The Case For Academic Disobedience


The past few months have been particularly troubling for many employees in the university sector. Toward the end of last year the Federal Government announced that in 2013 it would take $150 million out of the higher education budget with an additional $500 million earmarked for cuts in the forward estimates — all part of a wide-ranging (and failed) attempt to bring the federal budget back into surplus. This was followed late last week with the announcement by the recently installed Federal Minister for Higher Education Craig Emerson that an additional $2.3 billion was to be hacked from higher education funding in order to pay for the Gonski reforms.

As Universities Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union and the National Union of Students NUS have pointed out, the cuts are especially galling since universities have for many years been pressing governments for an injection of funds into the tertiary system. (Drawing on OECD figures, Universities Australia has recently noted that in terms of funding for universities as a proportion of GDP, Australia ranks 25th out of 29 advanced economies).

While these cuts will have a significant impact on both students and academics — with many vice chancellors already admitting that there will have to be job cuts – many universities have long been in a state of crisis, mainly as a result of government under-funding and a raft of management policies that have alienated academics and disillusioned students.

The attempt by the University of Sydney management to prevent what the union considers the “rights for staff to be correctly classified and paid for the work they do”, to sideline unions in enterprise bargaining, and to change internal review mechanisms in respect of performance review and sick leave, have set academics and Sydney’s management team on a prolonged collision course. Particular acrimony has arisen over the issue of casualisation and the union’s insistence that casuals be offered appropriate remuneration for their services and avenues for more secure forms of employment.

Sydney management's effective restructure of industrial relations and academic work practices is being keenly observed by academics around the country. They know that if these measures succeed they may well face similar upheavals in the future as they confront the realities of more “flexible” workplaces.

Such developments have compounded simmering tensions between academics and management and have highlighted the emergence of what one commentator has described as “muscular managerialism”. This is characterised by more centralised and regulated systems of governance as well as increased red tape and administration, excessive workloads, reductions to academic freedom and autonomy, and mass casualisation – there are an estimated 67,000 casuals currently in the system. As a consequence of such developments, we have seen the drift of academics away from the profession, reluctance among graduates to pursue academic careers, and a general sense of academic disillusionment, reflected in low rates of job satisfaction and growing evidence of mental health problems.

There is little doubt among higher education observers that these symptoms of discontent have in large part resulted over the years from altered workplace cultures. Additionally, free market economics with its emphasis on competition, brands and products, now dictates that the consumer is sovereign, meaning that the role of academics has been largely reduced to that of process facilitators in a system supposedly characterised by excellence, choice and flexibility. The realities of all this in terms of the quality of higher education are, of course, a little different to those proclaimed by vice chancellors like the outgoing chair of Universities Australia (and author of the risible Republic of leaning), Professor Glynn Davis. He would have us believe that universities have entered some sort of golden age. Many academics and students hold a different view. Bloated class sizes, the dumbing down of curricula, bizarre entry requirements, an over-emphasis on vocationalism, income generation and increasingly, corporate sponsorship and philanthropic donations, have troubled many of those who have to work in this “industry”.

The latest cuts to higher education reveal, among other things, a disregard for what those in the sector would like to see in terms of the growth and development of tertiary education in Australia. Many academics are utterly bewildered that in the so-called "Asian Century" the Federal Government would seek to alienate potential graduates and make universities even less appealing to overseas students than it already is (largely because of the high Australian dollar and more "attractive" options in Canada, the US and elsewhere).

Rarely when it comes to higher education policy decisions do governments — or university mangers for that matter — engage academics in meaningful consultation about the future direction of universities. Rather, as in the case of universities where academic redundancies have been announced, academics are often the last to know what is happening. This may seem odd given that academics are pivotal to the operation of universities and their efforts (via course offerings, grant acquisitions and the like) have often helped keep these institutions afloat. Yet in the corporate system of line-management, the academic is required to submit to hyper-regulation, cow-tow the corporate brand and ensure that institutional "products" like degrees are delivered to an expectant consumer.

That said, it would be misleading to assume that academics are simply the hapless victims of oppressive university management. The fact is while academics have had to endure excessive regulation and workloads, they — or at least most — have also failed to speak out publicly about what goes on in their institutions and across the sector more generally.  

Two years ago before writing Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university I was of the view that academics were essentially at the mercy of a corporate system shackled to the imperatives of the free market. I still think academics are in the grip of this commercialised, top-down system but I increasingly view academics, especially the professoriate, as having consciously and otherwise embodied or succumbed to many of the values of the marketised system. Only around 20 per cent of academics belong to the national union, few speak out in public about their experiences, and fewer still will take a public stand on the exploitation of casuals, often preferring to talk about other forms of social injustice during their lectures and tutorials. To be sure, academics at Sydney and elsewhere have attempted to resist management attempts at restructuring but again, it is only a minority of academics in such places who actively support the union. (That said, it is pleasing to witness senior academics like Professor Raewyn Connell and Associate Professor Jake Lynch at the University of Sydney take a lead in publicly opposing the university).

It is surely time for academics to collectively draw some sort of line in the sand and to act in concert with their institutional and sector colleagues or risk enduring further erosions to their pay and conditions. They might also avoid being caught like kangaroos in headlights every time a government policy is announced.

It’s time also for some collective academic disobedience and political realignment. To be sure, some scholars have written about the need for “academic activism” and ways of achieving this (even developing a “toolbox” of suggested strategies). Others too continue to rage over their workloads, participate in union actions, critique the corporate university in lectures and seminars, and submit learned journal articles and present elegant papers at conferences. Very occasionally, you might see an acerbic article in The Australian, Higher Education and Campus Review. But overall, there remains what can only be described as a general sense of political inertia among Australia’s academics.

Perhaps one way of kicking off some activism might be to engage in public dialogue about the role of universities in Australian society. Academics could also consider becoming actively disobedient and resist some of the more banal aspects of university governance.  They might even seek to join the union and to speak out publicly about the gross exploitation of casuals in their midst.

It would be a start.

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.