On what is the problem, and five steps to fix it.
By Vern Hughes : Director of Civil Society Australia.
After a thirty year silence, the Left’s capture of our universities is attracting some attention. The Right has belatedly discovered that universities are now bastions of politically-correct orthodoxy, churning out the personnel who run the media, the arts, the community sector, schools, research institutes, churches, corporates and public institutions. For thirty years, the Right appeared not to see a trend that was staring them in the face.
I offer here below five steps that might form part of a reform strategy for our universities. But first a brief overview of what has gone wrong in our learning institutions.
It’s important to state, at the outset, that universities have always trained society’s elites. Until the 1970s, the Right was more or less content with the social output of universities: graduates found their way into the traditional professions, corporate management or the public service and upheld the economic and cultural status quo. Following the Left’s triumphal post-1968 ‘march through the institutions’, universities were turned into instruments for the training of people in a new array of professional and human service disciplines – welfare, psychology, mental health, human resources, organizational development, media, community services, early childhood education, multiculturalism, gender, cultural management, health care management, public sector management, and on it went.
This new social output was not oriented to the economic and cultural status quo. Its purpose was to reshape society, first by deconstructing the old social order, and then by imposing the new through occupancy of societal institutions. The first was made possible by an unholy alliance of deconstructionists on the Left and neo-liberals on the Right who shared the Thatcherite conviction that “there is no such thing as society”: there are only individual identities on the Left, and only individuals on the Right. This alliance of Left and Right demolished the traditional disciplines in the humanities and buried their ancient discourse about the nature of truth and the quest for a good life and the common good. This discourse was replaced with atomised conceptions of human arrangements - segmentations by race, class and gender on the Left; the supremacy of rational ‘economic man’ on the Right - with no cultural consensus or sustaining moral tradition, with each individual’s values and choices of equal validity to those of any other.
To this social-cultural atomisation, both Left and Right attached a new managerialism. The neo-liberals sought to occupy the state and through it impose on society a narrow conception of economic value through market transactions. They achieved this in the 1980s and 1990s, turning universities, in the process, into ‘cost centres’ for the state. The Left sought to occupy the state, too, but they also sought the capture of social and cultural institutions – a task made easy by the Right’s embrace of ‘economic man’ and their consequent vacating of the social and cultural field. In the 1990s, the Left achieved its managerial capture of social and economic institutions, just as the Right achieved its managerial capture of economic institutions and the state. By 2000, Left and Right had together fused a social-cultural atomisation with a bureaucratic-managerial collectivism. They did this across the Western world. Australia was no exception.
All this is important in understanding the thirty year silence in public debate about the purpose of universities. Neither Left nor Right had any strategic interest during this period in opening up public discussion about what is taught, learnt, and researched in universities. Only now, following the populist uprisings of 2016, has the Right realized that it has very little influence in public institutions and that universities have stacked the odds against them. Each year’s graduate output of teachers, project managers, editors, community workers and designers is one more cultural layer of politically-correct orthodoxy to be overcome.
So how then should we approach the task of reforming universities?
Here are five steps that might form part of a comprehensive strategy:
1. The Commonwealth should fund generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences for citizens of all ages, but not fund job training or vocational degrees (Law, Medicine, Nursing, Management, etc).
The rationale for public funding of universities has become highly confused in the public mind and in the mind of policy makers. Despite the thirty year expansion of university courses to include areas such as nursing, hospitality and journalism, it is not the purpose of universities to train workers for jobs. The demand for university-based qualifications rather than on-the-job training in a multiplicity of settings has been entwined with professional and union-based campaigns for increases in status and pay. This process is limitless, and financially unsustainable. Nursing, hotel management and journalism do not require university qualifications.
The purpose of universities is to nurture intellectual endeavour and the capacity for expansive conceptual thinking and analysis in the humanities and the sciences. There is a public benefit for a society in nurturing this endeavour and capacity to high levels amongst a broad segment of society. There is not a public benefit for society in training more lawyers and investment bankers.
Full public funding for generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences (100% of tuition fees) signals to the whole of society that this endeavour and capacity are highly valued. To uphold this high valuation, it would be necessary for the Commonwealth to establish a minimum entry requirement for these degrees. To raise the bar considerably over current enrolment patterns, an entry requirement which excludes the lower 50% of current enrolments would be desirable.
