loo:

I love examining my white male privilege.

Gives me a warm feeling deep down inside.

I see hope for Australian universities yet. •