The Violence In De-Regulating Higher Learning


The Vice Chancellors who represent the Group of Eight Universities say they favour Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s proposals to cut back on public funding, and – to make up the financial short fall – to allow universities to set their own fees.

Seduced by the language of market economics, these chief executives acknowledge Pyne’s instructions and are mouthing his lines.

Education must meet the needs of the economy.

Universities should be managed according to economic rationalist formulas.

Like any other product, tertiary education must be examined against the cost effectiveness criterion. 

Structural Violence

In peace theorist Johan Galtung’s words, policies which ensure opportunities for those with ample resources but which limit or erode the life chances of those with few resources, are the building blocks of structural violence.

The negative effects of such violence will appear in student demographics in universities and in terms of a society’s casualties.

In their bended knee compliance with the Minister’s deregulation policies, these senior managers facilitate increased social and economic inequalities and the associated structural violence. Why?

The governance of institutions such as universities, usually requires some semblance of concern with social justice, as in commitment to student controlled union services, provisions for students with disabilities, or in support for courses which are educationally significant but may not appear to be commercially viable.

If a preoccupation with business efficiency becomes the managerialist catchcry, the responsibility to promote fairness for all is discarded as outdated and irrelevant.

Although they have not had to sit exams on theories of de-regulation, the Vice Chancellors seem to believe that right-wing economic orthodoxy will produce financial benefits and eventually enable powerful institutions to be independent of government.

This version of freedom is also a license for selfishness. Who cares about regional universities? Who cares about home grown students being deterred by higher fees, let alone the prospective students from the world’s poorest nations who will pay almost twice as much to gain entry to Australian institutions?

The idea that every individual should fend for themselves clashes with the ideals of a common good. A selfish refrain, ‘Why should I contribute to others’ health welfare or education?’ is promoted by Minister Pyne when he asks why taxpayers whose children do not go to university should contribute to the costs of such public institutions.

The principle that public policy should be about the dominance of altruism over egoism is either unknown or laughed to scorn.

Human Costs

The human costs of policies that the user should pay more and more for less are littered across the world.

We can see this in the winners vs losers mentality of those who have embraced the right-wing  agenda.

The winners include the successful rich, those with protected invisible family trusts, the companies who don’t have to pay taxes or who know how to avoid paying them.

The losers are the unemployed and the casually employed, the students with massive debts and few prospects.

Even if the privileged universities can make a profit by finding sufficient students to pay a diverse range of fees, it would be wise to heed John Maynard Keynes’ warning that policies preoccupied with so called free markets, are nurtured by self-destructive calculations.

In the USA, for example, the 40 million Americans who owe 1.2 trillion dollars in loan debts will spend a large part of their lives trying to repay those debts.

To do so, they impose larger and larger charges for their skills and services, probably contributing to a debt in other people’s lives and a considerable drag on an economy.

A similar trend is in prospect in Australia where it’s estimated that the Pyne policies will double the size of fees and the consequent student debts.

NTEU President Jeannie Rea says, “I’m really afraid that people will abandon the idea of going to university.”

Critics of policies which purport to help universities to balance their books risk the charge that they are economically illiterate. But it is not difficult to identify the means of funding tertiary education: abolish negative gearing, broaden the base of the GST, stop taxing trusts as companies, reduce the discount on capital gains, reduce the over generous tax concessions on superannuation.

Absence of Leadership

There’s a peculiar irony in the Vice Chancellors’ pleasure at the prospect of more de-regulation. Instead of articulating the alternative to the notion that universities can be profit-making businesses, they imitate the values of their political masters.

Every policy must be designed to pay off the country’s financial debt.

Everyone should conform.

Non-conformity must be discouraged.  

The Vice Chancellors seem unaware of the violence inherent in the human costs of de-regulation, but a main charge against them is that they have shown no leadership.

Their careers have been based in universities yet they have lost the ability to evaluate and they certainly do not want to heed the protests of students.

Unduly influenced by the wealth of US institutions such as Stanford and Harvard, they seem to think that the more people pay, the greater the chances of achieving academic excellence.

Pay your way to the top might benefit a limited number of students. Instead, why not advise the Minister that university cultures need to emphasize reciprocity not selfishness, respect for collective effort as well as individual achievement, support for the vulnerable not just better chances for those already well endowed.

Students, staff of all kinds, the general public and the political classes would benefit from such a culture.

It is evident that by enhancing social justice, by contributing to students’ morale and mental health, such a culture can improve a nation’s economy.

It also encourages a non-violent way of living.

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.