Because a grounding in the traditional disciplines in the humanities and sciences does not necessarily increase a person’s employability, it is appropriate that there be no financial disincentives to participation in these courses, such as up-front or delayed payment (HECS-type) tuition fees.
2. To be eligible for public funding, generalist degrees in Arts and Sciences should offer a broad grounding in traditional disciplines in the humanities and sciences, free of ideology or cultural fashion.
In moving to publicly funded generalist degrees in the humanities and sciences, the Commonwealth would have to approve eligible courses. This provides an opportunity to defund a plethora of Mickey Mouse and socially harmful courses in arts and social science faculties in universities.
It would be possible to devise eligibility requirement so as to emphasise traditional disciplines in the humanities (history, philosophy, literature, languages, theology) and to exclude ideological offerings (post-structuralism and deconstructionism, cultural studies, marxism, neo-liberalism), offerings in cultural fashion (popular culture, media studies, animation, circus arts) and offerings in social engineering (race studies, colonial studies, women’s studies).
Universities should be free to offer courses in these non-traditional areas, but they would not be eligible for public funding.
3. Universities should be free to offer whatever job training or vocational courses they like, and free to set fees as they wish.
In job training and vocational courses, the Commonwealth should enable a free market to operate, with very few restrictions. Any course other than a generalist Arts or Sciences degree should be deemed to be a vocational course, including medicine, nursing, law and hotel management.
Since the Commonwealth would not publicly fund job training or vocational courses, universities should be free to set entry requirements and tuition fees as they wish.
The net financial impact of these measures (1-3) would be to decrease Commonwealth expenditure considerably. But the allocation of private costs would be much fairer than under the current HECS system. It would impose 100% tuition fees in job training and vocational courses: the non-completion rate in these courses (currently high to very high in many institutions) would evaporate since enrolment in these courses would incur a doubling of current tuition fees.
At the same time, there would be no private costs for enrolment in the Arts and Sciences, but the status of these courses and their intellectual standards would rise because of the higher entry requirements.
The combined impact of these measures would be fewer enrolments in universities, higher intellectual standards, a fairer allocation of private costs, and lower non-completion rates.
4. A cap on foreign students should be set at 30% of the student body in any university to increase intellectual standards.
The mad scramble by Australian universities to open recruitment offices in Asia to sell degrees to as many fee-paying students as possible has degraded both the intellectual standards of our universities and their cultural integrity. Many of these universities have turned themselves into what is now known as ‘visa factories’, whereby foreign students complete a degree in Australia, obtain a position in an Australian workplace, and then secure a residency visa.
The decline in intellectual standards in universities with a large proportion of non-English speaking students has been a dirty little secret for twenty years. Many academics and teachers who speak publicly about this trend, or complain internally about it, are summarily dismissed.
The Commonwealth should place a cap on foreign students at 30% of the student body in any one institution. This measure will incur the wrath of economic rationalists who will decry the loss of ‘export dollars’, but this has to be offset against the imperative to radically increase intellectual standards.
5. Publicly funded research projects should be determined by adjudications of citizen juries selected by sortition, administered by the Australian Electoral Commission.
The rationale for publicly funded research in Australian universities might once have been discussed and written down, but it is now nowhere to be found. Assessments of the public benefit of research projects are notoriously difficult to make, but it is possible to at least democratise decision-making in these areas, reduce the isolation of researchers from the general public, and eliminate the potential for corruption in the notorious practice of ‘peer-review’. Any group of peer researchers in any field will back applications for research grants in their own field, and call it ‘peer-review’.
The Commonwealth should devolve selection of publicly funded research projects to citizen juries, selected by sortition. Under this arrangement, the Australian Electoral Commission would select a jury (chosen randomly as are juries in the judicial system) who would hear evidence from research grant applicants, and make adjudications as to what is in the public interest. As in judicial processes, jurors would be briefed and supported in their deliberations by independent officials.
This measure would be guaranteed to send shock waves through universities like we have never seen before. But the process of researchers having to make a case to a panel of ordinary citizens, and then await their adjudication, would force academics and researchers to confront important questions about the value of their work. It would be a breath of fresh air for all concerned.
There will be other reform measures for our universities that might be better than these five. What can not be in dispute is that the thirty year silence in public debate about our universities is over.