There are many decision makers wringing their hands about the fate of Australian universities. Politicians openly whinge about the impact of costs for education on their electorate – or discreetly cut as much funds as possible. Investment in high quality education is documented as the wisest possible investment! In quality education – and quality is harder to achieve than we like to admit.
The reality is that universities in Australia face in general ‘a tide of community and political hostility’, as noted by Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, the group of most reputable Australian universities. In an analysis published in the Australian (I highly recommend to read the article*), the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne is cited as saying that local universities are facing ‘a rising tide of criticism’. But why?
Ms. Thomson is saying that “People don’t trust universities. It’s an era of mistrust. And we are in the spotlight more for the wrong reasons” than the right. It is still unclear what are the ‘right reasons’ to distrust universities!
Academics are very shy to deal with any form of malaise in their organisations, some just because they are terrified for their future, some for being part of the problem. Local cliques of ‘good ol’ boys’ who are religiously committed to intellectual mediocrity and machinations serving their own interests have a corrosive effect for the last decades. Academia is not an ivory tower, but a kafkaesque creation where people feel that is not safe to speak freely. In time, most don’t even think freely, as dangerous thoughts can also lead to professional disasters. The group of scared academics is the majority that have to survive in their unstable jobs; so most click their heels in front of any idiotic idea launched by morally compromised coteries.
A large and worrying set of research reveals the continuous increase of mental health issues for academics (stress, depression, anxiety, suicides). This should be much more visible for those who are genuinely worried about the future of our universities*. Invariably, bullying – and the absolute power taken by the well established cliques that use it with cynicism – come with a dramatic price for the people, and for the future of our institutions of higher education. Meritocracy is now a laughable idea. How can we seriously expect respect from the public when these things are less hidden than we like to believe? The simple fact that there are just vague attempts to find out the reasons of why universities are increasingly disliked represent on itself an answer to the mystery.
I may lose here some friends I have in academia, but I’ll try to find what can be the set of causes that make those in power to lament this traumatic turn of favours for universities (in Australia and abroad):
- Institutionalised hypocrisy: the most powerful universities are vastly populated by academics who had free education and a relatively generous start in life after graduation (for sure, it was incomparably better than the one that current students face after graduation). Despite this, with few notable exceptions, power-holding groups insist that there wasn’t a ‘good old time’ ever (no one is saying that anyway) and students should pay for their studies. Their cynicism is not unnoticed. One thing is certain: for these groups there was never a better time than now, and this is a source of extreme frustration for students and some fellow academics. Politicians are much more guilty on this area, but this fact makes even more startling to see academics embracing the hypocritical position.
- Intellectual crisis and aggressive mediocrity: attending an academic conference should be a topic of anthropological research. It is a rare occasion to see how any glimmer of hope that one interesting idea can be truly debated is withering with the same things that run for the last 20-30 years. Same old faces run the same old ideas and make intellectualised comments in line with the latests fads.
I had one the unfortunate position to listen one well known monument of mediocrity in a reputable university advocating for MOOCs as the solution that will open the gates of higher education to all and will make universities struggle only to deal with too much money and hundreds of thousands of students in one course. MOOCs were the silver bullet and the big problems of education ended there. I was listening less than a year later the same amoral individual mocking the MOOC-hysteria, in front of the same audience, with no sense of shame or ridicule. This is the general dynamic of typical conferences, where the audience and presenters are the same, in a sad metaphor of a perfect echo-chamber, which is ineluctably missed.
We have to agree with the President of Ireland, who noted that universities “should foster dissent and allow for rejection of dominant ideologies”*. But this is simply not happening! How often do we read or hear about conferences about the intellectual and moral crisis of our universities? Where were universities when the extreme right was growing in our societies? My guess is that they were happy about MOOCs and unicorns.
Working in institutions of higher education for the last 20 years I can hardly remember any symposium, seminar or conference even vaguely related to that. Most academics – and managers of their institutions – believe that an office in a sandstone building equals intellectual brilliancy, virtue and automatically granted public respect. But the public is much more aware now that their sons and daughters pay a lot (and go in crushing debt) for something that is not education, but a convoluted game of credentialisation. They enter institutions with few passionate lost voices in a sea of cynicism. Their hope and efforts are to educate their children, with skills and values, solid intellectual foundations, critical, creative and inquisitive minds. What they get is something far from this; in fact, how can we expect to create critical minds and engaged graduates when critiques and genuine debates are stifled in academia?
- Social (in)difference. All slogans must sound good: ‘social responsibility’, “corporate responsibility’, ‘responsibility and social justice’ etc. Some regional Australian universities really try their best to serve traditionally disadvantaged groups, and succeed. However, most universities are more famous for their stiffness and arrogance than for their genuine interest on social progress.
