Monday, 6 June 2011

Not to be trusted

In the mid-1960s, in the aftermath of the Murray and Martin reports, the universities and colleges seemed to embody the best of what a democracy could offer its people. Researchers explored ideas that would benefit Australia’s technological development, underpin its social and economic progress and assure its political stability. With scholarships aplenty, higher education was open to talented students, almost regardless of their social background. Colleges assured a cost-effective way of making education available to as many as possible, with a focus on professional skills that would assure economic prosperity for the nation as well as for graduates. 

Radical students and academics exposed the ideological apparatus that underpinned this utopia, shattering the public’s faith in the inherent goodness of higher education and the absolute reliability of university research. They demonstrated that university knowledge was controlled and deployed for the benefit of an elite. They revealed the structure of the university as assuring the perpetuation of particular types of knowledge, excluding ideas that would lead to social reform. They showed knowledge to be a kind of power and that teaching and examination gave academic staff an authority that could be exploitative. Student revolutionary movements encouraged the public to question and challenge the university’s right to control knowledge.

Those unpersuaded by student radicalism – often people who also broadly derided the youth movement, with its fashion, politics and new ways of speaking – felt that the universities were mistaken to capitulate to student demands. And yet, issue by issue, capitulate they did, often in very public arenas. Professorial authority was diminished, raising questions about the value of the expertise the university itself proclaimed. Vocal and disruptive students, on the other hand, were granted a respect and responsibility that they denied their seniors. What sort of employees would they one day make?

Hopes that the new generation of students and a restructured higher education sector would develop into a source of social reform proved illusive. Ironically, this was because the student estate failed to fulfil the requirements of the established social and economic order that had been the focus of its criticism. Education that made students, through their dissenting views, better citizens did not necessarily secure for them the level of financial success they had been led to expect. The irrelevance student radicals had described was affirmed (in a different arena) by their under-employment. Higher education seemed decreasingly appealing.

Whitlam’s Labor had been highly supportive of tertiary students, not least since – once the age was majority was lowered – the youthful New Left supported him. But by the time of the dismissal, public sentiment was turning. If higher education was not there to support social and economic progress, what was its purpose? All the arguments that had aimed to shift the university to a more democratic, inclusive and less dominating structure were distilled into one catastrophic message: universities and the knowledge they purveyed were not to be trusted.

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