Education devastated by profit-first rule, academic shows

Issue 

Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University
Richard Hil
NewSouth Publishing, 2012
239 pages, $34.99 (pb)

Universities were better in the olden days, says Dr Richard Hil in Whackademia.

As an Essex University student in the 1970s, Hil joined the British Socialist Workers Party (which expanded his political horizons) and the Campaign for Real Ale (which expanded his waistline), while his lecturers stimulated his intellectual growth.

With 25 years behind him as an academic in Australian universities, however, he has seen the excitement of higher education stifled by corporatisation and its business model. This model treats education as a commodity to be sold, a degree as a “passport to a business career”.

The market assault on higher education in Australia was begun by the federal Labor government in the 1980s. It took place under the guise of “transparency” and “accountability” — and as an attack on ‘”elitism” and pampered scholars not paying their way in Australia’s capitalist economy.

Under Labor’s “reformers”, the university workplace was redefined by the values of “economic rationalism, commercialisation, managerialism, corporate governance and other outgrowths of neoliberalism”, says Hil.

Bureaucracy and corporate jargon dominate — all the crud of Key Performance Indicators, performance reviews, “quality assurance”, marketing and promotions, and micro-management of academics presided over by all-powerful corporate managers.

In a context of declining government funding, universities search for revenue streams, the most lucrative being full-fee-paying overseas students.

Entry requirements for domestic students are eased and “soft-marking” and “soft assessment”, especially for the semi-literate, compromise quality in the quest to reduce drop-out rates and keep the university’s market share of students, and their dollars, up.

The transformation of universities from places of intellectual passion into dull commercial enterprises designed to serve industry has seen the economic imperatives of the capitalist economy determine which courses survive. As universities become managed by the corporation for the corporation, the curriculum increasingly suits vocational, market-oriented ends.

As the Business Council of Australia higher education spokesperson and accountant at one of Australia’s largest accountancy firms, demanding a lock-step customer-supplier business ethos, succinctly put it: “I am your major customer. I take 750 of your product each year”.

The liberal arts, especially, are on the endangered list unless they can be tethered to the “creative industries” of visual design, media, publishing and advertising.

For Australia’s 120,000 academics, they have become cogs in a grinding knowledge machine. Research has become a distant dream as class sizes expand, bureaucratic monitoring and reporting dogs every day and an administrative burden flourishes.

Academics are “overworked, burnt out, not coping, running out of energy, stressed out, not sleeping, and plain knackered”. The 67,000 casual teachers have the bonus of poor job security.

Meanwhile, like other corporate CEOs, vice-chancellors prosper, soaring into the million dollar salary atmosphere.

Hil argues for a return to a university of community, collegiality, fun, soul, interest and delight. To a republic of ideas and debate where critical thinking and clear communication matter most. To education for active citizenship in a vibrant democracy. To a campus that is “critic and conscience” of capitalist society’s unjust status quo.

Academics, like cats, are difficult to herd but, starved of sustenance by government budgets, sedated by forms and tranquilised by bureaucracy, there has been regrettable success in disciplining them.

As Hil’s entertaining book shows, however, there is a way out beyond just complaint — activism, small and large, for education as intellectual discovery, for education for social change.