Category Archives: Professor at Large

2. “Degreezamillion! We’ve got lots of ’em right here!”

As Hil observes, universities today are much given to prating about their particular “brand,” a term I’ve never understood in relation to an institution of learning, any more than I’ve grasped what university management means by “our product.” Education, surely, is an ongoing process, and hopefully continues beyond the temporal limits of a degree programme.  It isn’t the end-result of some of some other process, nor is it an object that one can point to and say, “That right there, that’s education.”

So what is this “product”? The piece of paper or parchment that the student receives upon graduating?  The student him- or herself?  The cumulative research and teaching, together with their various practices, that go into a degree programme? And what is the “brand” — the logo on university stationery, buildings and vehicles?  Simply the registered name of the institution?  It seems to me that trying to apply the concepts and terminology of business while jockeying for position in the marketplace closes down important aspects of the educative process, and reduces the university system to a group of touts spruiking their wares at a fairground.

The focus on the idea of an end-product, I think, has led university managers to assume that the degree achieved and received by a student has some magical and significant property.  It doesn’t: it is merely an attestation that the student receiving it has undergone a process of learning, and has been judged competent and ready to join her or his peers as holders of such certification.  In the old dispensation, that student was held to be a member of  a community of scholars.  “University,” indeed, comes from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarum, meaning, precisely, a community of teachers and scholars, while universitas itself derives from the Latin for “all turned into one.”  The idea, therefore, is that the university brings together both teachers and students (please note: administrators and management, while no doubt necessary, do not figure as part of this community) in a context conducive to scholarship, whether continuing, on the part of the teachers, or being acquired and assimilated, on the part of the students — but each group is, notionally anyway, integrated into a larger group embarked on the same project and venture.

That, however, is rarely felt to be the case in the university of today.  In the first place, the emphasis on “career” and “job-readiness” means that “education” has really been transformed into “vocationalism,” despite the high-level and often complex nature of the material being taught.  In the second place, there rarely seems to be much interaction at an intellectual level among academics from the various disciplines.  Yes, there is sometimes collaboration — on research and, sometimes, teaching projects; but there is otherwise little ongoing dialogue of an intellectual, conceptual kind.

Of course, Australian culture seems to militate against such a thing, given the generally anti-intellectual attitudes toward the academic and the conceptual.  There is little tradition in this country of a public intellectual debate in which much of the population engages — we are a far cry from the televised debate in 1971 between the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, which held the attention of a large sector of the population in France and surrounding countries.  But this simply highlights the problem in the Australian university: the latter should be fostering such debate and, what’s more, encouraging a tradition of public intellectualism.

(By “debate,” I mean genuine intellectual discussion by people well-versed in ideas and their own — and perhaps other — disciplines; and sincerely interested in and engaged by various ideas, issues, problems abroad in the culture.  I do not mean the sort of thing that goes on in debating societies in the schools and elsewhere [including, unfortunately, the State and Federal Parliaments], namely, the scoring of points off of opponents in discussing often fabricated and/or supposititious topics.  While such engagements require a certain intellectual agility, often their intellectual levels are at low ebb, and what passes for wit is frequently just embarrassing.)

Instead, however, the university today is mired in the business of education as a business.  It has been transformed from an intellectual, educational institution into a degree mill, churning out graduates whose contribution to society is largely material and materialistic:  they are simply technicians in their fields, and, most likely, budding bureaucrats and managers themselves, the system thus replicating itself like some ghastly spawn.  What of their engagement in social issues, intellectual problems, ethical and moral concerns, and so on?  How might they make a genuine contribution to society, in terms of bettering conditions and circumstances, improving the way people live and think, and so on?

This, of course, is no longer the goal of the contemporary university, it would seem.  Where universities and university campuses have historically been hotbeds of criticism of and dissent from social and cultural developments since the foundation of the first university ever, the University of Bologna, in 1088, today universities – in Australia, at least — have remained quiescent and passive as successive governments have dismantled older, traditional notions of higher learning, and, though individual academics may have voiced their opinions, it has been as voices crying out in the wilderness, as university managements have readily made themselves the willing handmaidens of such government policies.  One wonders what would have happened, under the conservative Howard regime (and the succession of Ministers of Education hostile to the tertiary sector), had the then Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee simply refused to do what the government demanded, if only on the basis that the government was funding the tertiary sector less and less, and therefore should have had correspondingly diminishing say in what the universities did.

