Universities across the Western world are now educating a majority of high school graduates. What are they being taught? How high are standards? Why is freedom of expression under attack on campus? These questions and many more are the focus of a new book, Campus Meltdown The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities edited by William Coleman. At The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 20 November 2019, William Coleman is Associate Professor at ANU College of Business and Economics, joined Gigi Foster, Associate Professor at the School of Economics in the University of NSW and a contributor to Campus Meltdown to discuss the problem on campus.

THE CRISIS ON CAMPUS

WILLIAM COLEMAN

This evening Gigi Foster and I would like to tell you about a recently published book – Campus Meltdown – to which we have contributed, along with two former vice-chancellors, a dean, and several professors of law, poetry, history, economics, and international relations. The book’s subtitle conveys its subject: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities.   

We present this book as a piece of news bearing or, if you like, as truth telling. We seek to tear away the stick-on glitter and the sideshow paste board which presently conceals the reality of the Australian campus; to disperse the smoke screens of the lobbies and politicians and media; and reveal the fallen state of the Australian university.

When I speak of the fallen state of the Australian university, I must race to acknowledge that there remain on Australian campuses students who wish to learn, academics who love their subject, administrators who strive to maintain processes of integrity, departments which retain life, faculties which defend their standards, and even a handful of universities which uphold the traditional mission of the university. But such things are atypical. In the book, we are dealing with the typical Australian campus; Aus U.

When I speak of the fallen state of the Australian university, I must race to acknowledge that there remain on Australian campuses students who wish to learn, academics who love their subject

We have to tell you a number of things about Aus U that you may not be aware of.

At Aus U the essential function of a university – teaching and learning –  has become a charade, with attendance of lectures having collapsed. Allow me to illustrate this phenomenon with the case of a certain core course in a certain core degree. This year it had 249 enrollments. At the commencement of one lecture, the lecturer counted a total of 9 students in the hall, with another handful materialising mid-way through the hour; say 5 percent attending. And don’t let any Deputy Vice Chancellor tell you the absent students are at home, busily downloading those lectures. They can’t: Australia’s “full-time” students are now commonly in full-time work. That such an oxymoron – a full-time student in full-time work – could be endured underlines how the vocation of the student has disintegrated.

Don’t let any Deputy Vice Chancellor tell you the absent students are at home, busily downloading those lectures. They can’t: Australia’s “full-time” students are now commonly in full-time work.

With respect to research, in Aus U – as across the world – a massiveness of bustle is belied by the paltriness in achievement. Some well-known symptoms of this include the “replication crisis”, a refereeing crisis and even a “hoax” crisis. More generally, research is enfeebled by a faddishness and a slightness, reflecting in turn an    intellectual monoculture on campus.

At Aus U, administration – that is to say, bureaucracy – is rampant. I wonder how many people here are aware that for every two academics on campus there are three bureaucrats? And that’s an average figure. Some are worse. And perhaps the word “bureaucracy” understates the affliction. On campus what bureaucracy amounts to is not the rule of the bureau; it is the rule of arrogant ignorance. And we see this brutally played out everyday on Australian campus.

On campus what bureaucracy amounts to is not the rule of the bureau; it is the rule of arrogant ignorance.

Finally, there is not infrequently on campus a distempered and glowering atmosphere, whereby, it has become an offender against open-mindedness and liberality; a place where fierce bigotry is allowed to flare. The university, then, has become, not a pride of society, but a shame of it.

How has such a state of affairs come to pass? In my own chapter in Campus Meltdown, I argue that most of the problem is essentially one of corruption. That is to say, there  prevails on campus a corrupt bargain between students and administration, whereby the administration announces to students, “If you’ll pretend to learn, we’ll pretend to teach you.” And both students and administration are happy for such a deal. This corruption, I suggest in turn, is traceable to the conjoint operation of two phenomena.

There  prevails on campus a corrupt bargain between students and administration, whereby the administration announces to students, “If you’ll pretend to learn, we’ll pretend to teach you.”

Firstly, managerialism. The campus today is an acutely over-managed environment. It has become a playground for those who like to play boss; who like to play boss without the inconvenience of shareholders, AGMs, or a bottom line.

The second conjoint factor with managerialism is the great flooding of campus in recent years with money, of crass, foolish dollars.

At this point I need to speak, with care, of international students. If I were standing here five years ago, I would have said, ‘Thank heavens for international students: they are, on average, so smart, so hardworking, and so valuing of education, what would we do without them?’ I’m afraid to report that over the past five years, there has been a sudden and drastic decline in the average quality of international students, a quality decline that stretches across aptitude, preparation and motivation. The most salient signal of this decline is in English language ability. That deficiency is probably not the most important part of the substance of the decline, but it’s the most obvious sign of it. To illustrate, I teach economics at the postgraduate level. In the past six months, I, or my immediate colleagues, have been asked by international students in the class: “What does the word ‘deficit’ mean?” “What does ‘bureau’ mean?” “What’s ‘a corridor’?” “What is a ‘box’?” At least these students are trying. Owing to the lack of preparation, there is now a significant amount of “giving up” by international students, who resort to relying on the low expectations of universities to get a pass. This epitomises the corruption I was speaking to a moment ago. The attitude of the university administration to so many international students is, “hand over what you’ve got and we’ll hand over the testamur”.

