Universities: Factory or Varsity?

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Monday, 8 November 2004

My father, who described himself as a “language master”, frequently regaled me with tales of his life at the varsity. In 1960, after an exceedingly mediocre year 12 undertaken at night school, I went to orientation day at the University of Queensland. I looked at the beautifully constructed sandstone structure of the main Arts building and was impressed by the inscription carved over a doorway which read, “This is a place of Light, Liberty and Learning”.

Later that day I attended a seminar at which someone asked Dennis Prior, Professor of Classics, to comment on the discussion to which he replied, “There is no point in asking me, I have not read anything in the last 600 years”. On that first day, I thought I had arrived at the varsity. At a student rally a decade later, protesting the Administration’s assault on academic freedom I recalled my original impression of UQ and informed the audience that I had no complaints about the lighting.

Whatever middle-class donnishness I inherited quickly withered as I became involved in left-wing student and anti-racist politics. Such pretensions were further eroded once I was confronted by the reality of the struggles of my clients at Social Security in Brisbane and the Aboriginal Welfare Office in Darwin.


Like John Dawkins who introduced HECS fees for tertiary students in 1989, I benefited from the Whitlam Government’s abolition of university fees. I denounced the reintroduction of fees at the time – comparing such an imposition on less well-off students with the actions of Nazi book-burners – on the grounds that both book- burning and imposing fees restrict opportunities for enlightenment. In 2005, some students will be paying in excess of $100,000 for their degrees. Such fees limit the aspirations of less well-off, rural and Indigenous students. For many, the existence of such fees is an insurmountable hurdle and they just give up on further education. Except for the BMW sports driving set, the HECS debt accumulated by the end of their period of study interferes with purchasing a home and raising a family. A sensible educational policy would abolish such fees (see On Line Opinion article).


Increasingly, students are trying to juggle getting an education and working. Some are trying to raise a family, work and come to university. Actually getting to lectures seems an impossibility for many due to competing pressures. Some students seem to think the lecture notes which go up on university online teaching sites are all they need to read to get them through a subject. At the same time, universities are increasing the amount of assessment. Most of my students are under enormous time pressures and universities add to those pressures with excessive assessments. Considerable numbers of students don’t want an education; they want a credential- a job ticket. Students don’t seem to have anything like the amount of time past generations had to sit around with colleagues disputing and discussing: politics, their courses, areas of interest and solving the problems of the world. They are so busy rushing they don’t have time to think and reflect.

The corollary is that, increasingly, students are defining themselves as “customer” rather than “student” and are intensely competitive about their marks. It would seem that if they don’t get the top grade for an assignment then obviously the teacher has failed to educate them properly and they turn up at university customer service departments in considerable numbers. In my undergraduate years, we said if you were getting more than a pass you were working too hard.

Have standards fallen?

For those of my colleagues who decry the demise of the good old days when one could take a sojourn to Oxbridge and discover 14 ways of serving potted shrimp I say, “Bad luck old chap”. There have been examples in recent times when the fiscal clout of full fee-paying students with university administrators has over-ridden the maintenance of decent academic standards. But whilst this threat is a real and present danger, the National Tertiary Education Union has mounted a very strong defence of academic standards.

The standard of academic knowledge and the research skills of most students I teach today are generally higher than when I started at university.

Life-long learning and the right to learn

Recently, Treasurer Costello has returned to his preoccupation about the need for older Australians to work till they drop. If such “work” is to be more than a devious method of preventing them from accessing social security entitlements and to keep them from wandering the streets during working hours, there needs to be a reinvigorated effort to involve older employees in university and TAFE training to update or upgrade their skills. If this option is not taken then many older workers will spend these extra years in the workforce becoming increasingly disillusioned and will be far less productive and innovative than they could be. The University of the Third Age concept which now brings retired workers into universities could be extended to include TAFEs and be offered to all over the age of 45 or 50 years.

In a perfect world, everyone would have the right to learn to their maximum potential. I live in Queensland, which Premier Beattie is trying to market as the “smart state”. Yet its spending on education, disability and community services lags behind most other states. Australia’s expenditure on social services is towards the bottom of the tables which compare us with other OECD countries. There will not be a general acceptance of a universal right to education in this country in my lifetime. The right to basic income security, free speech, right of assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the opportunity to socially meaningful occupation all come further up my list of demands of a decent country.

Train, educate or both?

Some of my colleagues talk about declining levels of academic performance and seem preoccupied by whether universities should be educating or training. Having taught in TAFEs, community colleges and universities and enjoyed all three, I don’t see the distinction between training and educating as amounting to much. Surely training is teaching applied skills and the best of education involves inculcating conceptual skills. In the modern world, many professionals conceptually consider which theoretical techniques to use and how best to apply their skills. In both areas we try to train people to think. We are a factory and a varsity too.

The corporate university

The modern university administrator (which could be more accurately spelt admin-is- traitor) is so preoccupied with down-sizing, measuring efficiency gains, putting out revised guidelines and imposing what they quaintly call “continuous improvement” that they have little time at all for education. However, they are little more than an obstacle on the road to enhanced educational outcomes that we have to avoid.

At a personal ethical level, universities have worked hard to control excesses such as plagiarism and an “A for a lay”. Racial, religious and sexual harassment is actively discouraged and this has made life at universities far more pleasant. Universities have started to come to terms with disability and workplace safety questions. Yet, at the same time, administrators drive staff to produce more, ever more, in the fine tradition of the Rockefellers and other robber barons.

The broader ethical standards of administrators, staff and students have plummeted, but in a neo-liberal world obsessed by narrow economic efficiency rather than social and ecological justice, it is a little rich to single out universities for blame. Academics do have some responsibility to hold out alternative options, but they are not solely to blame for the decline in public morality.

The real issues of the world: the war in Iraq, the one billion people in the world facing starvation, maldistribution of wealth here and overseas, the humanitarian crises in such places as West Papua, Darfur and Chechnya, income insecurity, unemployment and looming ecological disasters resulting from overexploitation are no longer heatedly discussed in staff common rooms or on campus lawns. These issues have been obliterated by egocentric discussions about interest rates, home improvement, movies and sport. It is this mind-numbing moral vacuum that is the real threat to maintaining a vital and challenging academic community.