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A vision for radical university change

The world over, the higher education sector is booming. The number of global students attending higher education has doubled since 2000 alone, and a recent study predicts that by 2040, nearly 600 million students will be enrolled.

Such statistics glimmer with utopian possibility. They suggest we are on track towards a high-skilled future workforce, where a legion of diverse, super-educated powerhouse individuals and teams will push forward frontiers of progress, wealth, knowledge and humanity.

Paeans of excellence sung by university upper management everywhere further give the impression that higher education is tackling modern challenges with unmitigated success. Yet beneath the jubilatory public relations-speak, some hear a critical dissonance with what’s really going on.

Raewyn Connell is one. In her many years as a researcher, the leading Australian social scientist has seen universities drift from their core purpose. Increasingly – by dint of the enormous market pressures placed upon them – they are putting profits before the people they employ, the students whose dollar they take, and the society they serve.

To give just one example, workforce casualisation has ballooned in tandem with job insecurity, at the detriment of teaching quality, career progression, workplace morale and job satisfaction. Research has found that in some Australian universities, 80% of undergraduate courses are taught by sessional academics.

As the competitive spirit is thrust into overdrive, Connell also argues we’re losing out on the enormous benefits of collaboration. On a broader scale, she also critiques the fundamental structures of the ‘knowledge economy’, which prioritises certain ideas and discoveries above others according to which region in the world they’re produced.

These issues and more have led Connell to believe the system as it is requires radical change. In her bold new book The Good University (Monash University Press), she performs a comprehensive analysis of what a university is, who it’s made up of, the reasons behind its current dysfunction, and what needs to be done to build a more equitable, engaging and productive model.

Connell talked with Campus Review on the premises and proposals of her book.

CR: Much of your book is a critique on the ways that, in the last fifty years or so, universities worldwide have come to increasingly resemble corporations allied with neoliberal agendas, controlled by market-orientated managers. How did we get here?

RC: Similar things have happened to NGOs, cooperatives, and a lot of public sector agencies, so there's obviously something wider going on. Basically, in the last generation the rich have got richer and the public sector has been squeezed, corporations have become more powerful, and governments have had their heads soaked in neoliberal, market-first ideas.

In that environment, universities have been re-defined as money-making firms, not as a public service. They have been forced to compete with each other rather than cooperate. Fees have been brought back and ratcheted up. More and more university councils have been controlled by businessmen and corporate thinking. All this has given power to corporate-style managers to change the character of universities.

How has the corporate style of management impacted the university labour force in terms of makeup, and individuals’ day to day lives?

I think there have been two really big changes. One is worse conditions of employment. There's been a steep rise in the number of university teachers and researchers who are in insecure jobs – more than in the economy generally. Universities don't advertise this, but two-thirds of undergraduate teaching in Australia is now done by casualised labour. The non-academic staff have been more affected by outsourcing. In this scheme, people working for the university (whether as cleaners or computer specialists) are not actually employed by the university. They are employed by another company that holds a university contract. They vanish from the statistics, they lack rights and recognition on campus, and they come and go.

The other big change is how work is controlled on campus. The highly skilled workforce in universities aren't trusted to know their own jobs and get on with them. There's been a major growth of hierarchy and surveillance, control through intrusive online systems, arbitrary restructures, and just plain bullying. The workers have to be measured, 'incentivised' and made fearful, to keep them in line with the corporate plan. University management now promotes a corporate culture glorifying 'leaders', and the top leaders now pay themselves on the corporate model, a million dollars a year.

Why is the collective important, not only within a university, but between institutions globally?

Universities are our society's main sites for making knowledge. When you look closely at research as a form of work (the main topic of Chapter One of The Good University), it's clear that reliable knowledge depends on shared information and methods. It needs a workforce – now a global workforce – cooperating, talking together, publishing, pooling ideas and data. There's a name for this: research builds a knowledge commons, a kind of public park to which everyone has access. That's the basis of university curricula, so it is also at the heart of university teaching.

The fine details of everyday work show the role of cooperation. Consider a single lecture: it's given by the professor, right? Actually that lecture also involves work by cleaners, to prepare the room; technicians, to install the video machine; IT staff, to record the lecture; clerical workers, to get course information to the students; other academics, to bring the students up to the necessary level; building maintenance staff... and so on. The whole process is a collective one.

There’s a chapter in your book called ‘Privilege Machines’. How do universities actively participate in creating inequalities?

It's not a comfortable thought, but universities have always been associated with privilege. They produce an elite workforce for governments, corporations and professions. The ways they select students give preference to the skills, know-how and language found in professional and upper-class families and schools. Universities do have some scholarships for clever students in poverty. But the evidence for large social biases in selection is overwhelming – and international.

More: in the neoliberal era, universities model inequality themselves. This is dramatised in the so-called 'league tables'. Harvard constantly comes in as Number One. That's not so strange when you discover that this one middle-sized institution has a capital endowment of forty-two billion dollars. It has received huge subsidies from the corporate rich in the richest country in the world.

