Friday, 22 July 2011

Questions for the eighties

For both sides of parliament the urgency of economic reform subsumed all other questions about higher education. Education policy was thus directed to answering substantial national challenges: what sort of education system would Australia require to assure confident participation in the global marketplace? How could government compel higher education to respond to international market needs? How could it be more efficient, focusing on issues of urgent national significance?

University leaders, too, were confronted with significant questions: how could they restore public faith in higher education? What strategies should they deploy to retain their independence from government? How should they respond to the new era of financial constraint – could they be more efficient, might there be other sources of income? “More scholar for the dollar” was the headline emblazoned in Rupert Murdoch’s new Higher Education Supplement, added weekly to The Australian newspaper since 1980.  As university and political leaders proposed changes, they were reported and debated by university staff and students across the sector - libraries bulge with their reports, reviews, comments and responses as all segments of the tertiary sector grappled with an era of reform. 

Peter Karmel – a grandfather of higher education policy, contributing to every review between Murray’s in 1957 and Bradley’s in 2008, the last submission just months before his death – considered, on reflection, the installation of market forces did not go far enough to justify the loss of institutional autonomy.  Simon Marginson considers the structural transformations that resulted to be an expression of human capital theory leading, he argues with Mark Considine, to universities focused on markets – an approach, Stuart Macintyre suggests, that undermined the collegial structure of the academic community.  All attest to a change in the structure of the university and an adjustment in its relationship to government. Reform, however, was not only structural: it also changed the ways that knowledge was negotiated and legitimised, transforming scholars’ inner lives, the academic community’s research priorities and universities sense of mission.

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