Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The control of university knowledge became a question of who would control the world.

In 1961 Robert Menzies wrote to Max Hartwell:
While not wishing to comment in detail on what you have said, I permit myself two observations: that the extent of government interference in university matters in Australia has been grossly exaggerated … much time is being wasted in defending something which is not in danger in Australia – academic freedom.
Between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s, the structure that produced university knowledge had been transformed. The long debate of the 1940s and 1950s – should universities be ‘service stations’ or ‘ivory towers’? – was largely settled shortly after acceptance and implementation of the Murray review. Remaining questions tended to focus on what type of benefit the universities should provide. The services to the nation that Menzies and Murray hoped from the universities required academic freedom. But democracy required transparency and accountability: Federal funding in exchange for national knowledge. Torn, Murray and Menzies designed a university system that would always be in tension. But while they hoped to protect university autonomy, their responsibility was to government. They structured a system that would enable the nation, gradually, to take control.

However, the shift that occurred was not only about the tightening shackles as universities’ obligation to the Commonwealth government grew. The political consequences of knowledge intensified after the Second World War and this itself contributed to structural change. Politicised knowledge is contestable: and in the mistrustful environment the Cold War promoted it became hotly contested.

In a world where knowledge won wars and controlled economies, ASIO considered university roles to have national security implications. As the potential for university administrators to assist ASIO control of university appointments increased, academics reacted to protect their intellectual and political freedoms. Their defensive measures – in particular the growing unionisation of the community of scholars – contributed to increasingly antagonistic relationships in the universities. Knowledge during the Cold War became, as Nicholas Brown put it, ‘irrevocably politicised’.

The stakes were high. Who would control knowledge? Nuclear research was an obvious site of the scuffle for power, but it permeated all research and teaching. Who would decide what was to be taught and how many would learn it, or the values and benefits imbued in university teaching? On what basis would discoveries be made and to what uses might they be put? What were the soviets doing and would democratic nations know more and know it better? The control of university knowledge became a question of who would control the world.

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