As the system becomes more commercialised and fees are pushed upwards, access to well-funded universities is heavily dependent on the student's (or their families') capacity to pay. That's now a global story. Families with assets try to position their children for privilege in a global corporate economy. English is the dominant language in the corporate world. Why do we think so many families from east and south Asia pay through the nose to send students to Australian universities? It's not because Australia is the humming centre of global culture.

Given the obsession around rankings, do you think it’s ever going to be possible for universities to become less competitive?

Yes. It's entirely possible. There are universities in Europe that have recognised how destructive this obsession is. They are simply withdrawing from the rankings game. After all, no-one forces universities to help the predatory corporations that produce these league tables. Bear in mind that this 'obsession' is carefully fostered by the corporations themselves, which produce many sub-rankings to boast about – and then sell universities advice on how to improve their ranks.

You’re critical of that traditional paradigm of imparting knowledge used in most universities: the lecture. What do you take issue with, and what are the alternative pedagogies?

The lecture is a classic case of the 'empty vessel' model of teaching. Students are supposed to be empty of knowledge; lecturers, who are full of it, pour the precious fluid into the students' heads. It's incredibly inefficient, as anyone knows who has looked at the notes that students write. But lecturing is cheap, packing in 100 or 500 at a time. And cheaper still online.

You don't need lectures to teach a university course, at any level. Good university teaching starts where the students are, engages their creativity, gets students learning together, uses a whole variety of resources. Students do the main work of learning. There's still a very active role for the teacher in this – learning about the students, organising groups, finding technical resources, diagnosing problems, leading discussions into the zone where the next discovery has to be made. In some Latin American contexts the teacher is described as an 'accompanist' to learning, and I think that's a nice way of putting it.

Lectures have some uses. They can be public gatherings, they can put a human face on research and researchers, they can put groups of students in touch with each other. But those are special events. We shouldn't make lectures the routine of teaching, and then complain that students aren't interested in learning.

You also explore how much of what we call knowledge is or has been produced in universities through research. But, you point out that most of this knowledge has to be produced in certain parts of the globe, or published in certain papers, for it to gain traction. Can you explain the history of this hierarchy, and how we can break out of it?

It's a big story, going back about 500 years. When powerful European states invaded overseas, they brought back more than gold and silver, coffee and sugar from the plantations. They also brought back data, masses of it, which went into the making of biology, astronomy, geology, social science, linguistics and much more. We should know that very well in Australia! Lieutenant Cook bumped into our east coast precisely because he was on a data-gathering expedition. He called the landing place Botany Bay because the scientists on his ship were so excited by the plants they found here.

So the colonial world became a vast data mine, while the information was processed and theorised in the learned societies, botanic gardens, museums and universities of the imperial centre back around the North Atlantic. The result is not 'Western' science, it's imperial science. That pattern survived the end of the old empires. The key scientific research centres, the major databases, the majority of journals (and all the most prestigious), are based in the rich countries of the global North, but they depend on data from the rest of the world. Academic work in the rest of the world normally follows the models of the USA and western Europe.

How to break out of that? It's not easy, this hierarchy is deeply ingrained, and it has now got mixed up with the commercialisation of research. But there are many things we can do to get started. Disconnecting from Eurocentric status games is one. Making practical connections around the post-colonial world is another. We can share curricula, we can share research. I've published papers in journals from Mexico, Colombia, Sri Lanka and China, and I've been in research teams with colleagues from Chile, Japan, Brazil and South Africa. I'm not alone in this, of course. The resources are enormous, but they are dispersed.

In practical terms, what actions need to be taken so we can transform universities into more equal, fair and ideal environments for students and staff?

We can change public policies. University councils and vice-chancellors should be elected. Universities should be financed as a mainstream public service, not by fees. Policy should not force universities to compete with each other, it should support cooperation and joint planning. If we want the university system to educate students from poorer countries, we should fund it to do so properly, and not treat students as ATMs with legs.

We can change internal workings. We can democratise universities' decision-making. This is not rocket science, we know how to run institutions democratically! We can link curricula better to the diversity of students, though it will need some hard work. We can put effort into making equality of access a reality: start by thinking who is not at university.

We should tell university managers to sell the Mercedes, zero out the advertising budget, and forget the glitzy prestige buildings. Universities should be modest in everything except their intellectual ambitions.

Professor Raewyn Connell

I really appreciated how you didn’t shy away from lampooning the language of upper management. For instance, quoting a line from your book: “No university president opens their mouth in public without the word ‘excellence’ floating out.” From your own experience, is this exasperation with empty rhetoric shared by your colleagues?

Too right! There are lots of colleagues who just sigh when the latest blast of hot air floats past. Eventually the boasting (fuelled by the league tables), the empty pronouncements ("If You Change Nothing, Nothing Will Change"), and the sheer silliness of slogans ("Never Stand Still") can be numbing.

I think it's worse than annoying. Together with image-fabrication through advertising, all this undermines the universities' cultural role. Universities' business is to sustain the search for truth, to be the site of open enquiry and a source of reliable knowledge. That role is now at stake.

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