Money and old tropes

The academy is paying too much, not too little, heed to calls for adaptability to the market, says Hannah Forsyth

November 15, 2012

A report recently splashed across the pages of Australia's media claimed that universities were "a thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change".

It is an old trope. Universities are often seen as "ossified", as an Australian federal minister once put it, and slow to adapt. Ernst & Young's report, University of the Future, uses pictures to underline the point. Page one features two children with an iPad (the future); page two contrasts this with a cloister, no doubt intended to represent an Australian university.

To some extent, this is an image universities bring on themselves when they rely on a sense of antiquity to claim authority - but the accusation that they are unresponsive is unwarranted. Universities do adapt; indeed, most were created in response to particular needs. And Ernst & Young itself, it is worth pointing out, is older than most universities in Australia.

University of the Future highlights some obvious problems in Australian higher education, such as the fact that all sources of income are precarious and that it seems to cost more to administer our institutions than to teach and conduct research. It recommends that universities partner with industry, focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, adapt to a globally mobile market and develop teaching techniques that use and add value to online sources of information.

What do they think universities have been doing? Since the 1980s, the sector has sought partnerships with industry, rewarded entrepreneurship, commercialised research and traded in intellectual property. It has also drawn on the potential of the World Wide Web - and while there has been some success, it has been offset by the realisation that e-learning, while necessary, is not a cash cow.

Universities, the report argues, come with two "critical assets": credibility and expertise. "Credibility is king," it tells us; "universities are uniquely positioned to bring credibility and to act as curators of content". But its authors seem to have no idea about the source of that credibility. Nor do universities seem to be giving it much thought, either.

A university's credibility is grounded in its separateness from other "interests". We trust its research findings more than those produced in industry since (theoretically) the university is independent. We believe universities when they give degrees, as they have (or used to have) an inbuilt structural interest in giving them only for good reason. This credibility has been immensely valuable in the past century. Research and widespread education have become the foundation not only of economic growth but also of political decision-making. Nations can no longer be governed without substantial amounts of academic advice and ongoing research into the areas for which difficult decisions must be made - climate change is just one contemporary example.

And yet universities are not protecting their value as centres of disinterested scholarship. Instead they have adapted to "current conditions" in ways that make them just another "industry" competing for public support and commercial income. (It is doubtless the chance to own a slice of this income that has drawn the interest of Ernst & Young.)

Strangely, the vast expansion of the "market" in higher education is seen by the report's authors as a threat to the sector, rather than evidence of its success.

The "solutions" the report proposes may even be the cause of many of the problems it identifies. The professional services side of university activity has outstripped its core academic function by performing exactly the tasks the report advocates. Analysing conditions, responding to market demands, discussing strategy and developing niche products are among the activities that have kept universities' administration growing as they increasingly run in an expensive, "business-like" manner. Teaching has reached record levels of efficiency, research outputs and quality are measured to within an inch of their lives - and yet university costs keep growing.

But the report does get one thing right: it concludes that the new, "leaner" university of the future will need to concentrate on teaching and research and spend less on administration. Australian academics can only say "Amen" to that.

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