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.

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