Monday, May 05, 2003

How third-world are Australia’s universities?

I’ll start by leaving the money/funding issue aside. Something I read the other day said that Oz was now on par with Slovenia on this front – and still slipping. It’s not that I doubt this (nor that I wouldn’t want to simultaneously gloat and fret about it) – rather, I think that little, human-size facts (let’s call them “factlets”) sometimes say more.

Factlet number 1 (which I only just found out)

Andrew Norton, who I already knew of as a shock-jock-for-hire style commentator on university “reform”, apparently holds down two part-time jobs – one at the Centre for Independent Studies (a right-wing thinktank) and another, more mysterious role, on the staff of the University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert.

Far from it falling unto me to utter the words “conflict of interest”. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re on the staff of a right-wing thinktank, spreading your talents around to other, sympathetic organisations is positively welcomed and expected. Unlike most career moonlighting, such employer promiscuity is presumably known about and encouraged by both organizations. The CIS gets, at the very least, the happy knowledge that, by Andrew’s Parkville lemonade stand or whatever it is, their employee practises what he preaches, never letting himself get too comfortable with the CIS’s pay-packet alone. I’m not sure what the University of Melbourne indirectly gets, for its part – but I’m sure it’s something very valuable. So valuable, in fact, that it has to be kept quite secret – other than the above link, there is virtually nothing (official Melbourne Uni, official CIS, or otherwise) that acknowledges Andrew’s dual existence.

Ironically, then, it was Andrew himself who recently blew his own cover. The context for this happening was understandable – if you’re the sort of person who automatically brownnoses to his olders and/or betters when the minutest opportunity to arise does so. Andrew is, or at least must be (I don’t actually know him), that type of person; hence this sweet, and yet a bit schoolboy-cheeky blog posting of his:

Sunday, April 27, 2003
By Andrew Norton, 5:02 PM

Medals for all

I am pleased that among the 15,464 Centenary Medals space was found for everyone I have worked under since 1991: my PhD supervisor Chandran Kukathas, Greg Lindsay of the CIS, David Kemp, now Minister for the Environment, and Alan Gilbert, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. In future job interviews when I am asked if I have any questions for them I will say ‘Do you have a Centenary Medal?’

Now, the casual reader may think that I’m just being a bit tall-poppyish here. I do admit that I did not get a Centenary Medal personally. But I also get the sense that Andrew is going way over the top on this topic. It’s almost one of those minor-novelty tabloid stories, you know: “Three generations of the Janelle family have all given birth on May 2”. Andrew’s subtext confirms this – he is not, as I read it, angling for kudos generally, much less indirectly pointing out his own lack of a well-deserved Centenary Medal gong, specifically. No, Andrew is truly and absolutely genuine in his self-modesty.

It is possible though, to err on the other extreme, with a self-effacing-ness that becomes akin to a birch rod. For a senior higher education commentator, Andrew is strangely reluctant to claim the PhD (whose obscure supervisor he speaks of so glowingly above), either before or after his name. Equally, despite recently noting in his 1 May blog entry (same URL as previous) the fact that he started something at Monash Uni in 1984, there is no hint in his official CIS biog of what this might have been. A job (but with whom was he working “under”?). An undergraduate course? (but in what?)

Factlet number 2

The answer is not to “un–” the university:

A university unconstrained by formal assessment is an unaccredited university. If this sounds like just hollow institution-speak, let me put it another way: a university unconstrained by formal assessment is a pub with no beer – literally and metaphorically.

Factlet number 3

It is currently only the goodwill of academics that is keeping the university system together.

The above statement is true of almost all at-least-passable-quality universities in third-world countries. The main (and probably only) exception to this is private universities- not that these especially proliferate in the third world, of course.

I am not trying to draw a logical syllogism, about Australia being a third-world country, here. Still less am I trying to make an indirect case for wage rises for academics. On the contrary, I have no doubt that salaries for academics could be halved across the board, and there would be no problem filling the positions with capable, qualified applicants. This, you see, is part of the problem, too.

Academics’ collective goodwill is too much taken for granted – including by (most) academics themselves. In the last decade and a half, our universities have been systemically, slowly looted (I reject “starved of funds”, as insufficient to describe the craven opportunism and the pervasive, debasing senselessness that has been behind the whole operation, the whole way). Almost everything that could be taken away has been, by now. Ironically perhaps, the only remaining, presumed-immoveable fixtures are the human capital.

It has been a serious tactical mistake for academics to, by and large, have remained passive spectators throughout this process. Sure, there have been grumblings all along, loud enough to be heard by those that matter. But like the frog added to lukewarm water, which is then slowly brought to the boil, the grumblings have never had a breaking-point, at which “enough is enough” is declared. Academics are poorly unionised – the entrenchment of a two-tier wage system (casuals are paid at approximately one quarter of the real pro rata of permanents, meaning that a “full-time casual” academic will earn 10k – 15k per year) has driven a wedge between young and old. The latter are highly unionised, but without the membership – or even the goodwill – of the former, the union has had all the effectiveness of a ramshackle guild. No other profession would have tolerated the looting of all that it stood for, let alone go about “business as usual” throughout the fifteen years this has taken.

Even in the worst third-world dictatorships, universities survive. Many would attribute this to the goodwill and resilience of the local academics. Certainly, they may be both dedicated and poorly paid, by any measure. But I do not think that this is enough to be called “goodwill”. Goodwill is only that if it can be withdrawn – and I doubt that the staff of such universities would or could withdraw anything. Their teaching and assessment is probably already slapdash, their attitudes to bribes-for-marks flexible, and – naturally – their views on local politics totally non-descript.

Don’t confuse academic goodwill with academic resilience, then. Universities may survive, but only in the sense that travesties repeat themselves. In an academic’s letter to The Australian HE supplement* recently, it was noted how, due to a form being three days late, the academic at fault (who was in charge of a subject) would have to personally invigilate the July exam, and pay for printing costs out of his own pocket. In isolation, this is no more than parking fine scale, something that comes with stinging shock and going with a fatalistic shrug. What if, however, that academic decided (as is his sole prerogative, within reason) to recoup his losses, by watering-down what he put into that subject?

Almost certainly, this will not happen. Academic professionalism runs deep. And thin.

* "Seriously nutty" by Scott Poynting, 30 April 2003

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?