Thursday, 25 August 2011

Contesting knowledge

What the banks are to money, the universities have become to knowledge. Over around eight centuries, the power of the university has increased so that – perhaps with some parallels to the medieval church – its authority over knowledge is very nearly absolute. The university built an economy based on knowledge: as it was produced, knowledge was reinvested into the community of scholars, prompting further growth, ever-enhancing the university’s growing monopoly over knowledge. As centuries passed, other communities and institutions lost their purchase on knowledge as the university’s control of it grew. The church, the state, trade guilds, patenting offices, commercial laboratories even academies of science all lack the legitimacy possessed by the university. The university decides what knowledge is, and who may have it and benefit from its fruits. Modern nation states have been built on the power university knowledge has provided. Democracy itself depends on flourishing and widespread knowledge. But the university’s supremacy did not go uncontested. In the second half of the twentieth century, knowledge was the object of great bloodless battles as the state, industry and commerce tussled for its control. That contest is the subject of this thesis.

In Australia, the growth of higher education is associated with nation building. Like its economic structures, health systems, schooling and national infrastructure, then, university history is normally viewed through an institutional lens. In the period from the 1940s to the 1990s, the significant transformations are therefore considered to be the growth in student numbers, changes in government policy and the number and form of institutions. What the institutional perspective does not do, however, is consider the changing nature of the substance at stake as the university’s role changed. By approaching the history of universities from the perspective of knowledge, new anxieties become evident. The moral role of knowledge and the struggle to maintain the university’s civilising ideals; the tensions between university autonomy and national strategy; the relative value of collective and individual academic knowledge; and the search to quantify the value of knowledge, to find a money-equivalent – all issues that transformed academic priorities and institutional relationships.

The changes this thesis considers emerge in the Second World War. Universities and their members, during the war, were no less bound to its duties than their fellow citizens. Having learned, since the Great War, that battles might be better won with science, research infrastructure was this time better prepared, resulting in spectacular advances in knowledge. This demonstration of the value of university research and education to the nation was, for the universities, a mixed blessing. The new investment in Australian universities that resulted from their growing usefulness also brought greater scrutiny. Governments increasingly sought to interfere in university business. As the decades passed, university autonomy seemed less and less plausible. And yet, the university’s responsibility for the health, safety, civility and prosperity of the nation continued to grow. In the decades that followed the war, investment kept increasing. The alliance of university knowledge to the state was strengthened.

It was an imperfect, uneasy alliance, however, for academics were not all readily tamed. Further disrupted by student revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s and then by the economic reforms of the 1980s, towards the end of the century the universities’ relationship to government tended to be far less convivial. Scholars struggled to retain their authority over knowledge as society’s stake in it grew. The complex diplomatic, political, economic and cultural transformations of the second half of the twentieth century required significant quantities of research in every field. And yet, despite that increased reliance on universities for the national good, by the 1990s, government looked upon higher education in a different way. Instead of national institutions requiring public investment, university research seemed an industry, competing with others for government support and commercial income.

Science and technology dominated this transformation, but this is not just a history of science. Focusing on knowledge more broadly allows consideration of a wider set of issues. The ways that universities characterised and negotiated their mission were associated with changes in the ways they thought about knowledge. New disciplines and ideas were included – or rejected – on the basis of an authority that the university gave itself. But Australia’s public university tradition implied that government ought to have a say in research decisions and educational priorities. Transactional authority, the claims of the purchaser over the substance they paid for, was the cause of significant tension as the stakes in higher education escalated.
The most observable change in Australian higher education between 1939 and 1996 is its size. Prior to the Second World War, the nation’s six universities were small and elite. By 1996 a truly mass system of tertiary education had emerged, where 36 universities educated 634,094 students, around sixty times the number enrolled when the war began. With every expansion, new types of students were included. Women, excluded at the start, outnumbered men by the end of the century – though still not in senior academic positions. Indigenous students began to participate from the 1960s. In all cases, widening participation not only resulted in new members of society gaining access to university knowledge, it also brought new knowledge to the university. The inclusion of feminist and indigenous knowledges, just two of many, added new fields and challenged old truths.

That led to struggles to transform curricula and battles over assessment, each reflecting a wider epistemological transformation. Observation of truths, protection of culture and mastery of discrete fields gave way to discovery, collaboration, innovation and uncertainty as scholars recognised the contingent and sometimes fleeting nature of fact. As the twentieth century progressed, the university’s guardianship of truth declined in importance. Research, the great strength of the sciences, became the coup of the university, as government, industry and the economy sought the growth that was made possible by new knowledge. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, i am from Melbourne. I came across your blog via a browse on John Burnheim.

Please find a completely different Understanding of what is promoted as "knowledge" in our time - and its cultural consequences.

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