Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

O’Farrell, Clare (1996). ‘Restoring the Scholarly Balance’ Campus Review, Comment, Jan 18-24, p.8.

The text below was published in Campus Review in 1996. I think 20 years on, it may be too late to save the kind of university I am referring to in this piece – that is, a university which was essentially a semi-autonomous college of experts and scholars operating from its own power base within the social body. But this piece serves perhaps as a reflection of a moment in time, a tipping point. Also to be noted, this text was written for the Australian institutional and political context of the time.

For a more contemporary report, Terry Eagleton’s piece on The Slow Death of the University, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2015 is well worth a look.

Restoring the Scholarly Balance

In 1229, the University of Paris went on strike. The strike was about what the University regarded as unwarranted government interference in its affairs. Sound familiar? The strike was to last for two years. Eventually, the French government caved in under pressure from a business community which relied on the custom of students and staff for the health of its bank balances. But it was not only businesses that were suffering, the government itself needed the university to train its own officials and advisors. Thus solemnly promised autonomy from the government in 1231, staff and students who had been continuing their teaching and research happily in Orleans moved back to the city. This was merely one incident in a long and prestigious history of revolt and non compliance which still inspires French students today. That other famous episode, the student uprising of May 1968, helped bring down a government and students continue to make their presence felt in no uncertain terms in 1996.

Such a scenario would be unimaginable in Australia today. What would happen to those EFTSUS, so much the life blood of administrators? Those DEET grants so anxiously sought after by researchers and ‘management’ alike? Those pseudo corporate ‘managerial’ salaries and privileges? Or that incestuous minority of career structures which provide a comfortable platform for the publication of endlessly turgid and unread ‘research reports’? There is no doubt that the Australian university is currently involved in a fundamental contradiction: at the surface level, in order to maintain its prestigious image as a centre of social dissent, it deploys an impressive rhetoric of protest at government interference, yet the fact is that it welcomes or, at the very least, passively accepts government involvement at every opportunity. Indeed, to a large extent its very rationale depends substantially on the existence of government style thinking as well as on government money. In addition to this, in so far as universities are also now setting themselves up as self supporting businesses, they have abandoned the traditional university world and its values in favour of the corporate and managerial ethos of the business world.

Of course all of this has been said before: one need only consult at random any issue of what federal education minister Dawkins in his heyday termed the ‘academic wailing wall’ the Higher Education Supplement to The Australian. And, as has also been remarked by the members of those same wailing classes, reactions to the current state of tertiary education are roughly divided into two camps. On the one hand, there are the upholders of the liberal view. This camp asserts the value of the ‘things of the mind’ and draws attention to a tradition which sets much store on notions such as academic freedom, truth and intellectual attainment for its own sake. They can only lament what they see as a sorry abandonment of this tradition. Adherents to the other camp, now strongly in the ascendant in terms of real power, extol the virtues of economic rationalism, ‘realism’ and pragmatism. The liberal tradition is all very well, they argue, but to be quite cynical if you can’t beat the government or corporate world, it might be more sensible to join them. Their message to the university is to get real and join the modern world: survival depends on it!

Was it inevitable that these should now be the only alternatives facing the Australian university? Must it simply be the ivory tower versus the hard reality of economic rationalism and increasing bureaucratic control? Could the existing polarisation have been foreseen particularly by those who were, in theory, best placed and best equipped to see it, that is academics and universities? But the academics of the 1970s and 1980s were so involved in their own elitist pursuits or alternatively in rushing to swell the ranks of political parties and causes that they neglected taking any responsibility for that base of their own identity and power – the university. They abrogated the area of their primary concern and thus ultimately abandoned control over their own lives. In trying to save the rest of the world, they forgot to save themselves. In pursuing political power, academics and universities paradoxically threw away such power as they did have, that is the power derived from critical detachment, the use of reason to analyse critically causes, systems of thought or ideologies, the power implicit in the operation of an intellect not under an obligation to be continually bound by pragmatic considerations of policy or budgetary bottom lines. The pursuit of particular political ideologies and agendas that became the mode in Australian universities during the seventies and eighties became a substitute for academics actually doing their job. They failed to exercise the real responsibilities inherent in the function of the intellect and drifted off into partisan political pragmatism and hence the university became fundamentally inimical to intellectual endeavour.

