Thursday, 2 September 2010

Conclusion to Knowledge Economy

[Full chapter available here]

This chapter has sought to interrogate some of the great mysteries of the 1980s for higher education. Things like: why did change happen so quickly? How could a Labor government succeed in achieving, in the late 1980s, what university opposition had made impossible for a Liberal government less than a decade earlier? What exactly were the causes and patterns of ideas that most people can only describe as ‘floating around’ in that decade? The answers lie in the confluence of discursive and policy elements and their intended and unintended consequences. If at any point they had been floating, eventually they coalesced to focus on two things: a transformation of the structure in which knowledge was produced and a change in the values attached to its production.

Entrepreneurialism and professionalism became values appreciated in academic staff over (what Murray had called) “knowledge intoxication” – indeed, to be knowledge intoxicated in the 1980s was more likely to be seen as self-indulgent, wastefully pursuing ‘hobby’ research. This shift was reinforced and extended by policies that shaped a competitive academic environment. It was the entrance of competition that gave government control over knowledge. When academics internalised financial scarcity as their own inadequacy, they handed authority over the value of knowledge to the government. Institutions, unions and government then together transformed the structure of the community of scholars to facilitate an environment that privileged the moment of exchange in the production of knowledge over the value of knowledge itself.

As Minister for Education from 1987, John Dawkins functioned as higher education’s bogeyman. It was widely stated that each change might threaten the integrity of university knowledge, but lofty ideals seemed impossible. The Dawkins excuse could always be invoked and in so doing, historical mythmaking ensued. The anti-Dawkins discourse that roamed university corridors perpetuated a myth that universities did not jump, but were pushed into an entrepreneurial, managerial and increasingly profit-focused world. It is more truthful to say that (partly from fear of Dawkins) they pushed themselves – and went far beyond what Dawkins could ever have achieved.

That government took control of knowledge in the late 1980s was in part a consequence of the loss of legitimacy universities experienced in the 1970s. That the university had no obvious capacity to claim its traditional role in legitimising knowledge left a power vacuum that government was only too happy to fill. This is not to suggest that the delegitimisation that resulted from 1960s and 1970s protest movements was wrong. Rather, the movements had not (and could not have) predicted that government would use it to reaffirm the economic functions that had been increasingly connected to university knowledge since the Second World War.  More, that government could thus claim a right to control it.

Government had no claim to authority over knowledge either, ordinarily. But it was in the connection between university knowledge and economic development that the Commonwealth government located its initial claim to legitimacy. The role of knowledge in the economy – a role that had been increasing as the nature of the economy changed – gave government in the 1980s some rhetorical justification for directing knowledge. However, it was insufficient. The control of knowledge depended not only on the right to deploy it, but also on the right to select it: to decide what (quality) knowledge was. With no expertise to use as its foundation, government turned to the logic of the market. Market forces would determine and demonstrate quality knowledge. Significantly, government policy did not use undergraduate student fees to this purpose (though HECS certainly made it easier to do so later). Rather (and this is the topic of the next chapter), both university and government policies would draw on a different commodifying concept to evaluate quality knowledge: intellectual property.

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