The Subversion of Australian Universities, edited by John Biggs and Richard Davis (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 2002).

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Contents page of The Subversion of Australian Universities

The theme of this book is that Australian universities have become subverted and that this is a catastrophe for society. The traditional university is the only institution in society that is dedicated, through research and teaching, to the creation, maintenance, and propagation of knowledge in the basic disciplines. Such knowledge, and its continuing development, is vital for a civilised society, not only for "cultural", but for very pragmatic, technological reasons.

This vision of the role of universities has in recently been seriously diminished by policy-makers and by senior university administrators alike, to the point where the proper function of universities in Australia has become distorted, their very existence in danger. The reasons why this is so are explored in depth in the pages that follow.

The facts are that in ten years, public spending on universities has been cut savagely. Academic staff now have to cope with much larger classes than previously, while the students they teach are more varied in age, background, and academic commitment. Staff are required to teach in areas new to them, while at the same time they are pressured to publish more, to bring in research monies, and to undertake more administration and committee work. Most are seriously stressed.

In the institutions that currently call themselves universities, knowledge is only to be pursued if it is valuable in the meanly focused sense that it makes money. Research and teaching are valued to the extent that a price in dollars can be put upon these once intrinsically valued activities. Market forces determine what is to be researched, and what is to be taught. Today’s climate of economic rationalism requires top-down management to enforce decisions and procedures that maximise economic gain to the virtual the exclusion of all else.

Disappointingly few other books have addressed these issues. One that has is Tony Coady’s edited collection, Why universities matter (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000). Our concern here is to appraise current events in an historical context. One of the defining moments in the history of universities in this country was the case of Orr versus the University of Tasmania. This battle, emerging in the 1950s in Australia’s smallest state and most struggling university, addressed many of the basic issues that now need redefining in Australia’s tertiary system: adequate public finance, self-government in academic matters, the conflicting demands of research and teaching, tenure of staff, and an acceptable teaching and physical environment.

The man held responsible for drawing unwanted public attention to these issues, the result of which was the 1955 Royal Commission on the University of Tasmania, was Sydney Orr, Professor of Philosophy at that university. Within months of the appearance of the Royal Commission’s very critical report on the university, Orr was summarily dismissed on the grounds that he had seduced a student. The fall-out, both from the Orr Case and from the Royal Commission itself, was considerable, and without doubt complemented and reinforced the recommendations and subsequent implementation of the 1957 Murray Committee’s report on Australian universities.

The Murray Committee ushered in a new age. Academic institutions in the next two decades experienced adequate funding for the first time. Staff were adequately paid; research opportunities grew; students were taught in smaller classes; academic self-government and democratisation appeared; Australian scholars and graduates abandoned the cultural cringe, which hitherto had accepted the automatic superiority of British and American institutions.

In fact, they became too smug. By the mid-1980s and increasingly thereafter, the pendulum swung the other way under the influence of market economics and managerialism, and many were delighted from both the left and the right to use the ideology of economic rationalism to put the universities back in their box. In this climate, the Orr Case took on quite a different significance. Cassandra Pybus reduced the issue to sordid sexual exploitation, as signalled in the way she luridly entitled a reprint of her book on Orr: Seduction and Consent: A Case of Gross Moral Turpitude. The raft of academic issues, which had preceded the peremptory sacking of an academic whistleblower, she rejected as completely irrelevant. Orr had had a sexual liaison with a student. His emphatic denials notwithstanding, that was all that needed to be said in the political correctness of the 1990s. But she said more. By including her own sexual romps with staff at Sydney University, she created an impression that universities were fleshpots of general academic decadence and debauchery. Heavy-handed government intervention was needed; the subversion of the universities’ true function by economic rationalism had become that much easier. The publicity accorded to Pybus as a speaker on academic issues not only inhibited serious considerations of the link between the academic issues of the 1950s and those at the end of the 20th century, but distorted public perceptions of the academic function, the nature of tenure, and of sexual harassment itself.

It is easy to say that what has happened is that universities are simply being transformed to meet the needs of the post-industrial world. In 1988, when Education Minister John Dawkins published his Green Paper on higher education, an entirely new era had been opened. Whatever universities and colleges of advanced education had been in the past, from now on all were essentially institutions for vocational training, with a minor research and development function to be supported wherever possible from the private sector. Increasingly, under the Howard Government and formalised in the West Report, universities were to become self-funding, like any other industry. Fee paying students were the customers and market forces would take care of quality control. Information technology now exists so that universities can compete on a global network, so market forces are not even national but international.

In a complex world, change is always inevitable. However, we disagree profoundly that what has happened to our universities is either inevitable or desirable. In this volume, we seek to show how the recent past is not a foreign country, but is intimately related to the present. We look at examples of the unacceptable consequences when market principles are applied to academic life. If we are really to understand what is happening to our universities, and are not simply to be swept along with glib assertions that they too are inevitably part of globalisation, we need to understand the nature, values, and function of universities, and how they too have been degraded in the past just as now they are being degraded in the present.


John Biggs and Richard Davis, Hobart, Tasmania

October, 2001