The Battle To Save Our Universities Is Now

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‘When one sees how people behave when they are all alone,’ noted Gorky in My Universities, ‘they appear to be insane.’

Insanity isn’t one of the obvious traits of the tiny coterie of Australian Vice-Chancellors. But given the broader political context, VCs’ support for university fee deregulation, before the Senate this week, is pure madness.

The current balance of forces in politics would allow VCs to argue for greater government commitment to universities – five months on, the public is still solidly against deregulation. Instead of capitalizing on public opinion, though, VCs have been “licking their lips” at the prospect of the ingots they’ll be able to pave their campuses with if caps on fees are removed.

As everyone else now knows, deregulation is nothing to welcome: it’s deeply inequitable, makes no economic sense, and will only license further funding cuts in future.

The University of Western Australia recently confirmed the public’s worst fears: far from being some creature of his critics’ “breathless” panic, as Pyne has suggested deregulation will make $100 000 degrees a reality. Michael Spence’s reassurances yesterday in The Herald should fool no one.

If VCs won’t act to oppose the Americanisation of higher education, we will. This week, a group of Australia-wide academic and general staff are launching the National Alliance for Public Universities. NAPU will give a voice to the one group regularly excluded from public debates on deregulation – the staff who, along with students, make our universities what they are.

Vice-Chancellors don’t speak for us. The core of the NAPU charter is that access to education is a basic right, and that universities provide public benefits as well as private ones. For Pyne and his ideologues within or outside the quadrangles, by contrast, graduates, not society as a whole, are the main “winners” from higher education, largely via their increased earnings.

Even in our age, so deeply shaped by competitive individualism, the weakness of that contention is arresting.

There would be no private benefits to graduates without public ones to society. Brain surgeons, Education Ministers and journalists are comparatively well paid because their jobs are considered important to everyone. Private benefit through higher salaries is a consequence of the public value that certain kinds of work are seen to have.

As a rule, people accept that a properly functioning wages system should reflect the public utility of different kinds of work. That’s why teachers and nurses, who will clearly be penalized under deregulation are generally admitted not to earn enough at the moment, and hedge-fund managers too much.

Everyone benefits many times over from universities, whether they’ve ever set foot in one or not. They do so whenever they draw on the knowledge they’ve learned from school teachers, use planned urban spaces, interact with the media, visit a hospital, or benefit from rigorous norms in public debate.

Without these public benefits, and without scores of others, our society would simply be inconceivable. That VCs choose to ignore all this speaks volumes.

It’s axiomatic that everyone has an interest in a functioning society. It follows that the financial burden of sustaining one is principally a collective responsibility – and it should be shared through a progressive tax system.

Those who actually earn the most, whether graduates or not, are the ones whose tax contributions should be greatest. Claiming university education is mainly a private good denies that everyone depends on the forms of expertise that universities disseminate.

Indeed, fixating on private benefit is compatible with denying the very relevance of society as a category in debates about public affairs. Gina Reinhart, who wants to reset the country on just such Thatcherite bases, would be pleased.

Ensconced in their world of receptions, promotional roadshows and cap-in-handing to potential donors, the university leaders whose endorsements lace Pyne’s speeches now only pay lip-service to the principle of public good.

Some key players – Melbourne’s Glyn Davis, UWS’s Peter Shergold – are former senior public servants: they will implement Pyne’s dogma, not challenge it. The university councils to which they are nominally responsible are dominated by corporate interests who have shown that they just don’t understand universities’ principal function – harnessing reason for the betterment of society, not servicing businesses’ skill demands.

Matthew Arnold’s description – the ‘stout main body of Philistinism’ – is apt.

It is urgent that university staff articulate a positive vision for the role of higher education in society. This is why we have established NAPU.

A vision, however, is not enough. Terms like ‘equity’, ‘pursuit of truth’ and ‘social betterment’ aren’t toy rattles shaken for their gratifying sound or for their seemliness in universities’ image management; they’re invitations to a collective campaign, within and beyond universities, for a higher education system predicated on public scholarship, rational debate and dissent – for, in short, the liberation of the intellect for the common good, not on the enclosure of knowledge and the entrenchment of privilege in society.

The sleep of reason produces monsters. VCs have chosen to sacrifice the good of Australian society for their perceived institutional self-interest, with essentially unattainable dreams of turning their own institutions into Harvards of the South. But contrary to what’s continually asserted, Australian society won’t be better educated overall in a higher education system which has the insignia of the market branded even more deeply into it.

Deregulation will accelerate the transformation of seminar rooms, labs and libraries into snazzy bijoux of the “student experience”, with university marketing, not education, the principal aim.

The lights will be blazing inside, but only those who can take on substantial debt will be at home.

This perversion of the role of higher education in a society that aspires to democracy must not be accepted. By supporting NAPU we can make sure that VCs aren’t the only non-student voices in the debate.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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