Monday, 22 July 2013

Raising money for enlivened learning

I have been inspired by this couple, looking for ways to locate higher education outside of institutions and to observe and document new pedagogies.

They would like to make a documentary, but need some funding.

They fundraising site is

Time is running out though - be quick!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Why universities need history

In a Daily Life article that spread rapidly through social media in May this year, journalist and scholar Alecia Simmonds controversially declared that ‘Australia hates thinkers’, pointing out that the likes of the ‘imbecilic Andrew Bolt’ are given greater voice in the public sphere than our most insightful academics. She tapped into a long-held frustration in Australian academia that the long, difficult path of scholarship goes largely unappreciated.
Certainly, given the approach of successive governments to higher education, academic thinking seems always under attack. Recent cuts to universities to fund school reform are just the latest insult in a long tradition, spanning the last three or four decades.
The sense of being under-valued, however, goes back still further. In our first history of Australian universities – a short article, published in 1953  – historian James Auchmuty said that Australians had failed to grasp the ‘true’ meaning of the university. When translated into its Australian setting, the idea of the university was reduced to the pragmatic training of young people for sensible, useful tasks, he argued. The trope has been longstanding: Australia does not promote ‘real’ thinking.
There is some truth underlying this habit of pessimism, though in many respects the story of the university in Australia is one of massive success. Since the mid-twentieth century, higher education has been Australia’s key driver of both economic development and social reform.
After the Second World War, Australian universities grew from six small, elite institutions educating less than 0.2 per cent of the population, to a system in which, now, more than one-in-five young people, from a widening socio-economic base, will go to university. The 2008 Bradley review expresses the hope that soon this will be two-fifths of school leavers.
The economic success of universities is also indisputable. Not only is higher education Australia’s third-largest export, but by educating so many in a mass system, we now have a flexible, innovative economy that is responsive to international trends: this helps insulate Australia against the kind of economic crises that confront other nations.
In that time, universities also transformed themselves intellectually. Early in the twentieth century, Australian scholars rarely conducted research, confining themselves to reading, scholarship and teaching. Now research infuses all that defines higher education, with massive ramifications for the public good. Everything from snake anti-venom, public health, food safety, tackling climate change, safer mining, revival of Indigenous languages, better power sources and more productive international relations have emerged (and continue to) from university research culture.
It is almost enough to think there is no problem in the universities at all.
And yet, everywhere we look we see symptoms of a sickness so ingrained it is tempting to despair. More than fifty per cent of the cost of universities goes to just running them. They now have an explicit commercial focus, not only in research – described as ‘outputs’ – but also in competing with one another for students. University leaders feel compelled to make sweeping, disruptive, expensive (and, one suspects, largely unnecessary) changes to make their mark, in order to be competitive for their next position – or indeed to retain the one they have.
The community of scholars rarely feels their vice-chancellors represent them, seeing them now as ‘management’, always asking for more, while offering less. Within their own ranks, scholars squabble for scraps; looking over shoulders at other departments they suspect are treated and funded better – a tendency encouraged by increasingly competitive methods of funding at every level. Despite this, the wealthier universities and faculties foster a vibrant research culture – while at others, scholarly sweatshops offer a myth of productivity at enormous personal cost.
While the salaries of vice-chancellors have grown to alarming proportions, postgraduate research students, at an average age of 35 years old, live on the poverty line, often with young children, and yet produce a substantial portion of the universities’ research ‘output’, frequently without even a desk. Indeed, postgraduates fund research, often, with their own credit cards, while marketing staff have a seemingly bottomless budget so that even the most mundane of administrative forms for student enrolment are printed in full colour on glossy paper.
Feeling justified in grabbing what they can, academics in wealthier disciplines use the remnants of their collegial power to grant themselves substantial performance bonuses. And yet widespread casualisation, saving the same institutions considerable cash, not only threatens work security for junior academics, it also threatens the quality of research, academic freedom and the international standing of the next generation of Australian scholars.
These trends are also observable internationally. In each country, a growing number of scholarly ‘Jeremiads’, as American historian Anthony Grafton has called them, predict the end of the academic world.
Despite this pervasive, pessimistic air, an almost-spiritual commitment to scholarship still infuses most academics’ approach to their work. And yet this sense of vocation is at such odds with the structures of compliance that characterise today’s universities that scholars feel constantly torn. How did all this come about?
The history of Australian universities should offer an explanation, not only of the changing nature of higher education, but also, by focusing on knowledge, of why higher education became so necessary to the twentieth century. Without joining the ‘Jeremiads’, we need to ask whether this success is likely to continue in the twenty-first century, as the university’s hold over knowledge grows more tenuous.
Without a historical understanding of universities, their perceived value is limited to thin rhetoric. Accounts of the present problems in the university often imply a past golden age, perhaps connected in the public imagination to Gough Whitlam’s education policies. Rationale for the purpose of the university looks even further back, pinning a theological-type hope on Cardinal Newman’s 1850s Idea of the University, as if there could only ever be one idea and it must stand for all time. There is an intrinsic need, embedded in the current situation faced by universities, for a better understanding of their history.

