Thursday, 22 October 2009

Don't overload academics, it is a waste of money

It is extremely wasteful of universities to gather some of the brightest and most highly trained individuals in the country in one institution and not allow them time to think.

In evaluating university quality we should be looking for workload policies that demonstrate that academics have time to think.

Thinking is the raison d’être of academic work.Without it, universities can not have genuine research or quality teaching.

If I were to rank Australian universities (which is a stupid idea, they have different purposes and roles), I would start with a comparison of their workload policies.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Introducing Philip Baxter

Philip Baxter, Vice-Chancellor of UNSW 1955-1969 is a 'new' characterI will introduce to my next draft of the 1940s/1950s (sneaking into the 1960s) chapter, currently entitled "Give us the money and be done with it: Commonwealth Funding and the purchasability of knowledge in the 1940s and 1950s".

Baxter, I thought, would provide an interesting contrast to Ashby as Baxter was the new-fashioned academic 30 years ahead of time. Partnering with industry, high sense of accountability to and relationship with government, an emphasis on efficiency and productivity, Baxter seems to be the antithesis of Ashby's leisured inquirer.

As it turns out, contrast is too strong. They both, for instance, advocated a greater integration of technological disciplines into the academic world. I will attempt further comparisons a little further down the track, but for now I'd like to quote from Baxter a little.

Firstly, Baxter made precisely the point I have been struggling to argue in the first version of the chapter. Having described the increased size and complexity of universities, needed to serve economic and technological needs, Baxter acknowledged that public funding was the only way societies would be able to get the universities they needed. He went on to say:
This dependence on public funds means that to a substantial extent the activities of universities are accountable for their use of the public funds. While academics are aware of the need for this accounting, some may feel that there is, at times, a divergence between the course necessary to meet the immediate requirements of national development and that which should be followed in the long term interests of scholarship and research (1966, p96)
But while Baxter tended far to utility, accountability and industrial innovation and productivity agendas, like Ashby, Baxter saw that the university's role would be entirely undermined were it, in the process of receiving public funding to perform its public role, to lose its academic freedom:
This is a large business [note this key difference from Ashby - business] by any standard and since the money is public money a great responsibility will rest on the governing council to see that the money is spent wisely, efficiently and economically. The university must give the community the service which it needs and to do this it must retain all those aspects of free inquiry, of unrestrained teaching and discussion and leadership in original thought, which universities have traditionally contributed....It must produce professional men and women who are educated and informed citzens... It must at the sam time be a large scale employer, spending big sums of public money in ways which will satisfy Auditors-General and Ministers for Education the taxpayer is getting value for his dollar and that nothing wasteful or extravagant is being done (1966b, p.114)
Commonwealth funding, needed he knew, was still, for Baxter (who, unlike Ashby, actually experienced this in Australia), the source of increased interference and specific, tangible examples of reduced academic freedom:
The degree of interference in internal affairs of the universities by conditions attached to financial supply is already very considerable, and it increases in every Act and every triennium (1966b, p.111)
Unlike Sydney University's Vice Chancellor in the 1940s, Baxter knew that the days of "give us the money and be done with it" were over and that painstaking accountability would be the price of academic freedom. In true Baxter-style efficiency obsessiveness, he said:
The price of academic freedom for the universities will be an impeccable level of efficiency, performance and service to the community, and an administration which can demonstrate that this is so to the point where it is fully trusted by that community and by the governments it elects (1966b, 113-114)
He even addresses the question of who, in the new structure, is responsible for maintaining academic freedom - something I've been wondering lately, since it seems to have been left to the Federal Court. Government can't do it, obviously, since they're the body the university needs protecting from. Now that academics are heavily in the pay of government, claimed Baxter, neither can they be relied upon to protect academic freedom. It is the lay (non-university) members of university governing bodies (Council or Senate) who have this responsibility, he reckoned, since it was clearly the job of the university (just no longer the academics) to do it:
In the context of academic freedom the important responsibility of the university is to be a place where all matters and questions can be examined, where research may follow any line of inquiry, where the non-conformist and the heretic may hold and express unorthodox and unpopular views, and be met with argument not suppression. This does not mean that the university normally seethes with heresy and rebellion: on the contrary, but should there be a time when our free society is in danger, if governments of the right or left seek to diminish our liberties, it should be in the universities that voices could and would be loudly raised in protest (1966b, 116)
I'd like firstly to note that this does not limit academic freedom to an area of scholarly expertise - and nor should it, for what if liberty was being diminished outside of, say, chemical engineering (which was Baxter's area of expertise). University administrators seem much more worried today about dissenting or unpopular opinion within their universities than Baxter, control freak though he was:
The vice-chancellor is of course the official spokesman [sic] for the University... but he [sic] will always try to indicate that universities, on most controversial issues, never have a single opinion, but many opinions, and that it is in their nature to be so. Universities being places where free thought and speech on all matters is encouraged, there are times when, on highly controversial issues, some sections of the public will feel outraged by views emanating from some people in the university. Action is sometimes publicly or privately demanded against such persons. This the vice-chancellor must firmly resist. (1966a, p.11)
One of the public roles for the VC, said Baxter, was to communicate this diversity of opinion to the public as an inherent characteristic of any university:
The vice-chancellor can do much to get the community to realise that universities are places where heresies are tolerated and that it is for the good of the community that this should be so. (1966b, 11-12)
As we will see as I go along, there was a lot not great about Baxter. But he certainly understood - at least at the end of his period as Vice-Chancellor - the importance of (and challenges of maintaining) academic freedom.

Friday, 9 October 2009

If the university owns knowledge, who does that mean?