It can hardly be denied that universities were badly in need of reform as educational institutions when in 1988 the government in the form of federal education minister Dawkins stepped in to fill what had become a virtual vacuum. If academics and universities had sought to put their own house in order earlier, they might have been sufficiently sensitive and alert to have been in a position to negotiate with industry and government. They would have been a discreet and well defined force to be reckoned with on their own ground. Instead, what occurred was more than an abdication, it was a wholesale lapse in consciousness. Academics did not even know what the questions facing them were and in particular their perception of the basic elements of economic life appeared faulty. Governments had to balance budgets and academics seemed not to recognise this, or when they did, they did so in the terms of politicians themselves. The university could only have survived if academics had earlier banded together to form again what they had once been, a corporation with its own rules, its own values, its own ‘organisational culture’ and rationale and the will to assert the importance of those things. This assertion needed to be made not only against State, industry and commerce but ultimately in the best interests of those very sectors. In other words, a successful university system needs to both challenge and serve the interests of State and industry at one and the same time. Finding the right balance is the problem. At present that balance has tipped too far in favour of State and industry. No better illustration of this dilemma can be found than in the operation of some departments in university Education faculties. The academic staff of these departments have increasingly found themselves in the peculiar position of experiencing a greater and greater divorce between their research interests and the content of their teaching. Government education departments demand they provide a certain curriculum for teacher trainees based on educational theories and ideas years out of date. It is the job of academics to keep up to date with and to offer new approaches to education in a way that cannot possibly be reproduced by the State whose primary job it is to govern. Thus an ever widening gap is produced between cutting edge research and the curriculum offered to hapless students. In such a case neither the university nor the government can possibly perform their proper functions with any degree of efficacy and the whole delicately balanced system breaks breaks down further still amidst ongoing mutual recriminations.

It has often been objected that academics are too diverse a group, too broken up by solitary and esoteric research to make the powerful and successful declaration of corporate identity required to prove to the rest of the community that they are capable of governing their own affairs. But if we go back to the University of Paris in 1229, we find an extraordinary mix of scholars from all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, who did not appear to have had any overwhelming problem in imposing its corporate will. Further, the University of Paris was an organisation squarely anchored in the ‘real world’, providing education and training for practitioners in all the major professions – medical, legal and clerical – as well as for government officials and advisors. Not only this, but it was also responsible for educating children and adolescents. So what has changed? Is nearly 600 years of human history such an unbridgeable and utterly alienating gap? Yet close examination reveals that at the most general level, the functions of the various social institutions have changed little: governments continue to govern and extract taxes from their subjects, businesses continue to produce, trade and make money and universities continue to teach, train the professions and undertake advanced research.

So what can be done to restore the balance and reassert and reintegrate the identity of the university – particularly at a time when the politics of identity for a myriad of so many other groups is so high on the agenda? The balance can only be restored if the disintegration is recognised as being such. One cannot solve a problem one does not even know exists. A first step towards reintegration is for academics to admit that they have failed in the past to recognise their own shortcomings and to accept that the function, however much changed, of the university remains the same. If there is no agreement on such basic principles then all indeed is lost; but let us assume, optimistically perhaps, that such agreement is possible. The next step is then to open discussion about the balance which must be struck between the pragmatic realities – the need both to educate and train the professions and to balance the economy; and the need both to advance knowledge and for society to have a mechanism to criticise and evaluate itself. But above all, one salient fact leaps out of the present tensions between university and the State. The State has become educationally out of date. The State no longer knows what it’s doing at the educational level. There was a time under Dawkins, eight years ago, when it did know, but as its primary function is to govern, it must necessarily fall behind those institutions whose job it is to keep abreast with and create new developments in specialised fields. The universities now have a second chance to recapture the initiative from a State increasingly demonstrating its incompetence and lack of leadership in the field of education. Academics and universities are once again in a position to resume their time honoured role and the medieval University of Paris need no longer represent some impossibly archaic piece of ancient history.

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