The fad about ’employability’ is not related that much with the fate of students, but with the university’s brand and position on the market. It would be laughable to find that our institutions build on the belief that students are that naive to miss this important nuance; is not their fate that matters for university, but their own bank accounts. It is a cynical and unfortunate message for current students, and many are disenchanted about their choice. A recent survey reveals that over half of students in British institutions of higher education consider that their studies will secure them a job at their level of study. A significant percentage also indicates that they are not confident at all that their university studies open good opportunities for employment. I analysed in an article published in The Conversation* why this focus on ’employability’ masks a current intellectual superficiality of academia and why it leads to more problems than results. One thing is for sure: one does not get many friends when questioning a fad that is enthusiastically adopted by those in power.
The potemkinisation of academia is the secret known by all; the facade is now the reality and the known knowns are better left ignored. The focus is on all data that can maintain the facade, even if gaps, manipulations or irrelevance for a higher education becomes painfully visible. To get just two examples, we can wonder why Political Sciences departments across the world were so silent about the rise of Brexit and Trump forces and so surprised when they succeeded. This is almost as bad as the record of Economics’ departments before and immediately after the World Financial Crisis: that had no clue, looking at their own fads and listening the echoes of their own voices.
- A loss of identity. Universities lost their mission and identity. Silicon Valley et comp. is shaping teaching solutions, even changing the meaning of some fundamental concepts for higher education (such as personalisation of education, which is now synonymous with computer assisted learning) or by making profit and financial balances more important than any other aspect of university life and identity. Most importantly, higher education is chasing goals that are common for vocational education, while trying to maintain the ascendence of higher learning (a concept that is increasingly unclear for most managers of universities). The identity is further convoluted by various pressures from groups with conflicting interests. This last element is imposed on universities, but the effort to answer to all is leading to a general disappointment of results.
Of course, I may be completely wrong in the analysis above and universities are doing just well, as institutions of higher education, progress and intellectual courage. However, now is the time to take a mirror and see what is wrong within our own institutions – if there is anything wrong – and deal with courage and decency to address the most serious problems.
There are two main reasons to have real change in the Australian higher education, to refocus on higher learning and on the real possibility to make Australian universities uniquely good. First, we have a favourable moment for progress and making Australian universities extremely attractive. Higher education in the UK, a stronger competitor, is badly hit now by the abysmally stupid idea of Brexit. The election of Trump and security concerns (mass shootings and gun violence don’t play well for local universities) already make American universities see a serious reduction in numbers of international students.
Now is the time to change the paradigm, break old cliques and focus on genuinely creative ideas for the future, in an agenda shaped by and for universities. Politicians can understand that an ‘industry’ that brings $21.8 billion annually in Australia and impacts massively on tax returns, real estate, and costs related with living expenses must have political and financial support. Also, the public can only love institutions that truly care and serve community and the society, and not only themselves.
The perils of status quo
The favourable set of factors for Australian higher education, that managed to survive relatively well under the successive attacks of underfunding from the political class and the chaotic approach of current government coalition, is already under a fast – and unfortunate – transformation. One major risk comes from the most important markets, which are important now to keep the system afloat. China is building fast more local universities and aggressively attract Western scholars to teach there (and stimulate local economy, among other reasons). Furthermore, Chinese graduate students return home from international universities to find a tough job market that is now rarely looking at an international diploma as a factor for employment. The value of overseas education is openly questioned in China and the most important Chinese newspapers go as far as saying that returnees may be ‘incompatible to domestic society’*. Chinese students will think at least twice in the current context before leaving to study in Australia or any other country abroad. The promise of easily accessible international markets for Australian universities is starting to vanish.
There are some managers in higher education who are currently working frantically to fix what years of hubris, bad ideas, fraudulent characters in positions of power and misguided politicians inflicted on local institutions of higher education. Same ‘experts’ who are responsible for many current disasters sell the same old managerial fads with the note that the pill should be bigger and much more concentrated. The patient can die, but profits will be good… In the meantime, universities presenting themselves as leaders of the pack (not only the famous 8) float in the same old echo-chambers with the same local cliques flaunting arrogant cliches when the reality becomes too hard to ignore. The price will be high for all, as inertia never worked as a perpetuum mobile.
Ultimately, the most important asset for universities remains the prestige associated with the value of their thinking and contribution to the society. At this point, academia is moved away from both. If there is no original agenda for higher education (not one taken from startups, various industries that work completely different than education or those imposed by groups with vested interests), and a rethink of what is higher learning and the responsibility of educated people, we should at least stop wringing our hands and take some decent responsibility for what will follow.
*The Australian: Unis face ‘tide of hostility’ and loss of trust
*Times Higher Education: Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions
*The Irish Times: President Higgins: Universities facing ‘intellectual crisis’
*The Conversation: Universities can’t, and shouldn’t, educate to suit employers
*The Sydney Morning Herald: Chinese students question Australian education sending chills through industry