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What is motivating the war against higher education?

By Giles Pickford
First published in Campus Review Vol 13 No 45 November 19-25, 2003, page 27

On 11 August Tony Abbot, Rhodes Scholar and at that time the Australian Minister for Work Place Relations, was reported by the Australian Financial Review to have 'vented his anger at construction companies and universities' and is now attacking the car manufacturing industry. He is unhappy about 'law enforcement in the construction industry, maintaining a competitive edge in the car industry… and introducing more flexibility into the tertiary sector.'

The idea of comparing academics with brickies and mechanics is an interesting exercise. The idea that all three sectors need the discipline of 'the boss is always right' may be easier to uphold in building and manufacturing than it is in the 'industry' of thinking freely.

Neither major political party in Australia has ever understood the real nature of the discipline of thinking, and the vocation of teaching others how to do it better.

An academic must be free to think and then say whatever seems to be right after a long and exhaustive analysis of the issues. It is a painful dissonance to hold (as Liberal dogma holds) that the individual is supremely free to choose his or her destiny; but to simultaneously hold that the 'boss is always right'.

The fact that the Liberal Party, Party of the Individual, has historically been perpetually at war with academics and medicos, the two most individualistic of all vocations, must be a nagging inconsistency for all Liberal members and sympathisers to live with.

Labor, on the other hand, is the Party of the State. It is the natural antagonist of the individual because it holds that society and community come first. So when Labor attacks the academy or the medical profession (as it does) it can do so with much more comfort and internal consistency.

The idea that the discipline of the factory must also be the discipline of the academy and the surgery is not something that sits well with Liberalism.

The current long slow war of attrition on tertiary education, is carried out against universities in Australia by the Federal Government, while State Governments attack Technical and Further Education. Both are opposed to each other in politics, but the tactics they employ suggests that when it comes to Tertiary Education it is unanimous. The antagonism is bi-partisan.

The present war against the professions represented in the sector is leaving people in a state of confusion about what is going on.

After all, the people who are doing the most damage are graduates, both in politics and in the public service. What is motivating them to degrade their own degrees by causing an erosion of standards in their own universities?

Why are they intent on rearranging structures which have been massively interfered with already by insistent meddling over decades? Their actions show that they know that they have not got it right in the last dozen attempts. So it must still be wrong, and there must still be changes again and again, with review following on review 'creeping on in this petty pace from day to day until the last syllable of recorded time.'

There must be a motive behind this behaviour. What is it?

We think that it differs between the parties of the left and right.

The Conservative regime currently in Government must look at the sector with profound irritation. Do they still remember Albert Langer and Jim Cairns during the Vietnam War? Do they remember all the critiques of policy which Universities must offer to the public because that is an important part of their core business?

Is revenge a motive?

The Australian thinking industry is now bigger in exports than Wool. You would think that Conservatives, with their eyes glued to the bottom line, would want this industry to succeed. But revenge is a blind passion.

What is the motive with the parties of the left who deserted the cause of higher education a long time ago, reaching a peak with John Dawkins?

Well, envy has always been an obsession with the left-leaners. Are they envious of the privileged top-percentile people, so many of whom come from wealthy suburbs?

We have grown used to seeing politicians paying lip service to 'our great universities'. But in the Cabinet Room we know, because we have been told by insiders, that when the subject of higher education comes up on the agenda, there is sneering, ridicule and contempt expressed in private.

The powerful on all sides of politics are impatient. They want the thinking industry to do what it's told.

They see that it is possible in the public service and in industry to enforce your will. That is because the fascist model works well in these areas. The 'Leader is always right' was always the cry of the fascists. In top-down corporate government in the private or public sectors there might be a place for it.

The fact that it can't work in universities is not understood. In a real University each individual is essentially a law unto him or herself. This is because it cannot be upheld in logic that the leader is always right. Not even the majority opinion can be regarded as always right. Time and again whole theories have been overturned by individual thinkers who have proven that the majority position is wrong. It is essential to preserve this culture on our campuses, because it is the only way a thinking community can work effectively.

A University can have a Vice-Chancellor who is regarded as primus inter pares, first among equals. But he cannot force his view in a real University except by reasoned argument. We have heard Vice-Chancellors joke about what little real power they have: well the good ones do, while the bad ones nurse illusions about themselves

Government is impatient about this ancient culture which goes back to the 11th Century. It wants Universities to be run like businesses and it insists that if there is to be public funding then the universities must change for the worse. Government, and all the graduates who serve it, have no idea how sterile this course of action is.

It is partly the fault of the universities that they have gone about their business of teaching Physics or Latin or some other thinking discipline, without imparting any idea to their graduates of the nature of higher learning, and why it must be the way it is.

Governments have recently put forward the argument that higher education is largely a private good. Tony Abbot has ceaselessly said that he cannot see why the ordinary tax payer, who will never set foot inside a campus, should pay for the education of a person who will one day be one of the privileged few.

It is impossible for the Labor Party to disagree with that idea and keep a straight face.

So it follows that both parties hold that civilisation, and all the benefits it brings, must be paid for by a small minority.

Using the same bad logic you could say that most people will spend less that one percent of their lives in a hospital and that they should pay all the cost of that; that police protection has no effect on most people; and so on and so forth. In the end, by following this crazy notion to its end, you will find that there is no need for governments to provide anything other than tanks and war planes, and even then only to protect themselves from their own outraged citizenry.

Finally we come to the issue of double standards. The Government insists that the academy must have work conditions that do not differ too much from 'community standards'. Implying that the top 1% of citizens (by intelligence) must live like the struggling masses. We know that this sounds snobbish, but the community of scholars is an international community, and the best of them will search out for themselves the best deal they can find anywhere in the world.

So what Governments are really saying is that we can't afford the best. Even though they lament that we do not have a University in the top one hundred, by their actions we know that they have no intention of trying to get one.

But 'community standards' do not apply to politicians or their servants.

An Australian Vice-Chancellor recently tried to make an appointment to see the Minister. He was told that this was not possible at that time, but he could see senior members of the Department. The Vice-Chancellor replied that he was prepared to see any official who was on a Work Place Relations Agreement. But there were none of those to be found anywhere. This is the double standard: one standard for you and another one for me.

We are of the view that this deplorable state of affairs is unlikely to end. Universities have been a source of anxiety for regimes all through history. This will not stop, because offering a critique of society is an essential ingredient of the thinking industry.

Our only solution to the impasse is that universities everywhere must begin a public education campaign explaining the nature of the academy, its centuries of tradition, and why it has to be retained. We are not talking about television commercials. We are talking about a public education campaign of real depth and reach. It should not be beyond the capacity of the cleverest people in the nation to undertake such a program.

The initial target of the education program has to be graduates: currently the most focussed and effective enemies of the Universities that made them.

Giles Pickford has worked in five Australian Universities and the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee over a period from 1964 to 1997. He is now retired and lives in Wollongong. He can be contacted on

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