August 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Comment: A New Dusk

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In 1967, when La Trobe University was brand new and underpopulated, John O’Brien, an Irish historian with a wild and feverish laugh, told us about the enemy within. It was not for anything the administration had done, or any of the horrid things that Maoist students would bellow when occupying their offices two years later (‘puppets of the ruling class’, ‘parasites’, ‘class traitors’, etc.); it was for what he insisted was an administrator’s natural tendency to unseat the academic staff and corrupt the principles of the university. Those Maoists, when they hatched, were mere heretics, and they’d grow out of it, but in the bureaucracy lay the seeds of treason.

It seemed odd; we students took our administrators for amiable co-venturers on the infant campus. But Dr O’Brien’s judgement was severe: the university was a place of teaching and research, of rigorous intellectual endeavour and inquiry. This was its glory, and it followed that those who did the teaching and research, who had the knowledge and valued it, should decide the course it took. Administrators, an inherently philistine self-perpetuating caste fixated with power, should never be allowed to forget they were retained at the pleasure of the academy to perform such useful tasks as the life of the mind compelled. Let them think for a moment that the place was theirs to run and you could kiss goodnight to academic freedom and educational standards. It was their nature to usurp.

I’ve often wondered if a streak of inner high Tory or the liberal humanist was speaking, but that hardly matters. Dr O’Brien had seen the future.

Of course it is one thing ‘to cultivate learning in the broadest and deepest sense’ in a tutorial or a laboratory, another thing to do it while satisfying the needs and prejudices of one’s paymasters, be they church, state, business or fee-paying students. And it is another thing again to try to cultivate it while the province of a relatively privileged few becomes an essential highway for the masses. To be sure, John O’Brien had an idealised (the Maoists would say ‘ivory tower’) view of the university. But what is a university without ideals? Too easy: one with a mission statement. 

The strange thing was that the academics didn’t see it coming. Then again, the monks in that quaint little abbey on Lindisfarne didn’t see the Vikings coming either – or did, and thought they wanted to be baptised. Maybe life had been too good. In the academy run by academics, useful and rewarding, sometimes brilliant and monumental, intellectual effort coexisted with a certain amount of equally well-paid Olympian lassitude. A year’s sabbatical in every seven; a 30-week year; tenure with no obligation to publish; for some little more than three or four hours of teaching a week; all conducted on campuses that were effectively closed for a third of the year. The model struggled to comply with basic measures of social utility, much less those laid down by the advancing neoliberal hordes and their most brutal weapon: managerialism.

If, before John Dawkins was given the job of ‘reforming’ them, academies had begun to reform themselves a little, they might have stood a chance. Run all year round with three semesters, for instance; less tenure, more contracts; more reward for useful exertion, less for sloth; more signs of enterprise and palpable interest in the way the world outside was going, which was decisively away from the long lunch and towards competitive effort: had they done a bit more to look busy, it might have been possible to save something from the rout.

It is 25 years since Dawkins became the Labor Minister for Employment, Education and Training and set about remodelling the country’s institutions of tertiary education into instruments of the dynamic newfangled economic order. The new economy created a new frontier and, as on the old one, the heroic doctrines were pragmatic, utilitarian, impatient, tending to anti-intellectual. By these lights, the university run by academics and according to academic values was about as far from ideal as one could get. Much closer to the model was the modern corporation and the management principles it employed. Universities became massive revenue-chasing enterprises, academics became administrators, students became customers, managers became royalty – and management’s share of revenue multiplied and multiplied.

From this government’s instrumentalist mantras it is safe to infer that, no less than their predecessors, they believe the revolution was necessary, sage and wonderful and all evidence to the contrary is, perforce, the pitiful griping of elitists and losers. If the whole thing is a bit of a shemozzle, or even a thorough catastrophe, it is also a cornerstone of free market orthodoxy and an indispensable rhetorical thread; sceptics, therefore, must be sedated with dogma on the themes of opportunity and fairness, and our leader’s personal story thrown in as a kind of divine revelation or benchmarked proof of the pudding.

