Spirit of the money age leads academy to mislay its values

Australian critics launch attack on 'cargo cult' of university corporatisation. Simon Baker reports

September 2, 2010

Modern universities are "all about money" and are failing to teach their students wisdom, a vice-chancellor of a leading Australian institution has said.

In his annual lecture at Macquarie University in Sydney, Steven Schwartz said a "cargo cult" has developed, with politicians viewing universities as a quick way to generate economic activity.

"We once were about character building but now we are about money. We live in the age of money, and money is what the modern university is all about," Professor Schwartz said. "Apparently we need more circus performers and salon managers. For some reason, no one seems to worry about a shortage of philosophers, historians and ethicists ... (but) successful careers depend on the practical application of wisdom."

Professor Schwartz, the former vice-chancellor of Brunel University who sparked controversy in that role by shedding research-inactive staff, said Macquarie was attempting to address the balance by teaching students "practical wisdom".

He said he would even teach the subject himself to final-year students as part of the university's bid to prepare graduates for "real-world problems".

Professor Schwartz's lecture last week followed a recent paper on Australian higher education policy over the past 35 years, which concludes that universities have been turned into "profit centres at the expense of academics and students".

Brad Long, a lecturer at James Cook University's Brisbane campus, argues in the Journal of Further and Higher Education that reforms by successive administrations have led to less public funding and the "corporatisation" of the sector.

He reviews reforms from the mid-1970s, when tuition fees were withdrawn, through the 1980s, when they were reintroduced, to the past decade, when commercialisation intensified.

In the article, "Losing sight of Humboldt: a synoptic review of Australian government policy over the last 35 years", Dr Long says that increased student-to-staff ratios and a rise in casual teaching posts point to a decline in quality.

"The corporatisation of universities, culminating in the dehumanising of the academic ... is well under way. Like an obsessive economist, the government continues to tweak the 'system' of higher education in an effort to get a higher return on its investment ... universities have been pressed into a corporate environment that requires them to keep their customers happy for short-term viability."

He calls for a return to the principles espoused by the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt - with universities based on "unity of research and teaching; freedom of teaching; and ... self-governance".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

POLITICIANS PRECIPITATE PROBLEM AS OVERSEAS STORM CLOUDS GATHER

The political uncertainty caused by Australia's closest federal election in years threatens to deprioritise higher education despite the problems facing the sector, an academic has warned.

Speaking after the inconclusive election on 21 August, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said an "implosion" of the country's vital overseas student market, which could lead to a 25 per cent drop in numbers, would send shock waves through the sector. However, the issue was hardly discussed during the election, mainly because the trend is being driven in part by the biggest immigration backlash in Australia for more than a decade.

This has led to a "convergence" in anti-immigration policy by the two political forces vying for power - Labor and the Liberal-National coalition.

The previous Labor government had already begun a clampdown on the visa system and the coalition has pledged to cut immigration by almost half, with students an inevitable target. This policy signal, coupled with high-profile attacks on Indian students and a strong Australian dollar, is persuading overseas students to go elsewhere.

Professor Marginson said that politicians will be unable to ignore the problem when universities go into the red as a result. "Once it hits ... the government will respond, but it will be too late by then. Several institutions will need to be bailed out and there has never been a history of bailing out universities here."

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