Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The end of the community of scholars

In my interview with Robert HT Smith, he said:
John Scott, who was a lovely man, Chair of the AVCC at the time, used to proudly say he was a member of FAUSA. I remember one of my earlier meetings of AVCC, they had a show of hands for who is a member of the union. Everyone put their hands up.
The membership-based collectivity of the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations functioned as a signifier for the community of scholars. Membership enabled the Vice-Chancellors to identify themselves as primus inter pares – first among equals, but inseparable from their staff. Robert HT Smith thought they were mad: “now I know I am in cloud cuckoo-land,” was his response to that meeting, “I mean, you’re either management or you’re union”. He represented the new way.

Tension had long been growing in the staff associations, focused on the alignment or opposition of the staff with university leadership. Some members of the Federal Association had been keen since 1973 (when a salaries tribunal had been established) to convert that organisation into a formal union.  They were not a majority – it had been voted down in 1981.  Apprehension incubated in the individual staff associations as well. Sybil Jack describes the reluctance to unionise felt by members of the Sydney Association of University Teachers as a result of “gentlemanly” sentiments towards university government, invoking a political and class distinction between the approaches.  This is probably fair. But it was not the only thing going on.

Reluctance to unionise was related to the subtle and vulnerable structure that regulated the community of scholars: the gift economy.  The ethic of the gift  configured the complex system of obligation within the universities. Teaching, supervision and peer review are tasks that were structured by the gift ethic.  In a pre-managerialised university, the same gift economy governed the monitoring of office keys, laboratory equipment and university finances.  The economy of gift giving and the obligations each gift engendered created the ties that gave academics enduring membership in a community of university-based intellectuals.  The system of obligation stretched across international networks of scholars, binding disciplines and individuals in productive ways. Equipment, specimens, artefacts, gossip, employment opportunities and graduate students, Tamson Pietsch shows, traversed networks of individual scholars, irrespective of national and institutional alliances.  Archived papers of former academics are swollen with letters – requests for advice, debates of ideas, comments on publications and drafts, invitations and references – all traces of gifts and the debts each gift incurs.  The gift was the intangible substance that defined, beyond individual institutions, the idea of the university.

This is not to advocate nostalgia for academia’s gift-giving: after all, a gift economy is an economy nonetheless.  In fact, it has distinct disadvantages in some instances. The gift economy, for instance, has often led to the exploitation of (especially, but not exclusively) laboratory-based graduate students: power structures where authorial credit is the obligation of the student to their supervisor as a kind of gift-exchange, regardless of actual intellectual input.  Gifts in a gift economy are not given freely. Nevertheless, the system of gift-based obligation worked well (by and large) for the academic community for three key reasons. Firstly, exchanges did not have to be equal in the instant they were made: a gift was deposited into the network, but would rarely be returned via the same source.  It relied on the richness of the community (richness in this case meaning knowledge, equipment, scholarship) and obliged each member to contribute to it. This created its second benefit: it placed the idea of the university at the centre of its economy, so that returns were gains in knowledge. And thirdly (and this is the point most relevant to what Vice-Chancellors and unions were doing at this moment in Australian university history) it bound the leadership of the university to its scholars in their shared responsibility for the protection and promotion of knowledge as the substance at the university’s core.

So of the changes forged in the 1980s, the repositioning of academic staff is possibly the most important. A gift economy is regulated by the risk attached to being excluded from the community.  But something was changing. The probability that someone would fail to honour her or his obligation was increasing. Trust crumbled. Vice-chancellors, wishing to appear to be efficient and productive in response to public pressure, squeezed harder. Staff associations braced themselves. They had been preparing for this: some of them, anyway. The Orr case, the Ward case and even Knopfelmacher had shown that they “had teeth”, as Ken Buckley put it.  Formal unionisation seemed inevitable. A union could still be consultative, one proponent of unionisation had said in 1979:
A move into the industrial arena does not imply any radical change in universities. Despite what the scare-mongers say, staff and university representatives can still sit down together and work things out. The existence of such an option may of itself encourage greater consultation in the future – indeed we believe the art of industrial relations is to avoid rather than encourage confrontation-arbitration.
They had misunderstood. By labelling the collegial drive “gentlemanly”, pro-union members mistook the complexity of the gift economy for civility and good manners.

Adding to the turmoil, The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was restructuring. A decline in union membership across all Australian industries prompted them to reorganise, starting with amalgamations of small unions into larger bodies that would represent whole sectors. Under this crusade then, they intended to establish a large union for the whole of education, but higher education asserted its own distinctive issues. The various staff associations (also reflecting the end of the binary system of colleges and universities) merged to form the National Tertiary Education Union.  As a formal union (and in such tumultuous times) they were then positioned in a structurally adversarial relationship to university leadership. Ironically, this was the reverse of the position that had originally given the staff association strength. They had resisted the master-servant relationship established during the Orr case because it destabilised academic freedom (as seen in an earlier chapter). But formal unionisation decisively located academics as employees, invoking the employer/employee divide.  The shared vocation of protecting, upholding and promoting knowledge was reduced to its paid obligation. Without the community of scholars the university would dissolve into nothing. However, for two reasons, the collapse of the community of scholars would never be absolute. One is that the idea of the university was fundamentally related to academic motivation: many aspects of the gift economy would be perpetuated through that alone, though always in tension with the new structures.  The other reason is located in the legal character of the universities. Their Acts that instated the existence of the public institutions said that the university was its members, a membership dominated by academic staff. 

Robert HT Smith told me that by the end of the 1980s no vice-chancellor identified as union.  From all to none in less than a decade: it represents a major shift. But it was not formal unionisation that changed the vice-chancellors. Public and government scrutiny of the internal efficiency of universities prompted the vice-chancellors to change their approach, which Marginson and Considine describe so clearly.  As well as promoting greater entrepreneurialism, the universities ran themselves in more managerial and less collegial ways: collegiality as an old-fashioned idea, was assumed to be inefficient. Managerialism necessarily contributed to the employer/employee divide. The gift ethic that bound the vice-chancellor to their academic staff crumbled. Academic work was now firmly labour in exchange for money.

This exacerbated the problem of scarcity, which as I have already suggested, had been pushed out from the sources of funding to institutions and individuals as a quantitative indication of their worth. Universities, departments and individuals were compelled to demonstrate their value through competition. It was an approach that contradicted the gift ethic: it was difficult to maintain gift-based obligations with those with whom one must also compete. It thus disrupted a larger idea of collegiality as well as the one that used to govern the university: consideration of issues at (say) department level could no longer be based on its impact on the university as a broad idea, on the integrity of the system that maintained the nation’s “intellectual health” (as Ashby had put it).  Rather, self-interest would be expected to frame decisions that would enable it to compete, leaving the integrity of knowledge a secondary consideration. They made a fundamental change to the university environment. In this structure knowledge would no longer flow like gifts, it would flow like money.

[As usual, references have been removed for this posting. Please contact me if you would like them.]

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