Something rotten at the heart of Sydney University

Something is rotten at the heart of Sydney University. On the surface, it has never shown so attractive a face to the world. In the evening, walking back towards City Road, the glass and steel of the newly-finished law building frame the sloping green of Victoria Park, and beyond that, the lights of the city. The sight has the dimensions and composition of a picture-postcard: serene, iconic, a little too neat. Continue on, and you will find that the bridge to cross City Road, which is also brand-new. Which seems a little strange … wasn’t there a perfectly functional old bridge there a couple of years ago?

Sydney University’s profligate spending on preening architectural projects is cast into sharp relief by the recent furore over budget failures, and what university management intends to do about it. Despite notching up a budget surplus of 113 million dollars in 2010, Michael Spence, the vice-chancellor, recently circulated a video briefing in which he indicated that staff costs are to be cut by 7.5%, axing around 340 jobs, to make way for improvements in IT infrastructure and building maintenance. The criteria for this savage culling of heads are based on a crude quantitative measure of ‘outputs’, applied retrospectively to the number of papers published in the last two years.

I’m about to graduate from Sydney University. I’ve been privileged to learn from some outstanding individuals. I’ve also often found myself crammed into classes so over-subscribed that there aren’t enough chairs to go around. The idea that the way forward is to reduce the number of teaching staff is incredibly wrong-headed. As a piece signed by twenty-six academic staff points out, ‘no one wants better facilities for a job they no longer have’. The disingenuousness of management’s claim that the university would be happy, were it possible, to keep all their staff on, while simultaneously claiming that some are ‘not pulling their weight’, is a classic case of Freud’s joke about the borrowed kettle, in which mutually exclusive statements are offered in a way that undermines all of them, while the real reason is obfuscated. In fact, the desire to ‘downsize’ the staff has been on the agenda since long before the current budgetary crisis. Like that Machiavellian operator Rahm Emmanuel, it is clear that the university management believes in never ‘letting a series crisis go to waste.’

If only this were an isolated case of mismanagement; a blunder of judgement. Sadly, it is not. It’s part of a much bigger picture of managerialist philistinism infecting universities across the world. The use of quantitative measures – such as a crude numeric count on publications – on intellectual activities that must by their very nature be considered and judged qualitatively, is a symptom of a technocratic ideology of efficiency and an obsessive desire to measure and ration according to values entirely extrinsic from the value-systems of the activities themselves. Like Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, those animated by this ideology of economic rationalism know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The university, Slavoj Zizek warns, is ‘no longer to be a space of freedom but a socially-useful factory for producing experts’. You can see this ideology at work even in the set of talking points put together by the ArtsEmergency organisation, which attempts to fight back against the cuts decimating faculties across the UK and sweeping away whole departments. The first item on its list of reasons ‘Why the arts and humanities matter’ is that they ‘are useful’, and the third item is that they ‘make money’.

‘The first task of the arts world,’ says John Tusa in a recent Guardian article, ‘is to refuse to be bullied into using words and concepts that belong to a different world; the world of bureaucratic and management speak.’ Necessary, certainly, but inadequate. This is not a problem of language but of conflicting interests. We are forced into playing defence, and we should certainly do so to the best of our abilities, using all the tools at our disposal; but that’s insufficient to turn the tide. The crisis sweeping through our universities is at its heart neither an institutional nor an academic one but one facet of a broader crisis of liberalism.

The postwar consensus, in its various liberal and social democratic incarnations, was a compromise granted not out of benevolence but reluctantly, from the fear of communism. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the political balance has tilted drastically to the right; witness the rabid rhetoric of the Tea Party in America, in which even the most timid ameliorations of market fundamentalism in favour of people’s needs is portrayed as crypto-Marxism and a wanton disregard for individual freedom. The last major power to call itself communist is well on its way to becoming the largest capitalist economy in the world, retaining only the worst and most repressive aspects of twentieth-century communism. The third-way triangulation of Blair and Clinton, and the extraordinarily self-defeating bargaining positions of the Obama administration – in which concessions are granted preemptively in the expectation of goodwill that never materialises – only serve to compound the problem.
A rearguard action against the remorseless forces of economic rationalism is a necessary battle, and we should give our full support to those bodies, such as the NTEU, at the forefront of the struggle. But we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Those nascent social movements (Occupy, the Arab Spring) that are beginning to carve out a space for an alternative to neoliberal hegemony should firmly resist the many attempts being made by the elite chattering classes to scale down their vision of a better future, and content themselves with a laundry list of timid, politically realist objectives, tacitly ‘naturalising the contingent organisation of the social order’.

Centrist liberals, as well as leftists, should recognise the importance of a radical alternative as a counter-weight to the rightward slippage of recent decades. The university, embodiment of the cherished liberal values of free thought and intellectual experimentation, is the canary in the political mineshaft. The erosion of academia demonstrates how illiberal the ideology of technocratic neoliberalism is. Ultimately, our institutions will not be sustained by a liberal or leftist version of William F Buckley’s ‘standing athwart history, yelling Stop!’. If the little islands of un-commodified intellectual space are not to be washed away – downsized, anaesthetised, demoralised and crushed beneath the boots of economic rationalism – we must project a political alternative radical enough to frighten the holders of the purse-strings into retreat and compromise.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

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