The Future of the University in Australia: Can Education survive Neoliberalism?

The Future of the University in Australia: Can Education survive Neoliberalism?
The Journal for the Public University, Volume 2: 2005

The second issue of the JPU had its genesis in a forum hosted by the Association for the Public University at the Knox Centre, Melbourne, on 9 April 2005. The theme of the forum was ‘The Future of the University in Australia: Can Education survive Neoliberalism?’

Neoliberalism has exerted a dramatic effect on higher education as governments everywhere have sought to slough off responsibility for its cost, along with responsibility for public goods generally. Ironically, at the same time as state funding has decreased, government intervention in university affairs has increased, as can be seen most dramatically in the case of research policy. ‘Massification’ in conjunction with funding shortfalls has resulted in an erosion of the quality of higher education as universities have been forced to do more with less. Entrepreneurialism, along with teaching and research, is now expected of academics as a matter of course.

The papers in this volume illuminate our understanding of the strange new world of the contemporary neoliberal university. The proceedings begin with a sound file of the introductory remarks made at the forum by the APU’s patron, Rt Hon Dr Race Mathews. He provides an excellent overview of the trajectory of change over the last three decades, spiced with insights from his own experience as a former federal parliamentarian and minister in Labor Governments.

Marian Sawer’s paper, ‘How Mr Fat became Ms Bleeding Heart: Market Populism and the Future of the University’, helps us to understand why the transformation of the university has been accepted by the Australian people with so little dissent. Drawing on the book she edited with Barry Hindess (Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia, API Network, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, 2004), she unveils the deep anti-intellectualism of popular discourse. By a curious sleight of hand, humanities and social science graduates have become the new untrustworthy elites who represent a drain on the public purse. This construction of universities and their inhabitants justifies the increased government surveillance that is a characteristic of neoliberalism.

While the public/private dichotomy is a vexed concept in political theory, Simon Marginson, in 'Rethinking the Public-Private Divide in Higher Education', shows how it has been totally disrupted in the context of the neoliberal university where the market takes centre-stage. Instead of a dualistic public=state versus market=private schema, Marginson favours a more fluid understanding, which focuses on the cultural goods emerging from new relationships of interdependency, which is most dramatically illustrated by academic globalisation.

Gavin Moodie, in ‘The Research Race’, looks at the way competition between universities has been boosted through the emergence of ‘league tables’, which purport to assess research excellence. Moodie describes the genesis and the increasing emphasis placed on these rankings, which are now widely used in an endeavour to show the international standing of universities. He exposes not only the flawed nature of the criteria but also how the rankings exercise a conservatising effect on research.

Dirk Baltzly, in ‘Humanities Research in the Age of Grantmanship’, highlights the deleterious effect of entrepreneurialism and competitive funding of research on the humanities. Not only have the number of humanities scholars declined but, as Moodie argues at the macro-level, grantsmanship acts as a driver for the production of particular types of research and particular methods of production. There appears to be no escape for the dutiful academic, who is expected to assist in shouldering departmental bills. Neoliberalism is exerting a profound effect not only on the academy but also on the wider society as particular types of knowledge are favoured and others disfavoured.

I thank the contributors and the members of the APU Committee who assisted with the organisation of the forum. Particular thanks are due to the diligence and support of our secretary, David Holmes, and to Bryce Weber for preparing the sound file of Race Mathews’ introductory remarks.

Margaret Thornton
President of APU
La Trobe University

Notes on contributors:

Hon. Dr Race Mathews: Former chief of staff to Gough Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition 1967-72, a federal MP, a state MP and minister and municipal councillor. Author of Australia’s First Fabians: Middle Class Radicals, Labour Acivists and the Early Labour Movement, CUP 1994 and Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, Pluto Press, 1999. Dr Mathews is Patron of the APU.

Prof Marian Sawer: Political Science, Research School of Social Sciences, ANU

Prof Simon Marginson: Australian Professorial Fellow, Director, Monash Centre for Research in International Education

Gavin Moodie: Higher Education Policy Analyst, Griffith University

AsPro Dirk Baltzly: School of Philosophy & Bioethics, Monash University