The impact of research funding on curriculum

Published in Ed info (Australian Union of Students), No. 4, July 1981, pp. 45-49

Brian Martin

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Curriculum is a social product, so it is not surprising that those groups with the most power in society - government and corporations may be singled out - have the greatest influence on curriculum. This influence is sometimes direct, but more often is transmitted via elites in educational establishments and justified through doctrines which they create or promote. Government and corporations also have a dominant influence on the direction and content of research funding. This influence is usually more direct than in the case of curriculum, most obviously in the case of military and industrial research. The idea of 'the impact of research funding on curriculum' is shorthand for the interplay of interest groups, research funding and curriculum.

The presentation here will be in two parts, first a brief outline of ways in which government and corporations influence curriculum, and second a survey of some ways in which directions in research and curriculum can be challenged and changed by students and staff and by groups outside educational institutions, pointing out some strengths and weaknesses in each approach. The examples will mainly be drawn from the tertiary sector, where most of the research done at educational institutions is performed.

Government and corporate influences on curriculum

I have singled out four avenues for government and corporate influence on curriculum here though in actuality the nature of the influence should be seen as part of the continuing reproduction of society in which interest groups attempt to maintain and expand their positions and power.

(1) Establishing organisations. When choices are made to establish educational institutions, or faculties or departments within them, government and corporate elites have an important say. Another important influence is educational theory, especially that espoused by leading educational administrators, which is heavily oriented toward service to the already powerful and privileged. Some faculties, such as engineering, commerce and law, clearly do not exist because of their intrinsic intellectual content but because they service aspects of the prevailing social system. The emphases in the more 'academic' areas such as science and arts subjects also reflect wider social interests. Support for departments of nuclear physics or geology comes via interest groups and lobbies for nuclear weapons, nuclear power and mining. In all cases of this sort the nature of the curriculum is influenced indirectly, and sometimes directly.

(2) Deciding on organisational structures. Choices about the organisational structure for educational institutions are strongly influenced by government, corporate and educational elites. The form preferred by these elites is hierarchical and undemocratic, a reflection of similar structures in the government and corporate sectors. The hierarchical organisational mode allows decisions about the allocation of research monies to be made from above while maintaining the myth of the freedom of scholars to pursue their own research interests: they are indeed free to roam, but only in an environment structured by others. In a similar way, educational hierarchies allow curriculum limits to be decided from above, with freedom for teachers to move within these parameters at the bottom.

The teaching/learning situation of course is a hierarchy, with most power vested in the teacher-assessor. This hierarchy is a subunit of the larger hierarchies of educational institutions. Curriculum is inevitably moulded to the dictates of this hierarchy, and indeed the hierarchy itself is an important feature of the 'hidden curriculum'.

(3) Choosing staff. Within the framework of established educational institutions, decisions are made routinely about hiring staff, granting tenure or promotion, funding research projects and the like. These decisions are strongly influenced by elites in government and industry via their links with educational elites, for example on university councils, on grant-giving bodies, in clubs or through informal contacts. This sort of influence is especially noticeable in cases in which dissidents are suppressed. The routine decisions in educational institutions, which recreate or change its direction and emphases, influence both research and curriculum.

(4) Channelling of careers. Within the framework created through many outside pressures lives the academic. Career channels both inside and outside academia strongly favour who focus on research in a narrow area, especially one with potential applications useful to possible sources of research funding or future jobs. There is a low premium put on teaching and a strong disincentive towards educational innovation. While the very idea of academic research seems to include automatically projects and consultations serving government and industry, it excludes working with or communicating to powerless groups. In other words, the ethos of academics - which is implicit in formal curriculum and a key part of the hidden curriculum - is tailored to the interests of powerful groups, who as a consequence reap the greatest benefits from the operation of educational institutions.

The extent of the influence of powerful and privileged groups on existing educational institutions becomes vividly clear if a comparison is made with a hypothetical educational institution organised to focus on major social problems. Possible faculties include peace studies, women's studies, industrial democracy, community self-reliance, black studies, environmental studies, people's art and alternative technology.


In this section I outline six types of challenges to government and corporate influences an curriculum, and offer a few comments on their strengths and weaknesses. The focus will be on what students and student groups can do, in collaboration with supporters among the staff and the wider community. The categories used are not exclusive or complete, and are used mainly to suggest possible directions and to emphasise the need for careful working out of strategies in the light of goals and resources.

(1) Pushing for changes in curriculum. Initiatives for new programmes or changes in old ones may be pushed from inside educational institutions through 'normal channels' or with the help of publicity campaigns, petitions or direct action. Examples are courses in environmental studies and women's studies introduced in some universities, and the campaign for political economy at Sydney University.

Working from the inside to change curriculum has the advantages of working for change at the point of immediate significance, of mobilising people to work together towards a meaningful goal, and of teaching them through experience about the nature of curriculum and of the educational power structure. On the other hand, this approach has the disadvantage of leaving unaltered the power structure itself, both that within the educational institution and the wider patterns of power which shape the institution. As a result, any gains made are all too easily lost, particularly in times of recession or repression. Furthermore, it is very difficult to attain change in the first place, since educational institutions - like most bureaucracies - are extremely resistant to change from within.

