Talkin' about a revolution...
Talkin' about a revolution...
11 Apr 2008
A modified version of this opinion piece was first published on ABC Radio on 27 March 2008.
Julia Gillard's announcement last week of a major review of Australian Higher Education, to be carried out by Denise Bradley, follows on from the announcement two weeks earlier by Kim Carr of plans for a new quality and evaluation system for research that will also encompass Australia's universities. Both announcements suggest that the Rudd Government is serious about the need for a new approach to higher education. This is confirmed by the comments and interviews from the ministers themselves. Last December, we organized and published an open letter to Mr. Rudd - one supported by over 300 senior academics and calling on the government to take its promise of an 'education revolution' into higher education. So we are gratified to see Ministers Gillard and Carr acting in such a positive fashion. But there are some issues that still worry many academic staff, and two of these deserve special attention.
First, the division of roles. These two recent announcements are absolutely critical to the future health of the universities, and yet were made separately and by two different Ministers. While Mr.Carr's emphasis was clearly on scholarship and research, there was a focus in Ms Gillard's announcement on vocational training and skills shortages. It may be that the apparent separation of the new system of research evaluation from the review of higher education is not intentional. Alternatively, there may be some other reasons why the two ministers chose to focus their announcements in this way. The fact is that since the Dawkins 'reforms' which abolished the tertiary divide, universities have combined both research and training activities.
This means that the Bradley review – as general review of the sector – might be expected to look at several things. Training itself is not the same as teaching, and clearly not the same as research. What is vital is that the terms of reference of the Bradley review make clear just what its focus is, and that its findings be viewed in light of its focus. One crucial question is whether the increasing emphasis on training over the last decade, and the resulting tendency for a rather limited training-oriented mentality to be extended to all forms of university teaching has damaged Australia's higher education system in general. The new government has explicitly rejected the 'one size fits all approach' to universities in general. In keeping with this, we would urge the Government to adopt an integrated approach to our universities that recognizes the diversity that exists within as well as between institutions. One size does not fit all teaching needs in such a varied sector. Fir it not only encompasses training, teaching and research, but also contains variations in disciplinary and interdisciplinary conventions and structures, and in modes of academic practice.
Both Ministers Gillard and Carr have pledged to reverse the unsubtle anti-intellectualism that characterized the previous Federal Government's dealings with universities and academics. Such anti-intellectualism, as Ms Gillard rightly points out, is hard to fathom. The simple truth is that modern technologically-oriented societies depend critically upon the high-level research and teaching that is undertaken in universities and associated organisations. Without the knowledge and skills that they generate and support, most of what we take for granted as part of our contemporary way of life would not exist. Yet neither anti-intellectualism nor chronic underfunding is the only reason for the current crisis in higher education.
A key issue in our December letter was the bureaucratic and administrative impositions on universities over recent years, and the resulting erosion of academic standards under the impact of changing management regimes, half-baked policy initatives, and top-heavy bureaucracy. This is the second glaring problem the government faces in bringing about a real education revolution. Bureaucratisation has reached insane levels in many universities, where academic staff, drowning in more paperwork than they have time to fill in, view themselves as managed by the incompetent and audited by the ignorant. Such impositions have often been justified by an ideology of 'accountability' and 'transparency' – terms that are bureauspeak for governmental control rather than any true ethical imperative. They are also the product of a simplistic and outdated bureaucratic managerial culture that is most prevalent outside the United States, has been resisted in the best American universities, and is no longer favoured even within contemporary organisational theory.
A key problem is that the concepts that underpin this culture are for the most part impossible to define if not operationally unrealistic and empty. Take, for example, the concepts of 'quality' and 'continuous improvement' that are central to the Australian Universities Quality Agency system. Neither term stands up to any serious critical or scientific scrutiny (which may be why both notions have tended to disappear even from the theoretical management literature)). The delusion that they are useful concepts means that both continue to be applied within Australian higher education as part of a costly framework whose effects have never been subject to any proper evaluation, and whose benefits cannot be demonstrated in any reliable fashion.
A central claim of the December letter was that an essential step in addressing the current higher education crisis will be to reform the bloated and costly higher education bureaucracy, and the naïve and outdated policy framworks that goes with it. That means developing new systems and policies geared to the real priorities and practicalities of university and academic work. Doing so may itself be one step toweards also remedying the problem of underfunding – the fact that currently more than 50% of university budgets are spent on administration is the surest indication of just how dysfunctional the system has become. The signs from Ministers Gillard and Carr are heartening, but it remains to be seen whether we will see a real revolution here, or whether they will remain captive of the higher education policy frameworks of the past.