Higher Education, Lower Morale

Some real anxiety is flowing through the higher education sector. The decision to cut $2.3 billion from the higher education sector to fund developments in school education brought an icy wind to a sector that had been buoyed recently by the removal of the cap on funded places (now perhaps to be reinstalled) and the provision of some substantial infrastructure money. It may be that Mr Rudd will find a way to pump up the sector again, at the expense of somewhere else. Or perhaps he reasons that academic and general staff have nowhere else to go politically anyway. In default, lots of jobs will go, because salaries are the core element in university budgets.

But underneath the fear about cuts is a deep-seated malaise. Retiring academics have told me that they would not suggest to a bright young postgraduate that he or she should aim for an academic career. Tenure, one of the great stanchions of university life, has gone. Collective decision-making by faculties and schools has gone. Academics complain of the loss of academic freedom.

Students for their part complain of classes nominally taught by Professor So-and-So but actually taught by juniors working on their PhDs because the professor has been able to buy out his teaching through an ARC grant. Wherever you look, teaching has lost caste. A review of the recent Taking Stock: the Humanities in Australia found 300 references to ‘research’ but only 18 to ‘teaching’. The imagined nexus between teaching and research is hard to demonstrate: all too often it looks as though teaching is being sacrificed in order to sustain research.

And scholars now keep their heads well down. Australia’s universities have never been great defenders of freedom of speech, even when tenure was unassailable. The NSW Parliament heard an attack on Professor John Anderson in 1931 during which an MLA said that he had no objection to Professor Anderson’s holding offensive opinions, only to his expressing them. Anderson survived, but not through a vigorous defence by his colleagues.

Much more recently Geoff Blainey, one of Australia’s most distinguished historians, was monstered by his colleagues at the University of Melbourne, and elsewhere, because he worried publicly about where Australian identity was going. Only a week ago the honorary status of Professor Bob Carter, one of Australia’s most distinguished and productive geologists was not renewed. He takes a vigorous dissenting line on whether or not global warming is a real threat to humanity.

Today the worry is about being other than politically correct. You too hold dissenting views about the potential catastrophe of global warming? Better keep them to yourself, and steer away from other contentious topics unless your views are those of the articulate opinion leaders. Stay away in particular from discordant views about indigenous affairs, multi-culturalism, misogyny and immigration.

I can say that it wasn’t as bad this in the 1960s, when vigorous debates did take place within the universities about the war in Vietnam, communism, women’s rights, and race. What has changed things? My guess is first, that the whole system has become very large. Universities are central in contemporary Australia: three per cent of our population go to university, and they are major earners of export income. They are big business, where it is money that does the talking.

Second, most people who play any kind of managerial or professional role in Australian life have been to university. Possession of a degree, and even universities themselves, have lost status and mystique. And while universities have asserted for the past fifty years that they alone know about knowledge, and that research is supremely important, these statements have come back to haunt them.

For so much now depends on research money, and the ‘rankings’ of universities are largely based on them. In 1990 I gave an address in the UK whose title was ‘How Research Came to Dominate Higher Education, and What Can be Done About It’. I suggested then that research was already too powerful and that teaching, scholarship, community service and making the university work as a human institution were also worthy activities deserving of honour. A year or two later came the first Teaching Award, at the University of Queensland, I think. Then there was a rash of them, and then a Commonwealth award — all good things. But today research, and only research, is really important.

The Commonwealth has insisted on some form of accountability with respect to research funding, and the current form is an elaborate system called Excellence in Research in Australia (ERA), run by the Australian Research Council, where all academic staff are inspected in terms of their contribution to the great knowledge factory. The findings can have a disastrous effect on the careers of some staff. Don’t perform, and you are not helping your colleagues. Too bad if your work takes years to come to fruition.

My 1990 view  that research had become too important in higher education is much stronger in 2013. Research is not the reason for the university; teaching students and the dissemination of knowledge are its core functions. Researchers can work anywhere, in private companies, in research laboratories, in hospitals, in the military, and even in universities.

It may seem almost traitorous of me to say so, given that my academic life was based on research, in various ways, but if the university world is to become a happier and more fulfilling place, then there must be a re-appraisal of the role that research now plays in it — and a recognition that it is students who are the real purpose of the university.

Until then, the malaise will continue.

(This essay was published in The Age yesterday.)


Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:

    What is the hard evidence that Gonski funding will improve education outcomes. I suspect it is another massive waste of taxpayer funding like:

    NBN ($100 billion + to complete)

    Pink bats

    Building Education Revolution

    Removal of Border protection

    Hospital Reforms

    Subsidising the car industry (actually the unions)

    Green loans

    Gree cars

    Grocery Watch

    Petrol Watch

    And many more …

  • dlb says:

    Very good essay Don, I hope some of the powers that be read it. Have you had much feedback from The Age readers?

    I would also suggest a third reason universities are reluctant to engage in debate is that they are now part of the new establishment. All those radicals of the 60s and 70s who rebelled against conservative values are now running the show and universities are one of their favoured institutions.

    In a recent post you mentioned “churnalism” to describe much of the current journalistic reporting. I think we need a word like “churnademic” to describe those academics who churn out paper after useless paper on things that would even bore fellow scholars. The current publish or perish mentality is just breeding waffle artists.

    I would wholeheartedly agree in turning universities back to teaching. When I went through university we had some very good lecturers and I feel it is a wasted resource that they would need to do research to maintain employment. We also had a few that were fairly average, these were usually the brilliant minds better off doing research.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      There’s some good points there. There were a couple of letters in The Age, and some comment on their website which I couldn’t access, not being a subscriber.

  • […] In a recent piece I argued that teaching students is the core function and purpose of universities, wherever they are. Next comes the dissemination of knowledge, because academics do much of the sorting and sifting of information that, in theory at least, leads to knowledge, and then, hopefully, wisdom. Research — finding out new things — comes third. The first two functions virtually require universities, or something like them. The third doesn’t at all, and research is done all over the place, even though academics think it is somehow special to them, and their ‘peer-review’ and journal system. […]

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