Simon Cooper: Knowledge economy at what cost?

Simon Cooper: Knowledge economy at what cost?
Simon Cooper teaches in communications and writing at Monash University and is one of the editors of Scholars and Entrepreneurs: The Universities in Crisis (Arena Publications).

Last week The Guardian reported that British universities face huge cuts. Thousands of staff will be axed, campuses and programs closed and there is the spectre of higher fees. How long before Australian universities face the same scenario?

Could knowledge be killing the university, rather than providing its salvation? For 25 years Australia's university sector has expanded and the Rudd government hopes to increase the sector further. Such expansion has ridden a commitment to the knowledge economy. And while it sounds good that we are committed to greater access to education and the production of knowledge, the university is being destroyed by this process.

In this era of expansion how do we maintain standards in teaching and research? How do we measure the value of knowledge? The answer has been to fuse knowledge with capital. Charge students fees and then increase them. Encourage the universities to see themselves as knowledge entrepreneurs.

The result? Traditional disciplines that cannot make a profit struggle. A 2006 report found that mathematical science departments in key Australian universities had lost one-third of permanent staff, and had virtually disappeared in smaller universities. Entire faculties have disappeared, such as humanities at Queensland University of Technology. The problems at Melbourne University in areas such as history are well known. Even economics is struggling, replaced by more vocational courses in marketing and business studies.

The commercialisation of university knowledge creates conflicts of interest as universities form partnerships with private industry and groups. Well-documented threats to academic freedom abound. Nancy Olivieri, perhaps the most famous example (her story informed John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener), was dismissed from Toronto University for publishing concerns about the adverse health effects of a drug whose owners were sponsoring the research. In Britain Dr Aubrey Blumsohn was offered cash settlements and asked to leave Sheffield University because his research conflicted with the commercial needs of the industry partner.

In 2008 a partnership was announced between the University of Queensland and the conservative Institute of Public Affairs into environmental research. It wasn't a complete shock that the first wave of research involved looking into whether chemical pesticide regulations and banning tree-clearing really help the environment.

And then there are the systems that make academics accountable for their teaching and research. Australia follows Britain in adopting an audit culture, itself borrowed from the corporate world. Superficially a good idea, the problem is that auditing alters what it tries to measure. It may sound democratic to have students ''rate'' their subjects and teachers, but there are disturbing consequences.

Research has shown that surveys are unreliable. One case in the US had a lecturer rated ''average'' for punctuality, even though this person arrived at least five minutes before every class was due to start.

More insidious is how the activity of teaching can change under such regimes. Academics may dumb down content or narrowly teach to the assessment to achieve a good student rating and avoid departmental pressure. The temptation exists to mark generously. Remember that universities receive financial incentives for measurably ''good'' teaching. The student, now a consumer, fills in a report, behind which lies the assumption that teaching is merely the neutral transmission of content. Yet many of us have reacted strongly, even negatively to experiences of education only later to appreciate how useful it was to be challenged. Such notions are now archaic, unmeasurable.

The federal government measures academic output in ways similar to Britain. Academic value is tied to grant income, but the reality is that many academics don't need several hundred thousand dollars to pursue research. They thus change their research so as to find ways to ask for money, such as using funds to buy out of teaching. Universities now have a tiered system where some academics disappear to research, their teaching covered by contract staff.

As part of its Excellence in Research for Australia initiative, the government is creating league tables of academic journals. Based on a dubious combination of citation statistics and individual lobbying, the rankings will change where academics choose to publish. Many highly ranked journals are outlets of transnational publishers, and contain fairly predictable content. Smaller independent or alternative journals will suffer under the ranking system.

Auditing and ranking do little to improve teaching or research. As many studies here and in Britain reveal, they can undermine these core activities.

Do we witness the future of our universities in Britain? Having jumped though the hoops of the audit system for years, British academics are still going to lose their jobs, having sacrificed many of the ideals of the university along the way. Its system looks set to implode, shrinking and defaulting to undemocratic and elitist forms of access while maintaining none of the good parts of the traditional system: the pursuit of truth, the ability to reflect on and criticise the world we inhabit. Let's hope it serves as a cautionary tale and not a destiny.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 15/02/10