A load of frolics

For the sake of elementary critical reflection, it might be worth reminding our nation’s policy chiefs of the manifest oddities of free market capitalism. They appear to forget, or are willfully ignorant of, the fact that once higher education is turned into yet another commercial ‘product’ or ‘service’ like banking or cosmetic surgery, when universities are required to compete in a cut-throat market, and when brand, image and ‘reputation’ take precedence over substance then (lo and behold!) the system gives rise to all manner of unforeseen consequences.

Recent years have witnessed the latter in spade-loads: crazy course offerings, the erosion of arts, humanities and social sciences, dubious claims to excellence and, perhaps most worryingly, a stupefying array of promotional emissions in the form of slogans, tag lines, mottos and vacuous vision statements.

The most recent manifestation of market-mania is the wrangle (one hesitates to call it a debate) over the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). This clumsy aggregated score of high school performance was once – foolishly perhaps – considered to have some validity in terms of providing a broad assessment of scholastic ability. For years, the ATAR score was used as one of the main routes into university. While the academic value of ATARs has long been debatable, no-one could have predicted the current disassembling of this measure to the point where its utility as a university entry score is fast approaching the farcical. The situation has arisen largely because ATARs have been progressively diluted by the widespread adoption of ‘flexible’ entry standards via points systems, early entry schemes, cherry-picked units and a host of tertiary preparation courses that have yet to submit themselves fully to evaluative scrutiny. In many instances, university applicants are virtually assured entry providing they meet a range of highly elastic enrolment requirements. Some regional universities vying for student enrolments openly boast of having the country’s most ‘flexible’ entry requirements, which is corporate-speak for open slather.

The upshot of such institutional shenanigans is a bifurcated system whereby the elite ‘G8’ sandstone universities can set lofty ATAR entry scores while the rest – especially those in the regions – scramble for enrolments in the world’s most deregulated system of higher education.

Not surprisingly, the more desperate vice-chancellors trawling for student enrolments tend to apply retrospective justifications to low entry offers. The usual afterthoughts are:  ‘there’s no correlation between the ATAR and eventual outcome’ or ‘it’s the integrity of programs that really matters’ or ‘entry standards are just an artifact of supply and demand’ or ‘we want to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter university’ and so forth. Apologists will also point to the existence of high-quality learning support, even though for many universities this amounts to under-resourced and poorly staffed programs that are unable to cope with the demands of students struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Perhaps the most telling admission about low ATAR scores comes from one of the policy mandarins most responsible for applying market fundamentalism to Australian higher education: namely,  Professor Denise Bradley. In January she admitted to the Australian ‘Higher Education’ supplement that she had been surprised by the huge rise in student enrolments since the removal of federal government caps in 2012. She added: ‘Only time will tell if universities have been able to successfully provide the additional support needed. Some will do it well; others won’t do it quite so well.’

Given Professor Bradley’s publicly-stated commitment to quality assurance in higher education, this remark is revealing for its hit-and-miss acceptance that many universities may not be in a position to respond effectively to increased student demand.

But the situation is not simply of the universities’ own making. Over recent years they have been forced, through a combination of free market economics and federal government cuts, into making difficult choices in order to survive in a globally competitive market. Ever more reliant on student enrolments (as well as corporate and philanthropic donations) to fund their operations, few universities are able to avoid the zero-sum game that is the higher education market: if you don’t grab student enrolments, someone else will.

ATARS are, of course, only one element in a system that is experiencing enormous challenges. No amount of image making or PR weasel words can disguise public concerns over the ‘dumbing down’ of higher education, the swollen class sizes and the massive pressures placed on those at the pointy-end of ‘service delivery’: that is, academics. Despite all the policy deliberations and strategic directions regularly trotted out by governments and university leaders, rarely are academics asked about what they think of having to deal with the daily realities of ‘massification’, the endless pressures of chronic multi-tasking, admistrivia, and the vagaries of on-line education. Academics have become ghosts – or zombies – in the machine, reduced to the roles of service providers and process facilitators, and subordinated to forms of corporate governance (as in the case of the University of Sydney) that seriously erode academic autonomy. I once wrote a satirical piece for the Australian’s ‘Higher Education’ section in which I created a fictional advertisement for an academic robot that would dutifully perform all the current roles of a university academic. So bureaucratised, regulated and standardised has the system of higher education become that the idea of an academic robot no longer seems all that improbable.

