The demise of university education

Issue 

Peter McGregor, lecturer in Media and Social Studies at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), took his redundancy on August 11 rather than, as he put it, "continue giving credibility to an institution that has adjusted its standards to fit Howard's agenda". McGregor had been teaching at UWS for 18 years. Below is an abridged statement by McGregor calling on academics to resist the downsizing of Australia's universities.

Attempting to address the financial crisis facing all Australian universities — the result of the Howard government's massive funding cuts — UWS has gutted its undergraduate programs from 3000 units in 2004 to only 1000 units this year. The degree I had been employed to teach — the BA Communication — together with the four units I was teaching each year — have all been deleted.

My initial 13 years at UWS as it was growing and developing, were productive, fruitful and exciting. But the last five have been increasingly frustrating and demoralising as the institution has been downsized and diminished.

Over the past five years in which Vice-Chancellor Professor Janice Reid has been employed to "amalgamate" UWS, the university has declined rapidly.

Having been lecturing here since 1987, at what was then Nepean College of Advanced Education, I witnessed the long overdue birthing of a promising attempt to provide the geographically diverse communities of Western Sydney with a viable university.

Despite insufficient funding by Labor governments, UWS managed to keep growing and to establish itself as a respected university, and I was proud to work there. However, as Howard's cutting of funding to the public sector has escalated, UWS has become a second-class, vocational training factory, bereft of the critical intellectual ethos characteristic of universities.

While the buck stops with Howard's policies, Reid and the UWS management's inability to "forge" and/or "sustain" a meaningful tertiary education institution, my other reason for taking a redundancy is that most academics have lost their way.

Despite being intellectual workers, many academics seem willing to accept the reality of the world with which they are presented. A recent brave and inspiring exception, that encouraged me to also speak out, is Professor Gavin Mooney's resignation from a government health research committee on July 5.

I support Mooney's call for academics to resist: at this stage, we have nothing to lose but our false consciousness and the annual downsizing of the public sector, whereas there is so much to win — from reclaiming our workplaces as meaningful pedagogical institutions, to gaining a clearer understanding of how our society has lost its way to enabling us to work together to rebuild a fruitful university system as part of resurrecting societies' commonwealth, the public sector.

Away from the world as a competitive society organised around monetary exchanges, a mere economy, a business ruled by corporations and toward the world as a cooperative society organised around mutual solidarity of shared wealth, among globally diverse communities.

In arguments, either between a fool and a sensible person, or between bosses and subordinates when logical argument is ignored, sometimes it's best to just walk away. The campaign by some staff and students, and our unions against cutting the curriculum by 66% has been ignored. Hence, I'm no longer willing to work in and give credibility to an institution without a moral compass, without educational standards.

We are living in a post-1984 era when some of George Orwell's insights remain very pertinent, such as the "age of perpetual war". And while academics at UWS would seem to be wiser than "the proles" many, who see ourselves as the aspirational class, are suffering from false consciousness because the reality is that we much more approximate the proles.

"If there is hope", wrote Winston in Orwell's 1984, "it lies with the proles". So, based upon my experience at UWS of the increasing incoherence of the intellectual, I've given up.

"Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." Verily, class analysis is working out which side you are on, and class struggle is doing something about it.

[Those wishing to get details of Gavin Mooney's protest can email him at <g.mooney@curtin.edu.au>.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 24, 2005.
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