Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Privatisation and public universities: the decade that commodified knowledge

I don't think I have posted this yet: This abstract was just accepted for presentation at anzhes - my actually being there will depend somewhat on the outcome of my application for postgraduate assistance.


One of several 1980s attempts to offer fully private higher education in Australia, Tasman University was intended to have a presence in New Zealand as well. The brainchild of Michael Porter at the Centre for Policy Studies, a hub of neo-liberalism during the decade renowned for the commodification of higher education, Tasman University collapsed even before it opened. It was not alone. Tasman and other private universities – most famously Bond University in Australia – struggled, despite the faith their founders expressed in the improvements to be found in a user-pays higher education system. Few survived at all, and none became the immensely profitable Australian version of Harvard University that Don Watts, the first Vice-Chancellor at Bond University, anticipated.

The trials and failures of private universities, however, do not reflect a failure in the privatisation project. Scholars of higher education in Australia consistently affirm the 1980s as the decade when universities became commodified and deregulated – where privatisation flourished.

For Australian academics recalling the 1980s, the Dawkins reforms, commencing with the instatement of John Dawkins as Minister for Education 1987, stand out as the shock, precipitating a massive move towards a commodified system. Despite the uncontested significance of those reforms, the moves to privatisation were stirring from the earliest parts of the 1980s – and they were not all the result of government policy. Tasman University failed due to competition – explicit, marketised competition – from fee-paying private courses in a public university led by a vocal opponent of Dawkins: David Penington’s University of Melbourne.

Why did the public universities show such complicity in the commodification process, despite their vocal opposition to privatisation? This paper, a part of a postgraduate work in progress entitled “The ownership of knowledge in higher education in Australia” considers the roles public and private universities had in the causes and processes of the commodification of higher education in Australia in the 1980s.

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