But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride . . . And so here we are, with universities that are focused on profit, and have a Fordist approach to both research and teaching.  Leaving the former aside for the time being, the idea that one can make education more “efficient” seems to me misguided.  Certainly, there have been, and no doubt are, occasions when academics over-teach (including requiring a greater number of assignments than the individual academic may actually have time and energy to mark – but often this is due to a desire to provide a pedagogy that in the long run benefits the students); but when university apparatchiks start talking about “smart teaching,” they usually mean cramming more students into the class, reducing the number of assignments, using online teaching methods, including computer-assessable tests and examinations, and the like.

There is often also an impulse to standardise teaching design, regardless of the nature of the discipline or the topic involved. While this no doubt makes it easier to assess and scale the teaching (and research) conducted in the institution, as well as to apply the standards that are supposed to lead to “quality,” that elusive goal that administrators apparently think an object to be materially achieved, what gets lost is the realisation that standardisation leads, not to “quality,” but rather to mediocrity: everything reduced to the same level.

Some years ago I was in Istanbul for a conference; and during my stay there I explored the Grand Bazaar, visiting, with friends, a carpet seller.  As the seller showed us his wares, he explained that various designs and even colour schemes were associated not only with particular regions, but also with particular families or villages.  Persian and Turkish carpets cost what they do because they are hand-made, come from ancient traditions of dyeing, weaving and patterning, and reveal the uniqueness of each carpet and rug through the slight imperfections and differences that distinguish one item from another even when both come from the same region, village and weaving family.  One can, of course, often purchase a mass-produced carpet with similar designs and colours, in nylon or some other artificial fibre, and it will cost a good deal less than the hand-made product; but then the mass-produced carpet will be indistinguishable from the hundreds, even thousands of other carpets produced at the same time on the same factory machinery.

This, it seems to me, is a telling metaphor for the kind of education that is now being promoted in the university sector: standardised, neither particularly distinctive of an individual institution, nor particularly distinguished in terms of quality and value.  Under the old dispensation, when the “quality” of teaching (and, for that matter, research) was more individualistic and less predictable, the nature of the process, it is true, was highly variable; but at the same time it was capable of brilliance, both in those who taught and those who were taught.  Now, with the micro-management of teachers and teaching (a phenomenon that loudly bespeaks managerial mistrust of professionals to do well what it is that the latter were trained to do), the variability is decreased, making the “product” more assessable, but rendering it also pretty lifeless, exanimated — spiritless and dispiriting.

1. Academia (Inc.)

I recently read Richard Hil’s Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press-NewSouth Books, 2012), which I found both deeply satisfying and deeply distressing.  Deeply satisfying, because it became clear that the sorts of follies and tribulations to which we, at my own institution, have been subject are widespread: most, if not indeed all, academics in Australia appear to suffer from them.  Deeply distressing, for exactly the same reasons — because it became clear that the sorts of follies and tribulations to which we, at my own institution, have been subject are widespread: most, if not indeed all, academics in Australia appear to suffer from them . . .

I fear that, unfortunately, Hil is preaching to the choir: the academics who read his book will probably mostly agree with it, while the administrators and managers of universities, who are those responsible for bringing about what can only be described as a culture of crisis and despondency among academics, will ignore or dismiss the book as the tirade of yet another of those fractious stick-in-the-mud academics who resist innovation and progress.

The effect of this neat rhetorical trick of defining oneself beforehand as innovative and progressive is that any criticism or restiveness aimed at the “innovations” and “progress” introduced by managers and administrators must be, by definition, ipso facto, conservative and regressive, obstinately impeding the inevitable trajectory and triumph of “innovation” and “progress.”

What is much more rarely considered by the administrative bloc of a university is whether indeed the introduction of new policies, systems and the like are in fact innovative and progressive. In my experience, university management is usually at least 5 years, and possibly much, much more than that, behind developments in the world of business and industry; as a consequence many of these “innovations” and new policies and practices are themselves already obsolete, or in the process of becoming so.

