Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wrong answers to the right problem

Few things are as boring as listening to a room full of intellectuals whinging. Which is not to suggest there is nothing to whinge about: 50% of university teaching in Australia is being done by casual staff and those with better employment have utterly unenviable working hours and conditions. But whinging, as Meaghan Morris pointed out in today's ambitiously titled 'State of the Industry' conference, is like a reverse Midas' touch, turning every glimmer of gold into shit.

This is probably why our most prominent Higher Education researcher, Simon Marginson, prefers an optimistic approach, emphasising the privilege and pleasure of academic work and the reality that highly qualified intellectuals have more agency in Australian society than nearly anyone.

But I was pretty sure he noticed (I was in the front row) my growing look of horror as this optimism led, very unfortunately, to what I consider to be the wrong conclusions.

Marginson's talk focused on a division of the responsibilities we have to our paid work versus our academic work, wherein the paid work requires the performance measures, which we put up with to do the work we intrinsically wish to do. To me this was wrong conclusion #1: if we're so intrinsically motivated, why all the performance measures?

He said, too, that academics should stay out of management: universities were now so large that their management is a specialised job, best left to the specialists. If we stay out of these things that don't concern us, tick the performance boxes without question, we'll have time to focus on the creative stuff we want. While I agree we need specialist managers these days, wrong conclusion #2 is that academics should stay out of it: if academics stay out of university governance, the nature and purpose of the university will shift to align to the priorities of the accountants that run them. Very bad idea.

We then had a wonderful presentation by Genevieve Kelly, presenting the results of some excellent NTEU research on academic labour. It was during the discussion that followed that Professor Marginson made the final, most threatening wrong conclusion #3. The argument went like this:
a) the only way to improve the situation is to improve the bottom line
b) the barrier to improving the bottom line is treasury
c) all treasury understand is economics
d) we need to demonstrate that university knowledge helps the (knowledge) economy. He acknowledged the risks of utilitarian outcomes, but...

This is a strategy that has been frankly disastrous for universities for 25 years and is unlikely to succeed now. Eventually, universities become what they are funded to be and the reality is that we do not want universities to be for this (and partly they already are, since they've been trying this approach since the early 1980s - this is part of our problem and is definitely not the solution).

We need to demonstrate that knowledge underpins a safe, civil, ethical, healthy and prosperous democracy. We need to alert the public to the danger to Australia's intellectual integrity when 50% of the nation's future professionals, teachers, thinkers and researchers are being taught by substitute teachers.

We need to acknowledge that some academics have more agency than others: and senior professors from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Queensland universities more than most. Sessional staff, PhD students, early career academics, and aging ex-CAE teachers in small universities do not all have (much) agency all of the time - and those who have more should stand up for them.

We need to show that academics love their work, are inspired to do it and don't want less time doing it - and we don't therefore need to count every minute of their time and measure every ounce of their ideas as if knowledge has a productivity measure. When we do this, we waste their time, we inhibit knowledge, we make knowledge production seem like a fight rather than a delight and we stop universities being everything they so easily could be.

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