The most salient signal of this decline is in English language ability.

So, what might be done to remedy the appalling state of Aus U? I can almost rattle off half a dozen palpable actions which would certainly be improve matters. For one thing it would be improving for Australia’s universities to be much smaller. They are very large by comparison with Anglophone countries. Possibly the best comparator is Canada. Canada has 50 per cent more people, but it has three times the number of universities. Why can’t we be like Canada? One of the reasons why we’re not like Canada is the obstruction to entry into the Australian university system imposed by the numerous regulations enforced by the preposterous Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Assurance authority. The abolition of this Orwellian ‘ministry of standards’ would certainly make for considerable stimulus to the quality and standards of the Australian university.

Possibly the best comparator is Canada. Canada has 50 per cent more people, but it has three times the number of universities.

The revival of the old staff associations would be good for the quality of universities. I’m not talking about monolithic, oversized “registered” unions, but the old campus-based association that existed until about a generation ago. Some of you may not be aware that about 30 years ago the managerialist revolution came to campus, and since then the opinion of the genuine academic has been a cipher in governance of the university. The revival of the staff association might be a way of giving some voice back to the academic.

There are other ingenious possibilities. For example, one of the contributors to Meltdown has suggested selling the HECS debt to private owners. At the moment, this debt is owned by the Commonwealth government. Let the Commonwealth sell it to buyers who assume the rights to the principal and the interest. This would impose a financial discipline to the universities by giving a kind of share price to each campus. The rise and fall of the price of that debt would be a good indicator, of the ability of students to repay those debts, and therefore their employability and their likely incomes.

For example, one of the contributors to Meltdown has suggested selling the HECS debt to private owners

But I have to say, regretfully, that there’s a distinct element of wishful thinking in mooting such remedies to Aus U. Sadly, it is because they would be remedies that they’re not going to happen. There are too many people in the system who are on the take under the present arrangements. too many, I’m afraid, just don’t care. And here we come to perhaps the underlying problem of the whole disaster.

We suffer from a value deficit. Australia, for all its talk about education, doesn’t truly education. Undeniably, part of the deficit isn’t traceable to Australia, but to the inconsonance of the age at large with education. The point of higher education is to provide an experience of ideas, and thereby the construction of a personal philosophy. But our age is not an age of ideas; it’s an age of the internet, algorithms, and the computer ‘routine’. Of course, within Australia especially, it has long been complained that education has been subordinated to vocationalism. In fact, it is a spurious vocationalism now seems dominant. Putting aside a few genuinely professional disciplines, such as medicine and engineering, we have many so-called professional or vocational disciplines that aren’t so. How many people here are aware that for several years now the great majority of persons graduating with nursing degrees don’t become nurses? And what proportion of the deluge of legal graduates Australia is producing actually enter a legal practice?

Undeniably, part of the deficit isn’t traceable to Australia, but to the inconsonance of the age at large with education.

So, what does the crisis mean? Maybe that’s the question which most people here are most interested in. I am one of those people who do feel that Western society is in crisis. I’m one of those people who do sense a state of disintegration, dissolution, a kind of topsy turviness; a flight from reality to delusion, from light to dark, and even from life to death. And I have to say that the university, the fallen state of the university campus, is to me almost a perfect symbol of that. But how much is the campus a cause and how much is it consequence of that crisis? To extend a little leniency to the campus for a moment, we should allow that the campus is very much a reflection of the society it is set in; any ivory tower fell a long time ago. And one obvious one manifestation of that fact is the businessification of the campus over the past 30 years, though I would prefer to call it managerialisation. But, to go in the other direction, if the campus has been “businessified”, it is also true that business has been “campusified’ to a considerable degree over the past 20 or 30 years. And campus bears a responsibility. Possibly the greatest problem, therefore, possibly the deepest problem, is a kind of jumbling of different kinds with one another. The various spheres of society have lost their properly distinct identity.

I’m one of those people who do sense a state of disintegration, dissolution, a kind of topsy turviness; a flight from reality to delusion, from light to dark

So, I would like to leave you with a thought that perhaps the starting point for any recovery of the university from a fallen state, is a recovery of its true identity. The Australian university should not be considered as a “top export industry”, even though it is an export industry, and export revenues are a welcome thing. Neither should the university be conceived as a piece of social engineering to secure social mobility, although over the past century it has fostered social mobility and that is welcome.  But none of those things are the identity of the university. The university should be a place where young people, and I do stress young people, locate themselves and orientate themselves intellectually for the adventure of life they’re about to begin. Once students and society recover a sense of that, we might have some hope.

Perhaps the starting point for any recovery of the university from a fallen state, is a recovery of its true identity

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