There is also the very pertinent question of how administrators and managers came to drive pedagogy and research.  In Australia the rot set in, as Hil observes, with the Dawkins reforms of education in the late 1980s.  While of course it is both clear and true that higher education is costly, by tying education to principles of profit as viability, rather than to other, pedagogical principles, those reforms set the stage for the take-over of universities by those for whom the horizon consisted (and consists) only or chiefly of the profit margin. Hence the constant pressure to renovate and “innovate,” in order to appeal as an up-to-date, cool and with-it institution to the young people, now defined as “customers” or consumers.

Thus, the university as alma mater (nurturing mother) is transformed into the institution as alma meretrix (supporting whore), required to paint her face with “rejuvenating” cosmetics, force her body into irrelevant and not always becoming costumes, and offer her wares on the street both domestically and internationally.  In another age, the profit derived from this would have been described as “immoral earnings”; but today it is vaunted as “good business.”

Chris Lorenz observes, in an excellent article (“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry 38 (2012): 599-629):

   Although universities have undergone changes since the dawn of their existence, the speed of change started to accelerate remarkably in the 1960s.  Spectacular growth in the number of students and faculty was immediately followed by administrative reforms aimed at managing this growth and managing the demands of the students for democratic reform and societal relevance.  Since the 1980s, however, an entirely different wind has been blowing along the academic corridors.  The fiscal crisis of the welfare states and the neoliberal course of the Reagan and Thatcher governments made the battle against budget deficits and against government spending into a political priority.  Education, together with social security and health care, were targeted directly.  As the eighties went on, the neoliberal agenda became more radical — smaller state and bigger market — attacking the public sector itself through efforts to systematically reduce public expenditure by privatizing public services and introducing market incentives.  At the same time the societal relevance of the universities demanded by critical students was turned on its head to become economic relevance to business and industry in the knowledge society.

   Since then the most conspicuous features of neoliberal policy have been the attachment of price tickets to public services and the pursuit of self-financing.  These policies have been and are being implemented by a new class of managers who justify their approach with reference to free market ideology but who at the same time have introduced an unprecedented network of controls.  (599-600)

Lorenz then goes on to enunciate the four theses that underlie the argument of his article:

My first thesis is that neoliberal policies in the public sector — known as New Public Management (NPM) — are characterized by a combination of free market rhetoric and intensive managerial practices. . . .  My second thesis is that NPM policies employ a discourse that parasitizes the everyday meanings of their concepts — efficiency, accountability, transparency, and (preferably excellent) quality — and simultaneously perverts all their original meanings.  My third thesis is that the economic NPM definition of education ignores the most important aspects of the education process and therefore poses a fundamental threat to education itself.  I will develop the argument that NPM managerialism ironically shows extremely interesting similarities to the type of managerialism found in former Communist states.  My fourth thesis is that the NPM discourse can be termed a bullshit discourse, in the sense ascribed to this concept by Harry G. Frankfurt [On Bullshit, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005].  This can explain the hermetic, self-referential nature of the NPM discourse and the fact that NPM ideology has proved to be completely resistant to all criticism for over thirty years.  (600-01)

What Lorenz then goes on to demonstrate is that the corporatisation and “managerialisation” of the university sector has been achieved at enormous cost not only to academics, but also to the very notion of education itself, as well as to the notion of professionalism and discipline integrity.  Essentially, NPM has brought into existence a self-creating loop in which administration and management seem to hold up mirrors to one another and congratulate one another on their achievements, but without much reference to the actual institution which they manage, and the discourses that matter to it.  The clearest indication of this is the habit of managers to refer to themselves and their Diktats as “the university,” as though the academics were merely the hired help — which is what, more and more, they are becoming, to the detriment of the enterprise of education itself.

It is certainly true that there is an attitude in management toward academics that sees them as, in the words of a colleague, stowaways on the university ship.  Yet, were the academics to be subtracted from the picture, what would be left?  Merely a horde of managers and a bunch of students . . .  Doesn’t sound like much of a university, does it?