The Humpty Dumpty University

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 1:45pm in

[A couple of years ago, I started a website called UniAdversity to track the decline of higher education under neoliberalism. Within about a year, I found that there was far too much material for one person to keep abreast of, and my efforts to nonetheless do so meant I never had the time to recruit co-editors to share the load, so I simply gave up (if you're interested in helping to revive the site, let me know). There were a few pieces I wrote that are worth archiving publicly — at least if you're a fan of sledgehammer sarcasm — and this is the first of them, from November 2013; here is the second, and the third.]

In 2013, Southern Cross University (SCU) very quietly made the decision to stop offering Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Social Science degrees at its Coffs Harbour campus. The move went unremarked upon in what passes for the local media and, among staff and students at the university, was widely assumed to be a consequence of recent federal funding cuts, combined with a pre-existing executive antipathy to non-vocational subjects and the decidedly unglamorous Coffs campus. A look at the institutional pressures behind this ostensibly minor decision, in a satellite campus of a regional university, reveals that the 21st century university, in this country and elsewhere, is suffering an identity crisis. The long-term consequences of a higher education system that disavows its fundamental reason for existence may be considered out of scope for that system's managerial elite, but are for the rest of us already proving to be nothing short of catastrophic.

What’s so bad about cutting a couple of under-enrolled courses from one campus? Let us first consider whether the loss is necessary in the first place. Isn’t the problem merely one of fundraising? One source of funding has been lost, but there’s no reason why another can’t be found. Whenever I put this argument to staff and students at SCU, the near-unanimous response was that the university is simply not interested allocating resources to the humanities, or to the Coffs Harbour campus. Vocational courses attract far more students, and resources are either being centralised at the Lismore campus, or sent north to the sexy new Gold Coast campus. The gloomy consensus is that SCU Coffs is being deliberately bled to death, and this year’s funding cuts have merely provided a pretext to hasten the process. I’m as cynical as the next man, provided the next man is Machiavelli, but even to me this sounded somewhat extreme. Not wanting to rely on speculation, however well informed, I decided to ask SCU’s vice chancellor, Professor Peter Lee.

“Let us say, hypothetically, that it were possible to find a source of funding to offset the Gonski cuts, or one or more partnering institutions were willing to participate in the provision of on-campus courses,” I suggested via email. Were this the case, what would be the likelihood of SCU “contributing towards the provision of face to face, university level education in the arts or social sciences in the Mid North Coast Region at any point in the foreseeable future?”

With a breezy shamelessness that points to a bright future in politics, the VC very kindly answered a completely different question of his own choosing: “We constantly evaluate demand for our programs (both new and existing courses) and to date, the demand has not justified an expansion of humanities programs at Coffs Harbour,” he replied.

“Demand” is the concept that cries out for scrutiny here. A greengrocer may decide to forego the provision of fruit and vegetables on the grounds of greater demand for coffee and sweets, but in doing so he forfeits the right to call himself a greengrocer (and also potentially accepts some responsibility for the subsequent local outbreak of scurvy). It would certainly not be appropriate to pronounce the provision of coffee and sweets to be the future of greengrocery, and to deride anybody who maintains that fruit and vegetables are still an important part of the trade as a nostalgic old hippie.

Furthermore, “demand” is not a synonym for “need”. Beyond government departments and market-driven university administration offices, there is general consensus on the role that universities are expected to fulfil. That fine source of inspiration for after dinner speakers, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines a university as “an institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects”. In contrast, from 2014, the bachelor courses available to students in Coffs Harbour are restricted to Business, IT, Education, Nursing, Midwifery, and Psychology.

The 1963 report of the Robbins committee on higher education, in delineating the responsibilities of the UK university system, emphasised promotion of the “general powers of the mind”, to produce “not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women”. By insisting that the primary purpose of a university is to provide vocational rather than academic education, and to meet market demand rather than social need, SCU is, in the manner of Lewis Carrol's Humpty Dumpty, maintaining that the word university “means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.

“Southern Cross University does not intend and never has attempted to emulate other universities”, its website declares. “We aim to become the most progressive and innovative regionally based university in Australia - and we are well on the way to achieving that aim.” That is, by redefining what it means to be a university. Twenty years ago, as part of the Dawkins Revolution, the (vocational) Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education became Southern Cross University. Now it is coming full circle, back to specialising in qualifications “designed in consultation with industry […] to produce work-ready graduates.”

