Everyone knows that Scott Morrison's government is presiding over a crisis in Australian universities.
The government speaks as if the crisis is unavoidable. This is not true. It is the result of a blend of passivity where action is needed and intervention arranged to do harm. The crisis is being exacerbated by university managers who have adopted a posture of austerity. According to some estimates, 30,000 jobs across Australia will be gone by the year's end. Around 10,000 are already gone.
Much has been written about why universities are in trouble and how they are responding. They were reshaped, with corporate logic, to be particularly vulnerable to a crisis like COVID-19, having developed an overdependence on high-fee-paying international students; a structurally unsound product of short-sighted greed. They suffered through the government's repeated rearranging of JobKeeper so as to exclude local public universities from support (while allowing private universities such as Bond and Torrens, along with the Sydney satellite of the obscenely wealthy New York University, to qualify). Then there are the Coalition's proposed funding reforms, which use price signals to disincentivise enrolment in certain degrees, particularly those in the humanities, and raise the cost of university while reducing government funding.
If the government were attempting to strangle universities, to downgrade them to a rote, uncreative and unimaginative mechanism for professionalisation and nothing else, then it would do something like what it is doing now. If universities were attempting to mimic profit-motivated corporations at the expense of their staff and students, this is how they would go about it.
Part of the reason the government can afford to let universities languish is because the purpose of the university sector is rarely well-communicated beyond it being understood as a set of institutions dispensing qualificatory pieces of paper in exchange for spending several years wandering between their rooms.
This is partially the fault of universities that try to convince the world of their authority and power by the grandeur of their buildings rather than the expertise of their people. What universities, at their best, provide, and what is being lost, is one of the few remaining spaces where critical thought is not only permitted but encouraged and rewarded. When those powerful enough not to need universities disparage them, they describe them as centres of indoctrination, refusing to understand that, at their best, universities stand among the final defences against indoctrination. An institution that teaches its students to question the arrangement of the world, to be sceptical of the taken-for-granted systems of value, will never be welcomed by those who benefit most from the world's present arrangement.
If universities are to fulfil this role, to flourish in it, they cannot be governed by the insidious and increasingly pervasive laws of the market. Among the questions not encouraged or rewarded by the logic of market capitalism is whether in fact market capitalism, a system designed to overthrow everything but itself, should be the only model we ever consider when organising society.
Priming people for their careers is important, but such work does not need to come at the cost of all else. It can instead sit comfortably alongside the recognition that there are ways to manage a life other than having every decision turn on extracting the maximum possible profit.
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If we continue to follow the current path, universities will be indistinguishable from businesses, treating students as consumers. The accessibility of a degree will be determined exclusively by who is able to pay, the content of a qualification dictated only by what is most attractive to the job market. Rather than providing the tools with which students might imagine a more just and equal future, universities will take on whichever characteristics make them most friendly to those with the capacity to distribute wealth.
So, what alternative role might universities play as we plunge, ever-disoriented, deeper into the 21st century? They must supply a service that seems increasingly radical: the time and space to pause and think in a manner that cannot be easily measured. As class sizes are increased, as teachers spend less time with students, as academics dedicate less time to research, we risk constricting universities to such an extent they will be unable to mount an argument for their own existence. This is, of course, the point.
Austerity is attractive to conservatives not because it saves money, but because it weakens whichever sectors of society the government wishes to squeeze from existence, reducing those sectors' value in the eyes of the public. The loss of reputation and quality means no one will protest their being sold off to the private sector, or further decreases in funding. Nor will the government have to concern itself with institutions which suggest, perhaps, that we might imagine an alternative world, a world where class is no barrier to education, a world where the criteria of a person's worth hang on something other than their financial efficiency.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.