Thursday, 29 July 2010

Reconstructing the academic

Academics had become associated with the worst of public service inefficiencies, an idea confirmed in early 1980s popular culture via the BBC series Yes, Minister, which portrayed elite civil servants with self-serving approaches in a system that structured incentives for wastefulness.  It was only the commercial world of competition, many claimed, that inspired individuals to work efficiently and productively. Guy Redden has shown that the economic logic of rationality gained a new importance in this period, fostering a belief that structural incentives forged “rational” choices to work efficiently or inefficiently, regardless of individual agency or motivation.  This language led advocates of change to agitate for government policies that would support a more competitive, commercially oriented academic culture.

Government interference in the universities was on its way. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had been mumbling about higher education for some time when he implemented funding cuts and forced amalgamations amongst the Colleges of Advanced Education. There was talk of reintroducing fees, which had been removed under the Whitlam government in the early 1970s. Murdoch’s Higher Education Supplement regularly featured letters and articles from university members on the importance of university autonomy. The grotesque image of “layabout dons” led many – including Peter Karmel – to ask: what incentive is there for academics to perform?  By December 1981 the Fraser government announced an inquiry into tenure.

These acts provoked the staff associations into action. They protested the “razor rule” of forced amalgamations and funding cuts and threatened that universities would not collect fees if government imposed them on students.  But academic reputations had fallen so substantially that government and the public saw staff association measures that had worked in the past as the pathetic bleating of an irrelevant, elitist and probably over-funded academia. Where the staff associations were most successful was in their vehement opposition to measures that would impact tenure.

Tenure – that is, a continuing academic position – is central to academic freedom. As Sir Keith Murray had said in 1957:
The public, and even statesmen, are human enough to be restive or angry from time to time, when perhaps at inconvenient moments the scientist or scholar uses the licence which the academic freedom of universities allows him, and brings us all back to a consideration of the true evidence.
This academic freedom is only possible when academic staff feel sufficiently secure in their employment to produce evidence at “inconvenient moments”. So in the defence of tenure, the staff associations were able to combine traditional trade union concerns over employment conditions with academic concerns with knowledge. The Commonwealth government was not easily dissuaded, however – and nor were a selection of people within the universities. Opponents to tenure claimed that it did not support quality work, as (what seemed to be) old-fashioned ideas about academic freedom suggested, but rather supported laziness.  The incentive to “perform” in a secure employment situation was nil under this assumption. The rational choice, theoretically, was to do as little as possible, and many believed that this is what academics did.  Many – both in and out of universities – assumed that new employment structures, free of tenure, would encourage increased efficiencies. Economist Helen Hughes suggested that claims that threats to tenure constituted threats to academic freedom were the tools used to maintain “past privilege” by a “highly articulate and literate”, but fundamentally self-interested, bureaucracy.

Tenure was a “question” that investigations never seemed to be able to give a right answer to. A senate inquiry into academic tenure was launched in 1981  only two years after an inquiry had made (but not implemented) a range of recommendations regarding tenure.  The new inquiry heard, in 1982, that abolishing tenure would threaten academic freedom and would “not solve the problems of incompetent, lazy or disaffected staff”.  Despite this, such was the strength of the anti-tenure feeling that within one year of the inquiry’s conclusion, the question of tenure was re-opened yet again.

Expectations on academic performance were intensified in other ways as well. By 1981 the phrase “more scholar for the dollar” entered the universities as an expression of a new search for greater efficiency and innovation in scholarly activity and university management. The Higher Education Supplement in Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper actively promoted increases in efficiency in the universities. This included articles advocating the adoption of commercial management techniques and research targeted to industrial and commercial outcomes. The Supplement promoted this commercial approach as the mechanism by which universities could persuade the public of their relevance.

Jane Ford, one of The Australian’s science and technology journalists during the 1980s, focused particularly on promoting industry-funded research in the universities. Commercialising the outcomes of research or conducting industry-sponsored research, she wrote, could potentially address the combination of a reputation for irrelevance, a declining funding base and accusations of a lack of the “entrepreneurial spirit” that theoretically fosters efficiency, according to her range of articles and editorials. Along with other Higher Education Supplement authors, Ford contributed to the growing public discussion around establishing (or “improving”) links with industry – especially research commercialisation – as a priority issue in the middle part of the 1980s. The Australian journalists promoted this magic-bullet solution to higher education’s various problems by constructing a new, heroic type of academic, capable of meeting entrepreneurial challenges.

This new academic, featured in examples of daring academia, actively sought links to (and funding from) industry, focusing their research to the needs of markets.  Many examples could be found overseas, claimed the reports, where less tenure made academics “more competitive and aggressive”, a change portrayed in the newspaper as a self-evidently positive.  The entrepreneurial academic, in the pages of the Higher Education Supplement had a heroic status that contrasted to that of the traditional, cloistered academic, which was monastic-style heroism of isolation and discovery.  The new academic’s heroism was located in their struggle against the bureaucratic traditionalism of universities and even against the very characteristics that had once given academia its status. Jane Ford wrote of one “rebel professor” who was leaving the university system for a “lucrative” position in pharmaceuticals – though not, apparently, because it paid better:
“The system is dead”, he says, “there is no vision, no management competence, no measure of performance, no original thought and no realisation of the needs of the real world.” The basic problems were a lack of reward for performance, the destructive effect of the tenure system, the lack of interest in technology transfer and an aversion to becoming involved with industry.
These images were taken up with rapidity by leaders across the universities who looked desperately for ways of improving both reputation and funding base. But while the entrepreneurial academic was depicted as struggling against the apparently lagging university system, many other academics were concerned with the enhanced value given to applied over basic research.  These individuals, along with any who questioned the consequences of entrepreneurialism in the universities were seen by advocates of the new as incompetent: “not confident of their capacity to compete”. 

They were compelling images with substantial threats to credibility and standing attached to resisting them. The construction of the new academic was deliberately contrasted to the old so that scholarly values that saw a preoccupation with profit as contradictory to the pure pursuit of knowledge looked outdated and self-serving: in all likelihood covering ineptitude. In this way, universities systematised new expectations on not only the behaviour of academic staff but also their stance towards profit. Money in exchange for knowledge became an internalised ethic.

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