For those students who aspire to more than work-readiness, the quaint vestiges of the humanities at Coffs Harbour are still available via distance education. As it happens, demand is not so much of a problem when you can make what you're supplying cheap enough. Cheap, that is, for the university to provide; the fees borne by the student and the public purse remain the same. One might conclude that the students who are of no use to the modern commercial university's partners in industry are being fobbed off with third-rate correspondence courses, but in some quarters it is contended that they are actually the fortunate pioneers of  higher education's coming cyber-utopia.

According to Professor Jim Barber, vice chancellor of the University of New England, “The nation has invested, and continues to invest, billions of dollars in […] classrooms, laboratories, libraries, student accommodation and buildings of various kinds under the assumption that it is necessary to duplicate all of this infrastructure around the country if Australian students are to receive the best education possible.” However, “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) “demonstrate that much of this capital expenditure is unnecessary and that this generation of vice-chancellors really ought to stop lumbering their university balance sheets with superfluous lecture theatres and burdensome depreciation costs.”

Moreover, by offering courses at no cost, “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless,” according to the Professor, who apparently sees no distinction between value and price, and for whom “universities really only have one saleable product—a credential.”

If the university of the future has a campus at all, “it will not be because they provide the best or most efficient means of educating people but because some individuals will always want to 'go to a university' in order to hang out with friends” - if you can imagine such a thing! The more efficient majority of students will instead eschew “bricks and mortar” to “live and move, interact and experiment in a network cloud”.

“Virtual environments are emerging that mimic the real world and provide us with a visceral sense of immersion. Some have even argued that the distinction between virtual and material will disappear altogether. This is because all surfaces, including the skin, are potential interface points enabling users to issue and receive computer commands using their own body parts as touchpads.”

I am not personally acquainted with the systems (or perhaps psycho-active substances) that Professor Barber uses when issuing these breathless prophesies from his corner of the network cloud, but I can say for certain that the system his students (like those of SCU) are compelled to use is the clunky and much derided Blackboard Learning System, which is more closely related to the early online bulletin board systems of the 1980s than to the Star Trek holodeck. It is true that there are some quite compelling virtual environments already in existence. These are very well suited to pursuing aliens, zombies, or dark-skinned foreign people, and dispatching them with a hand-held rocket launcher, but utterly excruciating when attempting any more nuanced interaction.

So if we can't afford bricks and mortar, and our unsociable but efficient students don't want it anyway, how do we fund the construction of the dermatologically-interfaced cyber-campuses of Professor Barber's fevered imaginings? Fortunately it turns out that higher education isn't as cash strapped as one might suppose. The new federal Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, points out that education is actually “Australia's fourth largest export, behind iron ore, coal and gold, and last year it had student enrolments of more than 500,000, earned $15 billion in revenue, and employed more than 100,000 people.” This is why his department, along with a consortium of universities and their omnipresent partners in industry, have launched the “Win Your Future Unlimited” competition to lure more full-fee-paying student-customers to Australia.

According to the competition website, “Seven finalists will be flown to Australia for a study tour. And one finalist will win the major prize – a year of study in Australia, including flights, tuition, accommodation, and much more.”

It's tempting to jump to the cynical prediction that before long some lucky boy or girl will find an Australian Ph.D. in their box of Corn Flakes, but there are additional layers of subtlety to this initiative. “The basic idea,” says Robb, “was to shift the focus away from Australia's lifestyle and natural beauty as points of attraction for students to one emphasising the ways in which study in Australia can help fulfil career ambitions through a quality education.”

Wait a moment. “Quality education”? Surely nobody wants that any more? A credential is sufficient to demonstrate work-readiness, and efficiency demands that we minimise the amount of education involved in getting it. And why would anybody want to be dragged around the country touring a lot of fusty old bricks and mortar, much less spending a whole year in such a place? Surely the efficient winning student would much prefer to stay at home in his underpants and enjoy the “visceral sense of immersion” in watching a dimly-lit, near-inaudible video recording of an overworked casual teaching assistant in Lismore joylessly ploughing her way through a PowerPoint slide deck?

