Readers may be familiar with the massive disappointments associated with Australia’s higher education system. In describing and then analysing the breadth and depth of the crisis in higher education, the main problem is, where to start?
A close-up of the bottom right-hand corner of the
March 25, 2.37pm, Bachelor in Rolling Your Eyes
graduating class at Cudgee University.
(Only honours graduands are shown)
Recent takes on the problem have focused on two specific matters. First, the de-platforming culture of our campuses, where the prevailing culture is one of groupthink and fear of free speech (of opposing ideas, in fact); and second, the non-take-up by the Australian National University of a generous offer from the Ramsay Centre to host a Western Civilisation program.
Greater concerns among conservatives (and smart classical liberals) relate to the long march through higher education of dangerous postmodernist ideologies that have decimated the humanities in particular; the emerging culture of “grant troughing” among those whom we used to think of as “scientists”; the corporatisation of universities, with its own “long march of the marketing bureaucrats”; the out-of-balance ratio of academic to administrative staff; the baloney of “quality” bureaucracies; the misplaced priorities which bury teaching and learning and worship research, with its prestigious, embedded, career-making and breaking grants structures; and the self-serving scam of “life-long learning”. This last is essentially rubbish on steroids, and dangerously misleading rubbish at that.
The last has deluded an entire generation about the need for university degrees and created a scary FOMO (fear of missing out) phenomenon among the young. British author David Craig in his (co-authored) recent book, The Great University Con: How We Betrayed a Generation, has done us all a service in bringing this to wider attention. (The self-serving cabal which benefits from this scam has done its darndest to bury the book, of course.)
Recently I was asked, on whose watch did all this happen? A darn good question.
It is such a long, long story, policy failure-wise. Hawke minister John Dawkins – he of the “Dawkins university” – deserves an honourable mention. By doubling the number of universities overnight in the late 1980s and turning vaguely useful polytechnics into generally useless pretend research universities, with no hope of ever challenging the old sandstones, which garner about 70 per cent of the total research funds, Dawkins singlehandedly made a smallish problem huge.
Dawkins also unleashed the idea of HECS, with its linked loans schemes, thus creating the kernel of another huge problem: student debt.
Yet, a series of Coalition education ministers must share in the blame – there is enough to go around – for misdiagnosing the problem, for seeing it as all about funding and, indeed, increasing that funding – albeit at a slower rate of increase than the socialists – for adding to higher education regulatory systems, and for ignoring core system-failure issues.
Each side of politics, stumbling along in the dark and seemingly unaware of larger issues that should cause disquiet to all sides, has contributed to a steadily building monster that, strangely, avoids general political scrutiny.
The vested interests are winning, big time, as a result.
Ironically, perhaps the biggest problem of all – the massification of the higher-education sector, such that most (unthinking) politicians and others now routinely trot out the proposition that just about everyone should go to university – had its genesis in good old Robert Menzies in the 1960s.
Admittedly, Ming had no inkling then of all the other megatrends about to be unleashed over the next three decades when he recommended and indeed engineered his own, then relatively minor and innocently conceived, uptick in the sector. (And it must be noted that the massification of higher education is a Western country problem, not just an Australian problem.)
So, there are many issues, many causes, many trends. Too many, really, to get your policymaking head around. So, the blob wins. The higher-ed scam has the great advantage of being built upon a huge yet credible lie, accepted by all parties, including, perhaps especially, parents. It remains under the radar.
The problem with having a big policy problem with multiple dimensions is that each of us focuses on favourite bits of the problem. Left-wing academics. Grant troughing. Ego-driven vice-chancellors. Budgets out of control. De-platforming and freedom of speech. Snowflake students. Bureaucracy. Falling standards. Each and every problem, unsurprisingly, gets conservatives steaming. And it is all, or much of it, on the taxpayer’s dime.
What is missing is a coherent and comprehensive theory of “the problem”. A wise conspiracy theorist friend of mine once suggested to me that the “long march” Gramscian strategy and the simultaneous (and, to me, unconnected) process of corporatisation of the universities were actually all of a piece. The cleaning-out of the humanities and cognate disciplines of non-politically correct ideas and faculty, and the creation of monster bureaucracies serving monetised education (corporate) objectives actually turn out to be part of a single, Orwellian push.
I am not there yet. When in doubt, back the stuff-up over the conspiracy. But, if the total stuff-up of a once reasonably well functioning higher-education sector could have been envisaged back in the day, what we have actually achieved in Australia pretty much fits the bill. It is very, very close to what one might imagine the imagined destroyer of our higher-education system might actually have planned.
Some years ago two colleagues and I took it upon ourselves to visit the then Coalition spokesman on higher education, the highly principled and intelligent Brett Mason. We went with a shopping list of concerns about the direction of higher education in Australia.
The immediate impact of our ideas on Brett was gobsmacking. Clearly Brett had never heard these ideas, astonishingly. A hint as to why came to us when he said something along the lines: “No one ever tells me this stuff.”
Little wonder. He normally only ever talked to vice-chancellors. A more venal, self-important, overpaid, useless bunch of time servers you will never meet. These corporate executives are deeply invested in the status quo, or at least a more highly government “invested” version of it.
Ministers basically play a game. They love mixing with vice-chancellors. It goes with the intoxicating whiff of ministerial leather. They are captured by those they perceive to be intellectuals. They do not stand a chance against these urbane big-city players on their million-dollar salaries with benefits.
Under the Turnbull regime, we got Birmo. Enough said. Now, Dan Tehan, it is over to you. Do you understand the nature of the problem? Its dimensions? Its history? Its breadth and depth?
And, do you have what it takes to make a difference? We conservatives are owed the effort. Please explain.
Paul Collits is a writer, university lecturer, independent researcher, policy adviser and business mentor. He has worked in regional economic development analysis, research, training, policy and practice for over 25 years.