19 January 2008

Backwards and forwards

The exchange between Bob White and Christopher Pearson demonstrates nothing so much as a failure of liberals and conservatives to capture the high intellectual ground, a failure that impoverishes us all.
Academics are asked to become marketers: to cultivate business relations with educational institutes overseas, to set up transient money-generating courses, to conduct expensive offshore recruitment campaigns, all of which have nothing to do with quality education and everything to do with short-term replacement of lost revenue from government investment.

This has always been true. Australian universities have a long tradition of importing foreign academics - Australian-born academics like Manning Clark or Howard Florey were in the minority in Australian universities. Those who were not educated at European universities were made to feel inferior. There has always been international co-operation on projects and in appointments.

This also implies that reduced government funding to universities is some temporary phase, and that it should and shall return to a situation where high public funding is the norm. Rather a sad set of assumptions, really.
Alongside the systematic and planned financial squeeze, the Howard government pursued an unprecedented onslaught on the time-honoured ideal of academic teaching and research that is independent of political and commercial interests. Successive ministers for education, Brendan Nelson in particular, intervened to micro-manage academics' activities.

Well, of course. The left had Marcuse and de Beauvoir encouraging young lefties to get into academe with their ears pinned back in order to achieve the aims of Bolshevism: to have a small minority hijack massed workers' movements. The left were the only organised force in higher education, and all industries of that political stripe (e.g. community services, the waterfront) just get relentlessly screwed by governments of all types.

Liberals and conservatives abandoned the field. Strangely, Pearson blames Menzies for not thinking this through and not taking all classes personally:
... it's time for a critical look at Menzies' contribution to higher education. Some readers may be surprised to learn that I think it was little short of catastrophic.

The Australian economy would not have the opportunities available to it today without the expansion of its education facilities a generation ago. The capacity constraints facing the economy today centre largely on too little education rather than too much: Pearson betrays his Maoist roots - a common affliction amongst flatulent reactionaries these days - by implying that your PhD student in womyn's deconstructionism might be more usefully employed on a factory line.
I could talk about the non-economic benefits of education, but the effete elite he would appeal to (and consider himself part) ought take that as given.
But it was obvious to anyone who'd ever managed a business, let alone chaired a faculty, that sudden, very rapid expansion and a funding bonanza was more likely than not to compromise the quality of teaching and academic standards along with ideals such as "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge".

It was the responsibility of liberal academics to ensure that didn't happen, to ensure that the deluge of money and students didn't sweep them off their feet. Anyone who's ever managed a business, let alone chaired a faculty, knows that you have to plan carefully and keep to your principles, and not just blame the remote figure of the Prime Minister for not getting down to this level of detail.
Kingsley Amis, the author of Lucky Jim, is credited with the aphorism that sums up the problem of a burgeoning tertiary education sector: "More almost always means worse." To some this will seem no more than typical Tory negativity and an anti-democratic defence of scholarly elites and their privileges. I think it's an argument for preserving educational standards

Nobody is in a position to posit that slow wet fart as an argument for anything. It's like having a skulling contest in defence of your football team, it's just a nonsense.
Even granting, for argument's sake, that universities in the mid-'50s excluded significant numbers of people who deserved the opportunity, only the most starry-eyed enthusiasts could have imagined that creating three times as many places in very short order wouldn't have significantly lowered the average IQ of undergraduates.

The idea was not to lower the IQ of undergaduates. The idea was to have more Australians - and people from neighbouring countries - equipped with a university education. The numbers of people who might benefit from such an education, and who might pass those benefits onto others, is not as fixed as Pearson still thinks it is. Living in Adelaide is no excuse: what does it take to shake this ignorant man out of the notion that Australian social, economic and political structures in 2008 are essentially the same as they were in 1958, or 1938?
Meanwhile, the government hooked public funding for higher education tightly to the sector's obedience to workplace "reforms" that consisted mainly of demands that academics comply with tedious and often ludicrously petty requirements of reporting, record-keeping, form-filling and data-entry, which have accomplished nothing more than a widespread exasperation in the higher education sector and have reduced the overall capacity for innovative research.

Quite so. A more politically diverse university sector could have resisted the control-freaks more successfully than they have. Take note and move forward.
The mid-'60s were the time when the Left really entrenched itself, especially in the humanities and social sciences faculties in Australian universities. By the end of the decade, conservatives and apolitical scholars were becoming notably thin on the ground.

Always be suspicious when a strident statement is made in the passive voice.

The Young Liberals was tens of thousands strong at this time: why no encouragement to a life of academia? Why no scholarships to reward the sort of scholarship that might lead a bright student toward liberal and conservative leanings? Where were the courses on Popper, for example? Why did only student politicians make use of the conservative redoubts of residential colleges?
Ideologues of any persuasion are inclined to exercise the powers of patronage to further the careers of their political allies, with academic ability a secondary consideration.

Clearly, not conservative or liberal ideologues.
It was surely no accident that in the mid-'60s the Left began to abandon the conventions of civil disagreement, especially on the newer campuses. Howling down ideological enemies and encouraging your students to do the same became the norm.

This was only possible because there were so few of them. Liberals and conservatives abandoned those who performed the most vital tasks of public employees in the 1960s: those who fought in Vietnam and those who taught at universities. This is a matter of not just systematic failure, but ongoing disgrace.

To be fair to White, many of the issues he complains about happened after Menzies' time. It is quaint to see him complain about the retro-fit of IT facilities in old buildings, but worse - it detracts from his arguments about aspects of teaching and research that remain timeless, which might support to some extent a back-to-Menzies agenda.

They both seem to agree that a basic rethink of what universities are for, and what role government can/should do, is in order. White is wrong in asserting that Menzies and Whitlam had the right idea but hey man, Pearson is like so lame in his assertion that the past is gone and nothing can be learned from it.

This exchange has served to show that "balance" is not what we need in media commentary: left and right can be equally lame and cancel each other out.

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