In the absence of a clearly articulated alternative to the current mess, the stifling regulatory culture that characterises today’s university system has been allowed to endure.  The maintenance of the status quo has been ably assisted by the fourth estate, most notably the Australian and Campus Review, publications that are characterised by a bovine adherence to the prevailing order. Rarely do their pages include meaningful discussion on the nature and purpose of universities in Australian society, other than to confirm their role in promoting productivity, the knowledge economy, global competitiveness, economic growth, GDP and so forth.  Occasional critical pieces about ATARs, assessment practices, research, pedagogy and the like are aired in the context of an otherwise unquestioning acceptance of universities as ranked bastions of global performance, enterprise and market share.

The failure of ‘nerve’ in the case of one editor to publish even the most timid satirical articles about universities, and the slide by Campus Review into celebratory feature articles about university research, is simply mind-numbing and adds nothing to a meaningful public discussion on the civic role of universities. As mouthpieces for the neoliberal state, these outlets largely echo the corporate line, which takes little stock of alternative, critical opinion and ignores almost all the deep-seated concerns of both students and academics.

Notwithstanding their marginalisation, academics cannot be easily excused for the current state of universities. Only a small proportion – about 25 percent – belongs to the national union, and most academics either acquiesce to or embody most aspects of the current system. Few have the courage to speak out publicly about the parlous state of our universities – although, if recent conferences, publications in the Australian Universities Review and books on academic zombification are anything to go by ­– there are distinct signs of rebellion in the ranks.

Then there is the professoriate. It is among this elite cohort that one might reasonably expect the most vigorous critique of the university system. Yet sadly, the professoriate remains largely mute, its members having given up, or having immersed themselves in the institutional luxuries afforded through their professional status. (There are of course some notable exceptions: for instance, Professor Raewyn Connell and her colleagues at the University of Sydney). To be sure, the professoriate is occasionally amassed to protest via open letters against federal government cuts to higher education. But these are rare events. The failure of the professoriate to provide leadership and its inability to contribute to public debate about the state of our universities is one of the most remarkable aspects of the tertiary system. Indeed, many professors laud the current corporatised system and actively promote an institutional culture which, in earlier days, they might have abhorred.

In my view, it is to academics more broadly, students and the public to which we must turn if there is to be a meaningful public debate on the future of Australian universities.  The generation of such a debate requires academics to speak out publicly (and beyond conferences) about their concerns, to articulate a coherent vision of what universities should and could be in a truly democratic and civically engaged society. Students have often taken the lead internationally protesting against the neoliberal agendas of today’s higher education system. But they also look to academics to take a public lead on such matters.

If ever there was a reason for debate on the state of Australian universities one need look no further than one of nation’s leading commentators on higher education, Professor Simon Marginson. Here is what he has to say about our so-called ‘world class’ universities:

In the current policy context world class universities are not those who provide the best programs or educate the most diverse set of citizens. They are not necessarily the most intellectually creative or far sighted institutions, and are not the most socially equitable. Nor are they those that best address the common problems of humanity. World class universities pump out the most global science, attract and hold the top scientists, generate lucrative research applications for industry, and lead in the rankings. For better or worse that is the present global standard.

Enough said.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University)

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  1. In 2007 I had a paper published in the Journal of Creative and Critical Thinking, a journal devoted to philosophical thinking in the classroom, a journal that ceased to exist after 2009, no doubt part of the same market fundamentalism discussed in this article. Glad to see the matter raised here. Truly saddened by the trend towards the sausage-factory degree process. At a time when we need sharp thinking and critical reflection as much as ever we did, our tertiary institutions are qualitatively shriveling. Thank you Richard Hill.

  2. I see very little evidence here of universities being done in by free market fundamentalism and ‘capitalism’ – the bogey of so many on the left. The examples listed at the beginning – ‘ crazy course offerings, the erosion of arts, humanities and social sciences, dubious claims to excellence and, perhaps most worryingly, a stupefying array of promotional emissions in the form of slogans, tag lines, mottos and vacuous vision statements’ – are partly the result of the messy way governments have managed universities over successive years, partly influenced by union pressure, and yes, partly the result of market influence.

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