Is academic collegiality out of date?

One of the things scholars across the world whinge about is the loss of their authority in universities. To many, it seems universities retained this collegial structure for a thousand years but in the last thirty have, in many western nations, they have somehow decided it is unnecessary.

Is collegiality necessary? In 2008, as I've written before, the Federal court (rightly, in my view) declared it is. Collegial structures permit academic freedom. Academic freedom protects the integrity of university knowledge - the research released to the public, the material taught to our students. Unless scholars can collectively make the decisions of the university, they are subject to the vested interests of governments, bureaucrats, industries, churches...etc.

Of course universities must listen to and respect those interests, but collectively their job is to guard, protect, discover and teach reliable knowledge, pursuing knowledge as best they can, regardless of the pressures of others.

The problem is, since universities have decided they are vested interests themselves, any remnants of collegial government seem as often abused as they are used. This is because, I think, of both the erosion of the elements of collegiality that would have prevented this and also of the growth of a culture of competitive grab-what-you-can (the latter I've written about too, but it is complex).

It is time for scholars to set our own house in order to regain trust that will allow us to put collegiality to the work it was intended for.

And of course to figure out a few new things, such as:
- how do we structure systems that protect knowledge, based on scholarly protection of the integrity of knowledge (the purpose of collegiality), in these now very large institutions with many levels of accountability to the regulatory state?
- how do we have a fair division of responsibilities and respect between academics and the now highly trained professional non-academic staff (many of whom are trained as highly as academics of earlier eras), so that the question of scholarly collegiality does not become just another power struggle within the universities?
- how can we develop collegial government that does not keep perpetuating the structures of self-interest (mini-empire building, jealousy of other parts of the university, attempts to direct resources from elsewhere to ones own area for no other reason than that it is yours)?
- how do we prevent collegial structures from being abused - how can we reward honesty, integrity and humility as members of a scholarly community, rather than the kind of arrogance, greed and egoistic dominance that it seems too often to manifest?

I don't see the elimination of collegiality as a good option, though I don't romanticise the ways it has been realised in the past or in the present.

But nor is the university like any another kind of organisation, either public or private. In fact, when we start to think it is, we might as well pack the whole thing up. We might as well turn everything over to commercial research & development and private and public training colleges.

Universities have been remarkably resilient, extraordinarily successful in making good, solid knowledge available for students and the public, in ever-increasing ways especially in the twentieth century. They did this because of the special character of collegial structures, putting scholars in systems of obligation to one another (NOT to money) that compelled them to pursue knowledge doggedly and with structures that assured a special independence and reliability.

We have hard work to do now, I think, to figure out how to do this.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gender in the outback

It is not generally OK to comment, as an outsider, on the habits of a community - and commenting on gender roles is even less acceptable. I have no authority to do so and don't plan to, except to note that, when I think about the much smaller town I left twenty years ago, from my three week experience there, it seems Broken Hill promotes far greater gender equality and tolerates far more sexual diversity than I ever recall seeing in a country town.

Historically, Broken Hill is famous for the social engineering conducted between the mines and the union, which included a ban on employment in town of married women, long after it was acceptable for women to work elsewhere. The idea was that every family in town had work and income and that single women would stay in town, preventing some of the gender imbalances and associated problems seen in other mining towns.

Of the women I met who saw or experienced this, none supported it - though several admitted it did have its benefits for the community. Perhaps especially the male half of the community, however.

I had some really interesting discussions with women and teachers about whether the marriage ban impacted on girls' ambitions in and after school and their approach to their education. And whether, if their mothers had accepted this position, it might still impact on the ambitions of girls today. In our discussions, of course, we could only speculate - finding this out would require a different study.

But what fascinated me most from the conversations I had were the ways women resisted their place, decided for them by the union. The stories abound.

Some women, I was told, chose simply never to get married. Problem solved.

Many women, I was informed, selected nursing or teaching, because they led to employment beyond the union's reach.

But one older woman, Katherine, told me a different story. She did as she was supposed to - finished school, worked in a shop while she was single, married and did not work afterwards.

Except she did. Katherine's passion was in art. She started in cake decorating, then ceramics, then tapestry and painting. Masterful in all these things, she decorated and sold wedding cakes for decades - in fact, I think if there was space in the elderly home where she lives, she would keep doing so. Katherine learned with and taught others, developing and sustaining a rewarding and fulfilling career throughout her life. And no one could stop her.