Yet, the protests from inside what the historian Jim Davidson calls the “academic archipelago” speak of the follies conscientious scholars and teachers are required to undergo: useless performance-measurement rituals; senseless strategic plans; bullying in the name of ‘buy-in’; the culture of ‘constant change’ regardless of the consequences for the quality of education; the massive diversion of funds to managers and consultancies; the Orwellian language in which they are instructed – though, for all his formidable powers, Orwell could not have invented the
language of HR.

Donald Meyers, a former science academic, has recently published an ebook, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline, in which he argues ferociously against the view – axiomatic since Dawkins – that the old-style university administrations were inefficient. On the contrary, he says, they delivered a much better education for much less money.

Then academics were teachers and researchers with minimal administrative responsibilities; now they must combine their professional duties with mind-numbing administrative tasks straight from late-model management’s most depressing handbooks. Much that was formerly done by a capable department secretary is now for all to do – if they can remember their “FHUSS-specific parameters for the Workload Management System”.

While you’re wrestling with that, and trying to work out the difference between an ‘output’ and an ‘outcome’ on your research funding application, there might land on your desk a ‘Behaviour Capability Framework’ for which the university has paid a consultant umpteen thousands of dollars, informing you that from now on you are required to demonstrate ‘passion, energy and tenacity’ in your work or be judged wanting in one or more of ‘six behavioural clusters’: namely, ‘Resilience, Connectedness, Commitment to Excellence, Innovation, Outcomes Focussed and Open Thinking’. Was any subject in the old ivory tower more arcane and of less use to humanity?

Each university has its own problems and, one assumes, advantages, but according to Meyers, “pointless performance management is the default religion” at all universities – “a policy, a plan and KPIs for everything and everyone”. Why should academics escape what every bank employee must endure?

Whether management is the cause or the symptom is less the point than what Meyers believes is the sickness itself: the dumbing down of university education.


The public need to know that the nation’s ability to supply competent people, from tradies to neurosurgeons, is being compromised by the blind and persistent application of free market ideology and soft-options education theory. How much longer are we going to live with university management rhetoric that spruiks ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’, ‘world’s best practice’ and any other number of inanities to the would-be customer, when we know that the two-dollar-shop university degree is the order of the day?

Meyers is not alone in this view. Members of science faculties speak (discreetly and on condition of anonymity) of trying to teach young people who are simply not able to be taught, and of issuing degrees to people who could never be made capable of decently earning them. There are people in the Humanities and Social Sciences who would say the same. There are plenty who contend that the ‘reforms’ to tertiary education have corrupted it, defeated its most basic aims, including those of excellence, intellectual rigour and originality. To paraphrase Raimond Gaita, universities have made “mendicants” of philosophers and physicists and devalued their disciplines, while privileging the study of hospitality and gaming. Brendon Coventry, an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Adelaide, declares the system has been placed under “inexorable downward pressure” and is unsustainable.

The argument goes naturally to the primary and secondary systems that feed the universities. Meyers believes those systems are failing as calamitously as the universities are, and sheets much of the blame to the “Educationalists” who have devised modern “outcomes-based” pedagogy (he quotes some astonishing examples) and manage to persist in their follies by rationalising failure into (benchmarked) success.

Those Educationalists will be among the many who disagree with Meyers. Others will include people who, diligent in their calling, can claim genuine success; and people of less accomplishment but equally deep investment in the present system, from politicians to bureaucrats to students. He can expect to be savaged for failing to produce evidence at every turn and neglecting to footnote. Coming from the authors and defenders of strategic plans and other malarky, he need not take this badly. He has written a pamphlet, a whack at something atrocious and unforgivable. No intellectual tradition is longer or more honourable.

Let’s imagine he is only half right, and the system is only half dysfunctional. That is still a mighty failure and, as Meyers says, “a great wrong”. No doubt more important deliberations concern them, but if members of any of the 23 current inquiries, consultations and reviews being carried out in the sector were to ask why we have failed to provide high-quality education for all, they could do worse than read Meyers.

Forget it. They’re hardly going to admit to failure if it wrecks a thriving industry in calling it success.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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