Death Of The University As We Know It


Despite the fact that politicians of every political stripe regularly espouse the economic and social virtues of higher education, it is the case today that in most of the world professors and staff are facing unprecedented pressures.

Austerity measures in Europe have seen deep cuts in pay and benefits. In the United States, nearly three-quarters of teaching and research staff are now employed on fixed-term, part-time and non-tenure track positions. In Latin America, with the exception of Brazil, up to 80 per cent of staff have no security of employment. And in large parts of Africa and Asia it is no longer possible to attract the best minds to the profession thanks to more attractive salaries and working conditions in other careers.

Even in countries like Australia and Canada, which have weathered the global economic recession comparatively well, universities and colleges and the people who work in them are once again in the throes of retrenchment and restructuring.

While fundamental changes in academic work were underway before the global recession, the ensuing crisis has provided a convenient excuse for those advocating further restructuring of the academy. As the European and American financial crisis has in turn spawned a public fiscal crisis in some countries, all governments now are singing from the same austerity hymn book — including those who are clearly not facing any significant fiscal pressure.

For example, the Canadian government which on the one hand proudly boasts about having the lowest deficit-to-GDP ratio in the G8 is, on the other hand, preparing an austerity budget that will take sharp aim at social benefits and public services, including higher education and research. In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, a recent government-appointed review to explore cost savings recommended that the teaching and research functions of academic work be unbundled and severed so that professors who don’t produce "excellent" research may be obliged to teach double the number of courses.

In Canada and around the world, the full-time professor engaged in both teaching and research is a dying breed. The implications for staff and the students they teach are profound. Casual and contingent faculty are poorly paid, have few if any benefits, and have little or no support for research or curriculum development. Without security of employment, moreover, they cannot effectively exercise their academic freedom. Institutional censorship need not be the blunt and visible instrument of dismissal, but rather simply a quiet contract non-renewal.

For the full-time professors that remain, their work has intensified and become increasingly bureaucratised. Compliance with increasingly demanding accountability measures and assessment exercises eat up more and more time and energy. Behind it all lays the pressure to increase academic productivity, even if much of what academics do is difficult or impossible to measure in any simple or precise way.

Meanwhile, when it comes to academic research the funding emphasis and accountability requirements are increasingly focused on areas of predicted commercial potential. True, the economic benefits of investments in university-based research are well documented. However, these benefits can be fully realised only if policymakers recognise that good research doesn’t emerge from political diktats. As the Canadian experience reveals, dangers arise when government ignores the warnings of the scientific community and binds research too closely to economic needs.

Compared with the US, more than twice the percentage of Canada’s university research is funded by industry. This has accelerated in recent years as the government has tied more research funding to the ability of researchers to leverage private sector matching funding.

The result has been a drastic reorientation of large swaths of scientific research. The obsession with commercialisation has narrowed the research agenda and undermined the integrity and independence of the academy. And it ignores a basic truth: that the world’s most important scientific discoveries typically have come from basic research.

Commercialisation has distorted research priorities in ways that do not serve the public interest. Medical researchers have warned that the focus on market outcomes has encouraged a misguided emphasis on research that produces minor modifications to existing drugs and devices, rather than fundamental explorations of illness and its prevention.

Meanwhile, in this new age of austerity, the Canadian government is becoming more aggressive in targeting funding at projects that it believes will produce the biggest bang for its buck. In effect, it is trying to pick the winners and losers in university research, bypassing peer review of research proposals. In doing so, our politicians are destroying what is unique about higher education institutions.

As John Polyani, Canada’s best-known scientist and a Nobel laureate, has remarked, universities are the sole institutions in our societies that have a mandate to pursue knowledge for its own sake. If they are to serve the public interest, they must be free from government and industry interference.

Almost everywhere today politicians, policymakers and institutional leaders think of the major challenge facing universities and colleges primarily or even solely as one of physical infrastructure — of ensuring there are classrooms, labs and buildings. Faculty and staff — the intellectual infrastructure — is either neglected or, worse yet, blamed for the failings of higher education. In truth, it is exactly the opposite. If higher education is to achieve what we expect of it, we must turn attention to restoring and reinvigorating the academic profession.

David Robinson will speak next week at The Future of Higher Education conference organised by the NTEU.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.