"The universities are essentially large-scale worker-cooperatives funded by the state: sheltered workshops for intellectuals"
Such unflattering descriptions were common in 1984, when Monash’s Centre for Policy Studies held an invitation-only conference entitled “Withering Heights”. The title indicated their belief in a growing stagnation by an irrelevant higher education system. 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 a civil service that structured incentives for wastefulness. It was only the commercial ethic of competition, many claimed, that inspired individuals to work efficiently and productively. Guy Redden has shown that the economic theory of rational choice gained a new importance in this period, fostering a belief that structural incentives determined “efficient or inefficient work choices, regardless of individual agency or intrinsic 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. Grotesque descriptions in the media 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 – the right to 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 considered academic freedom to be no more than an old-fashioned tradition and claimed that, far from supporting quality work, tenure supported laziness. There was no incentive to “perform” in a secure employment situation, they claimed. The rational choice, according to economic theory, was to do as little as possible. Many – both in and out of universities – assumed that new employment structures, free of tenure, would encourage increased efficiencies. Economist Helen Hughes suggested that academics that claimed threats to tenure also threatened academic freedom were protecting “past privilege”. They constituted, she said, 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.
After the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983, pressure kept mounting for government to restructure higher education in a way that would coerce academic behaviour. Minister for education Senator Susan Ryan, who was a supporter of university autonomy and academic tenure, chose to interpret this pressure as a desire to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education – a much broader and more diplomatic question, she felt, than that attached specifically to tenure. There were students, displaying the haughty side of academic culture, who pointed out that efficient and effective knowledge carried absurdities: “53 concepts per hour is not good enough…” read one cartoon. Nevertheless, in October 1985 Senator Ryan announced a review of efficiency and effectiveness in higher education.