I am just sitting down to investigate the candidates for Senate at the University of Sydney, relishing in a new way my right to vote in it. I had always thought of the Senate as being a bit like an expanded SRC, but actually it is representative of the university as a membership-based organisation.

In discussing my chapter on IP and the UWA v Gray case with my associate supervisor recently, he asked a rhetorical (largely) question about who the owner is, when it is the university. We think of it as being like a company owning stuff, but the traditions of the university suggest that the owners of university property might even be the Graduates.

Looking at the University of Sydney Act recently (with a brother who seems oddly familiar with university acts) the University is The Senate, The Convocation (alumni), Professors and Full time academics, students and graduates. In fact, the only people the university is not is general staff, which is why there is good reason for a general staff specific union (which I say despite belonging to its rival).

Unlikely though it is that UWA was thinking of sharing the $100M they wanted a share of with their graduates, the fact of the university being defined by its members should - but probably won't - reduce some of the power held by the chief accountants of each the universities, who have been regularly described to me as the most powerful people on each campus.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Trouble at Monash

Those (kind) people who have read the first draft of my 1960s/1970s chapter know that this chapter is about a clash over the ownership/control of knowledge between student movements and the professoriate. In it, students (and junior staff) are constructing new knowledge, exploring new ideas and ways of knowing and challenging the legitimation processes of the hierarchical university.

They will also have noticed that the first draft is - perhaps unsurprisingly - a little too Sydney-centric. In order to combat this, I recently spent some time in the Monash University archives.

The student movement at Monash was famously active. Then Vice Chancellor, Louis Matheson, recorded at least 15 incidents (sit-ins, mostly) in his rough, hand-written chronology in 1969.

What was really irritating, though, is that it didn't conform to my previous research. My chapter thus far presented a nice story, showing students genuinely grappling with new knowledge in the face of professorial opposition, abusing hierarchical power to prevent non-canonical knowledge from emerging. At Monash, though, a liberal and progressive vice-chancellor consulted widely to assist staff in re-thinking the idea of the university, its governing structures, assessment strategies and the types of knowledge that could emerge within it - particularly since at that point Monash was brand new. Matheson, first V-C at Monash, considered the new university an opportunity to reconsider the legitimising structures of the university and instigating a major consultative review which ended in recommending most of the things students elsewhere were demanding.

Opposing this unexpectedly progressive Vice-Chancellor, was a Monash Labour Club led by a young man who, as far as I could see, selected his politics to align to his penchant for violence - Albert Langer. Langer was later famous for suggesting (and being imprisoned for suggesting) a method of voting that would not favour the major parties. More recently he has maintained a website in support of the Iraq War.

Langer and other Maoist members of the Monash Labour Club were generally quite open about the fact that their Vice-Chancellor was a pretty liberal guy who generally upheld academic and political freedom. The problem for them was the 'degree-factory' university itself and the fact of the role of Vice-Chancellor, which they saw as inherently complicit in capitalism. It would not have mattered what the Vice-Chancellor did, they would oppose him on principle.

Reading through all this, I started to squirm. I could (and can) not see how I could in good conscience present Matheson in the same light as other more authoritarian professors who worked to suppress student-sourced knowledge in the period. Nor could I see any way of presenting this young thug (a certainly intelligent one, though) as a source of new, but suppressed knowledge. It really can be annoying that history is nuanced and complex.

But perhaps the students were right: the structures were significant, not (just) the hopelessly flawed (and unexpectedly progressive) actors within them.

Langer's political activities were extensive and high profile, making him a target for those opposed to student radicalism. He was arrested for inciting riot in 1969. Three trials were commenced, two cancelled under credible suspicion of police collusion to manufacture evidence. Langer's trial and his general treatment by the police the justice system, looks like an attempt to make an example of him and discourage the movement. This treatment structurally positioned him as a political scapegoat, regardless of what his specific politics were or whether he added anything to student ways of knowing (which, as far as I can tell, he didn't). It is most likely Langer's rather egomaniacal loudness (a loudness students started to complain about at Monash and Melbourne university, where some hoped that student-controlled knowledge might encourage diversity rather than agree with Langer or be declared fascist) that made him structurally - but undeservedly - representative of the student movements in the media and as the justice system's scapegoat.

Where Monash made a mistake, in the end, was in not admitting Langer to a postgraduate degree. From the looks of things, this was the fault of the Registrar, who was thereafter supported by his colleagues. You can imagine how it happened. Finally this guy was graduating and the administration must have been anticipating it like a holiday in Fiji. Langer, obviously wanting to continue his leadership in the university that had made him famous, applied for postgraduate study in maths. His marks and feedback from his teachers made it reasonable to assume he would be admitted for 1970. He was not. The Registrar made it clear, on enquiry, that he would not be admitted to any other course either, for a variety of unconvincing reasons. Furthermore, as the year progressed, it was declared he was not to attend lectures for courses he was not enrolled in.

Students - and staff - felt that this failure to admit Langer was evidence of political bias in Monash's admissions policy, though they described it as 'exclusion' (a word that has quite a different meaning in student discipline than what happened to Langer). Langer then applied to the University of Melbourne, who also rejected him, leading to the massive 3.3.18 controversy over admissions policy there in 1971 (already described in my draft chapter). Again, whether or not they actually wanted Langer to study there, students and staff were sure they did not want a system that rejected people on the basis of their politics.

Langer then applied to Sydney University, who checked with their legal counsel and found they could reject an application from anyone they want for any reason. Students and staff at Sydney, perhaps more interested in their controversies about philosophy and political economics (and also had shown themselves to be potentially elitist themselves, especially in relation to admissions), appear - from what I have seen - not to have said a word. If anyone was there and can tell me otherwise, please do!