Monday, 28 April 2008

The price of (academic) freedom

It hasn't been a good week for Griffith University vice-chancellor Professor Ian O'Connor. He accepted a piddling $100,000 from the Saudi government and I'm betting he now wishes he hadn't. Of course, he's clearly hoping for a less piddly $1 point something Million but I bet he's starting to wonder if that would be worthwhile, too.

The Australian HES has been hot on his heels with this story, which has real implications for academic freedom - though some of the commentary seems to suggest that it is the nature of the religious politics and human rights record that is a problem (would it therefore be OK to exchange academic freedom for a potentially-interfering political system that has a good human rights record?)

In his undoubted rush to get the paper off his back, poor Professor O'Connor authorised an article that plagiarised wikipedia, of all things. Naturally, this text was supplied by "senior staff" (I think this blame thing must be what senior staff are for). Worse, the lifted text replaced one word with another, which made no sense at all and therefore managed to insult a whole new bunch of people.

While this is clearly not OK from a university VC, I can understand how it comes about and do feel some sympathy for the poor (though obviously a little silly) man. It also says something about the state of university finances, that academic freedom can be sold at such a low price - for even 1 point something Million is a bargain for academic freedom - or political credibility.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

30 words max: research questions

Which conditions and characteristics of Australian universities (1940s – 2000s) have led to knowledge commodification?

Why have features of university education in Australia led to tensions regarding the ownership of knowledge?

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Universities in 40s and 50s

This posting is from an email to my supervisor and is thus a little decontextualised and will possibly not make sense to anyone who isn't me (or perhaps someone not me who has been reading about Australian universities in and after wwii (<- that is WWII or the second world war, which in lower case looks weirdly like the wii gaming system, which is quite different to the war. Usually.)

I think two things from the 1940s-1950s stand out:

1. expansion of participation in higher education and the availability of scholarships in and after the war both (a) changes the sense of who is 'allowed' to possess university-derived knowledge, making it systemically more egalitarian-seeming, which also means that (b) there is an increased sense of mass-production of university education on the one hand, and graduates on the other. Of course both of these lead to some concerns over the purpose of universities and education and perhaps the sanctity of the elite (Anderson is a nice example) and
tensions between the instrumental functions that government needs universities to perform and the role and importance of traditional and 'pure' knowledge in a 'civilised' university system (Menzies' own tension).

2. the increasing sense of the importance of scientific knowledge to society after the second world war, the expanded role of the commonwealth government in higher education and the substantial amount of funding allocated to it after the Murray report intensifies the (probably inherent) tension between academic freedom and public accountability. Both Murray and Menzies, as academic-types themselves, have a very strong sense of the traditional importance of both institutional autonomy and freedom of individual academics to both free thinking/speech and choice of research and curricula. But this is balanced by language throughout the Murray report and Menzies' various speeches that shows that when society pays for a university system it can expect something - perhaps even something quite particular - in return. My feeling is that this creates a sense of a contract between government and universities - or, perhaps, universities and society, which starts to raise a 'who pays/who owns' type question and a heightened interrelationship between university activity and community needs (and an associated question of who is to determine those needs ... and so on). Of course a heightened nationalism during the war also contributed to universities' role as contributors to society, enhancing instrumentalism and causing Anderson to panic about both free speech and the position of the academic elite (that is, both the points are interrelated).

From those two points to a suspicion: heading into the 1960s with vexed questions of who determined which knowledge is valuable and on several levels who 'owns' it perhaps starts to resolve itself with the emergence of a knowledge economy where the value of knowledge is determined by market forces and a more economic role that universities take - which seems to have been characterised by authors in the early 60s by (what I found to be a quite annoying ) book by Clark Kerr on the 'multiversity'. But this is probably jumping ahead.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Who pays? Who owns? Universities after WWII

There was a widening awareness that advanced knowledge was shaping the world in 1949, when Robert Menzies won the Prime Ministership of Australia. The reality that scientific discovery had contributed to the outcome of the war was high in the public consciousness. “Spectacular” and “ingenious” research projects were the crucial and highly visible contributions by the universities to the war. The war had raised new questions about society and social values and created new international relationships and anxieties. It had demonstrated an important role for universities in supporting the nation. University-derived knowledge fairly suddenly became very important for the functioning of society and the economy – and, with all the optimism of the end of a war, the future. Menzies said, in one of his autobiographies:
The Second World War brought about great social changes. In the eye of the future observer, the greatest may well prove to be in the field of higher education. Robert Gordon Menzies, The Measure of the Years (London: Coronet, 1970), p. 84.

This change is massive, changing inexorably the sense of what a university is and what university education is about - and whom it is for. It makes universities paradoxically both more and less elite than before the war, very significantly giving higher education a new role in – and concomitant responsibility to – society. When Menzies and the Commonwealth government identified this new role for universities in society, this led to a new injection of very significant federal funding to Australian universities, which had previously been purely the financial responsibility of the States. In exchange for this funding, the government could, naturally, expect in return that the universities function in and (crucially) for society. Speeches and discussion from the period intimate the emergence of a somewhat commercial exchange – funding by society, effectively purchasing a university system – including the selection of a particular type of university system – which could then be expected to function for society.

Naturally, Menzies would have deplored the crassness of considering universities in such commercial language and indeed he often spoke about the importance of academic freedom, free inquiry and liberal education.

This tension is summed up by Russell, a British academic/polictician as a clash of two valid principles:
The case for free academic enquiry must be unanswerable, for without it, what is the value in having academics at all? Yet at the same time, the principle that public money ought to be accounted for is at the heart of democratic principles. Taxes are voted by consent, and that consent must rest on some understanding about how they are to be used. Russell, Conrad. Academic Freedom. (London: Routledge, 1993). p. 10

I am thinking that this period is the start of a long, almost unnoticeable - but always vexed - period of tension regarding knowledge ownership. For as well as tensions about government versus university control (for government has not always been as benign a patron - in the true paterfamilias sense - as Menzies was) we also see in this period a great expansion of university participation to include many more class backgrounds than before directed towards many more purposes than before.

This then raises all the issues around - who is university education for? (Class issue re who gets to possess it). Who benefits (in terms of industries, businesses, individuals, society)? What is the responsibility of universities to the community? (In what senses does the community own knowledge?) What will happen to the old sense of knowledge? ('Falling standards' as participation widens, shift to instrumental over elitist knowledge, increased accountability and decreased control by academics). Who pays, who owns, who decides? And what happens to academic freedom (which is the ethical side of the who owns question).

These are the issues I am trying to sort out right now. Wish me luck!

(see also Andrew Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1982) and Keith A.H. Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," (1957))