Of course the truth is that very few students, given the option, would spurn a Robbins-era liberal education in favour of logging on to the post-Dawkins vocational credential delivery system. The former holds the promise of producing a finer, more sophisticated, fuller human being, and prepares one for an infinity of potential futures; perhaps a celebrated life of grand artistic achievement, or selfless public service, or a cosy directorship at the BBC hob-nobbing with the Davids Attenborough, Frost, and Dimbleby. The latter gets you a cubicle at the call centre next to Dave, a gormless teenaged backpacker from Aberystwith.

Setting aside the personal ambitions, or lack thereof, of our students, is there any major harm to society in reserving real education for a cashed-up global elite who can afford to shop for sandstone, while the majority of students in less august institutions pursue courses in lower education designed by and for business?

Eminent economist Ha-Joon Chang, currently teaching at Cambridge, has noticed the effect of narrow, vocationally focussed curricula on economics students, and is alarmed to find that few “know what is going on in China and how it influences the global economic situation. Even worse, I've met American students who have never heard of Keynes.” (Inman, 2013). These students may have no idea what caused the 2008 economic crisis, or perhaps even that there was one, but they do have a solid command of the mathematics that allows them to play successfully in the global casino economy on behalf of their employers in the City of London.

Closer to home, one might question the value of producing “work-ready” graduates in Coffs Harbour, a place with a very high degree of unemployment, under-employment, and tenuous employment, and with one of the country's greatest gulfs between income and cost of housing. Surely it would be more fruitful to produce graduates capable of investigating, analysing, and solving such problems? Or perhaps the method behind the university's apparent madness is a version of Say's law, a particularly potty notion that supply causes demand, and therefore if you supply the cubicle drones, the cubicles will follow. (However, given that the majority of the university's management will have graduated in the work-ready post-Dawkins era, it's unlikely that they will have heard of any such theory, as it isn't industrially relevant.)

A solid grounding in economics might also lead one to wonder what the long term consequences of a massive national program of vocational degrees promoted as a pathway to guaranteed employment might be, given that the promised employment largely does not exist. There is something oddly familiar about the prospect of overvalued assets purchased with cheap and easy credit by people with limited ability to repay. As British higher education analyst Andrew McGettigan notes, “Subprime degrees, like subprime mortgages, are sold to communities relatively unfamiliar with the product.” (Collini, 2013).

Professor Simon Marginson, of the University of Melbourne’s higher education faculty, writes “If higher education is emptied out of its public purposes we can no longer justify its survival. Today’s higher education institutions need a larger purpose that underpins their existence, a purpose that is more than a marketing slogan. The 21st century university needs to redefine itself as a creator, protector and purveyor of public goods.” (Marginson, 2013). For this to happen, the responsibility lies with students and academic staff to reclaim their universities from managers and marketers.

At the University of Manchester last year, a group of economics students found themselves increasingly frustrated with a course that, in the words of a university spokesman “focuses on mainstream approaches, reflecting the current state of the discipline” because such a blinkered view is “important for students' career prospects”, even if it teaches them nothing about how the world beyond the finance industry actually works (Inman, 2013). In response they instituted the Post-crash Economics Society, which seeks to “provoke discussion between students and staff about what economics is, what it should be and how it should be taught”.

These students have been echoing, although they didn’t know as much at the start, an earlier decades-long struggle led by students and staff at the University of Sydney, which finally culminated in the establishment of the university’s Department of Political Economy, now one of the world's most respected and vibrant centres of academic enquiry in economics.

Just as economics can be retrieved from business studies, so we can rescue the arts from the study of the creative industries. Perhaps we can also once again learn from history. Or even revive philosophy, the august and ancient progenitor of academia, long neglected and even scorned by the disciples of vocationalism and credentialism, who proclaim their devotion to the real world while condemning all of us to a toxic fantasy of their own making. As students and academic staff at university, even at the market-driven university, we occupy positions of substantial privilege. We therefore owe it to our society to reform our institutions to serve society’s needs, because we know the difference between need and demand, and between price and value, and we know what the word “university” means.


Barber, J. (2013). The end of university campus life. Ockham's Razor.

Collini, S. (2013). Sold out. London Review of Books, 35(20).

Inman, P. (2013, October 25). Economics students aim to tear up free-market syllabus. The Guardian.

Marginson, S. (2013). The modern university must reinvent itself to survive. The Conversation.

Robb, A. (2013). Education geared for growth.