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.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Constructing the student consumer


No one could have predicted the oil shocks, the OECD conference concluded, but universities, they felt, really should have done something about their public image. Perhaps, at the root, it was just a public relations problem? Was it time for universities to consider commercial-styled solutions to a crisis in public relations?  It was on the basis of this sort of logic I assume (no records survive) that the University of Sydney chose, around 1980, to start advertising to attract students. This move was certainly a result of increased competition for fewer students across higher education in Australia. There had never been so many universities in Australia before. The last of the new universities planned during the period of expansion were being built at exactly the wrong time, when the oil crisis crunched public spending just as the baby boomers finished university. None of these things entirely explained the decline in student numbers however, as universities noted that a smaller percentage (not just total numbers) of school-leavers were electing to study at university: a university degree no longer carried the guarantees it once had. Moreover, complaints about “irrelevance” made by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s were now echoed in the language of employer groups who claimed a university degree did little to prepare students for the “real” world.

The older universities in Australia had seen poverty before, but over the previous 20 years had become accustomed to growth. As the “steady state” identified in the 1970s looked like a funding decline in the 1980s, Sydney University chose to use advertising to highlight its advantages of age and reputation over the newer universities. Members of other universities across the sector were outraged: it was a breach of faith, a betrayal of principles. One year later most of them did it too. By 1982, advertising to attract students was described as “commonplace”.

Leaders in the universities all knew the implications of this. Their members warned that “selling themselves like soap powder” would devalue the important work universities do. It was openly acknowledged that, once advertising was employed to attract students, a marketplace was established that positioned students as consumers. Many pointed out that this could have no good consequences for the nature of education, for its perception by students and the community or for the standards upheld by universities in their degree offerings. Those persuaded by a popular description of academics as lazy, elitist and irrelevant held another view altogether.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Introducing the 1980s


In October 1981, higher education delegates from all of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries pondered what they felt to be their most perplexing question: what happened to the respect academics used to command? The god-professor had fallen and most could agree that it was not before time: he (and part of his problem had been the consistency of his gender) had gained his place largely through snobbishness. But the welcome meritocracy was becoming something new. The delegates struggled to put their collective finger on it. Perhaps the expansions of the 1960s were to blame:
It may be that with so many admitted into the temple, the mystery is gone, the secrets are out and former respect and awe have given way to a more cynical view of the virtues and vices of the priesthood.
Certainly “respect” and “awe” had not characterised the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The OECD delegates admitted that the late 1970s had been difficult in other ways as well. Demographic changes (they had finished educating the last of the baby boomers) led to an income plateau for universities which, as a result of the 1960s, had become addicted to growth.  Then the oil shocks hit, crippling public funding capacities. Delegates all reported that their governments, forced to make ruthless decisions about public funding priorities, publicly questioned if the traditionally elite higher education sector had genuine value to the nation. There was a “real danger”, they agreed, that if the current crisis in public confidence in higher education continued, the university “could be seriously and perhaps irretrievably compromised”.  It was the 1980s. Would this be the decade that would cripple the intellectual environment that had taken centuries to mature?

That OECD conference on higher education was chaired by the man people would later refer to as Australia’s godfather of higher education, Peter Karmel. Karmel, who died in 2008, was heavily involved in higher education as an academic, public servant and senior university administrator since the 1957 Murray Review and still submitted his advice to the 2008 Bradley Review only months before his death. While his presence was felt in the system throughout the 1980s Karmel’s influence was already diminishing by the 1981 conference. Karmel was increasingly seen as “old fashioned”, a label that in the 1980s was rarely used with affection or sympathy and in this case implied “irrelevant”.
It was time, many felt, to re-think higher education. Libraries bulge with 1980s reports, reviews and submissions to and from government on higher education in Australia. Rupert Murdoch chose 1980 as the year to launch an Australian version of his Times Higher Education Supplement in The Australian newspaper. And it was in the 1980s that Labor Minister John Dawkins transformed the environment in which knowledge in Australia was pursued.

Dawkins dominates the memory of Australian universities. In higher education terms, he seems to define the 1980s. However, Dawkins had little to do with higher education for most of the decade. He was made minister in 1987; his reforms were not formally proposed until 1988 and few of his measures were implemented until 1989. Dawkins and the shadow he cast dominated the work by Simon Marginson and by Marginson with Mark Considine that describe changes to the policy environment and thereafter to management structures for Australian universities.  Dawkins’ reforms did not appear out of the blue, they reflected sentiments and changes that in many universities were already leading to internal reforms. To understand these and how they made their way into public policy, I interviewed two members of the group dubbed Dawkins’ “purple circle”, whose advice and contributions shaped the Green and White papers that would in turn shape Australian academic life. Reform was resisted at many sites across the sector and I also interviewed Professor David Penington, the Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor whose opposition to Dawkins was most vocal.

The question for higher education in the 1980s, however, is not who changed it but how did it happen. How did the language of freedom promoted by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s come to be deployed in service of the free market? How did universities shift from scholarly communities to economies where knowledge flows like money?


[footnotes have been removed but are available on request]

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Two British Scientists in Australia...and Australian scholars in Britain

I was in the area, so I popped to Oxford the past few days for Scholarly Networks in the British Empire.

Naturally Oxford gives plenty to think about in relation to universities. Too much, actually.

One immediate thought stood out. It was actually the pub that contained this ink on parchment item, that prompted me to think about an Eric Ashby quote I used in my talk:
“In lodgings and in taverns ideas were born and nursed. They were vague and unpractical ideas that a man of the world would not entertain for a moment: yet thousands of students discovered that the rest of their lives was filled by a growing and maturing of these ideas, and the very subjects taught matured in this atmosphere” 


Just as important to Oxford as the Colleges and Faculties, libraries and museums are the pubs. This suggests that central to the idea of the university are these spaces where ideas are "born and nursed" ... and scholars with the time and freedom to explore them.

For the conference, my paper was about Eric Ashby and Philip Baxter. I don't think I can post the slides for copyright reasons (it has picture) but the text for my talk is online. If you'd like the slides I could email them, just let me know.

The paper was called Technology and the Universities: Two British Scientists in Australia. This is the abstract.

When botanist Eric Ashby arrived in Australia in 1939, his ideas about higher education were already compelling. Ashby’s subsequent experiences in science policy during the Second World War then combined with ideas formed by scholarly networks in the pre-war Empire. These led him to consider how technology, needed for national development after the war, could be integrated into academic traditions.

The war changed everything for the universities. Old networks of scholars were complicated by new relationships with the state and industry and new public concerns. This paper discusses the contrasting networks that influenced the ideas of two British academic leaders after the Second World War. Eric Ashby, influential in higher education throughout the Commonwealth, held ideas informed by a pre-war scholarly environment. Another British scientist who travelled to Australia, John Philip Baxter, though only one year younger than Ashby, was influenced by an altogether different network.

Baxter had spent significant time in nuclear facilities in the United States and contributed to the construction of British nuclear weapons during the war. When the war was over, he was disappointed that public sentiment led his employer, Imperial Chemical Industries, to shut down its work in atomic power. Feeling that he might have more influence in Australia, in 1949 Baxter accepted an academic post in Sydney.  By 1952 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales.  Baxter’s goal, like Ashby’s, was the promotion of technology in the university system. However, his notion of scholarship and his ideas about the university were very different. Where Ashby promoted technology while preserving scholarly values, Baxter sought to transform scholarship to align to the values of industry.

Comparing networks of pre-war Empire with post-Empire Australia, this paper examines the emergence of a longstanding uncertainty about the focus of higher education: specific professional competencies or unique, creative intellectualism.