(2) Cutting links between the educational institution and outside bodies. This approach includes efforts such as moving military research off campus, a common goal in United States universities in the late 1960s. This again can mobilise people and expose what is going on in educational institutions, but has the shortcoming that military research will continue just the same - or be even less questioned - when done off campus. An alternative is not to try so much to cut the links as to demand proper control by the educational institution of military or other research being done under its aegis. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (LLL), at which US nuclear bombs are designed, is nominally under the control of the University of California (UC). The group which is pushing for conversion of LLL to socially useful research argues less that UC should cut its links with LLL and more that UC should take its supervisory role seriously.

(3) Fostering community concern. Almost every significant educational programme of any social relevance has arisen not because academics and teachers recognised its importance and pushed for it but because public attitudes changed and made the need for such a programme glaringly plain. For example, public concern about environmental issues developed in the late 1960s in the US, but it was only afterwards that the first major environmental studies programmes at any US university were introduced, although knowledge of the importance of environmental problems was readily available to interested scholars years and decades before this. In Australia the same pattern occurred.

This suggests that one way to push for changes in curriculum would be to foster community awareness and concern in appropriate areas. This would have the advantage of laying a much broader base for support for efforts at change from within, and of course would be beneficial in itself in strengthening social movements. But in terms of changing curricula this approach has several limitations. First, any changes in curricula resulting from a change in community attitudes would be a secondary effect, far in the future, and hence perseverance in the effort would be hard to maintain. Second, courses may be set up with the right label but the wrong curriculum as in the case of many environmental studies programmes that address symptoms but not root causes of environmental problems. Finally, community attitudes do not in themselves provide any challenge to dominant power groups in society, and hence courses with the right label may well defuse pressures arising from general public concern. What is lacking in this approach is organised political challenge to existing patterns of influence.

(4) Challenging government and corporations directly. One common problem with approaches (1) to (3) is that powerful groups which influence curriculum are not directly challenged. An alternative approach therefore is challenging them directly, for example by opposing government and corporate assaults on Aborigines and their land, or pushing for a more equal distribution of wealth, or for democratic decision-making in corporations and government bureaucracies. This approach has the strength of getting much closer to the heart of the problems of society. But in terms of mobilising students and others in educational institutions concerned about curriculum, this approach has the disadvantage of limited effectiveness and of not directly challenging curriculum and other issues close at hand.

(5) Developing alternative curricula from within. Those within existing educational institutions who are dissatisfied with current curricula can band together to develop their own curricula, for example forming independent study groups on political economy, peace, social change and go forth. This approach has many positive aspects, in particular in providing extremely meaningful experiences for those involved, who learn not only material in the alternative curriculum but also how to develop that curriculum. Even if done only on a small scale, such experiences for individuals may be more significant in fundamental ways than countless years of conventional curricula. This was the case for some physics students at Sydney University, and I have been told of similar experiences in the areas of architecture at NSW Institute of Technology and environmental science at Monash University. Furthermore, alternative curricula may provide some threat to those who support the existing curriculum, especially in times of financial stringency during which loss of student numbers affects staffing levels.

The major problem with alternative curricula developed inside educational institutions is that there is seldom any impact on existing curricula, and that it is very difficult to sustain participation and commitment to the alternative on top of normal commitments. And again, there is no direct challenge to powerful groups which influence curricula.

(6) Developing alternative curricula on the outside. If students and others in educational institutions work in conjunction with unions and social action groups on joint study and action projects, the theoretical and practical sides of an issue or topic can be combined. For example, students interested in worker self-management could study the topic along with interested workers while at the same time engaging in a campaign to help bring self-management to the workplace. Similarly, student and staff concerned about peace issues could coordinate study and research with community peace groups, and the experience of peace activists would provide valuable material to inform theoretical efforts. In this vein, I am told that the architecture course at Sydney University is still influenced by struggles alongside the Builders Labourers Federation on Green Bans.

The strengths of this approach are that students are involved in organising their own curricula, that students are involved in activity and practice in conjunction with theory, that social change movements are strengthened by student involvement, and that unions and community groups are involved in issues of curricula and stimulated by an injection of theoretical perspectives. The main difficulty with this approach is getting it off the ground. Most students and staff are very inward looking and often feel superior to non-academics (who nevertheless generally know much more about the practical realities of issues). This narrowness of viewpoint is enforced by the formal separation of educational institutions from outside groups (allowing educational elites, with their close links and identification with other elites, to shape things), and the hierarchical, specialised organisational structure of educational institutions.

My own preference is in the direction of building up links between 'insiders' - students and staff - and 'outsiders' such as unions and social action groups. But no single approach is appropriate for all people and all circumstances. What is important is to work out a strategy, and to work it out democratically and with maximum participation, in the light of a careful assessment of goals, resources, supporters, opponents, and past experience. This is easy to say, but not so easy to do.

Some references

Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds), The political economy of science and The radicalisation of science (London: Macmillan, 1976), and Rita Arditti, Pat Brennan and Steve Cavrak (eds), Science and liberation (Boston: South End Press, 1980): numerous examples and analyses of scientific research designed and used for profit and social control.

Brian Martin, The bias of science (Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science (A.C.T.), 1979): my analysis of how science is structured to serve powerful groups in society.

Brian Martin, "The scientific straightjacket", Ecologist, 11, Jan-Feb 1981, pp. 33-43: elites and suppression in science.

James Ridgeway, The closed corporation: American universities in crisis (New York: Random House, 1968): expose of prostitution of US universities.

David N. Smith, Who rules the universities? An essay in class analysis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

Trevor Pateman (ed), Counter course: a handbook for course criticism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), and Robin Blackburn (ed), Ideology in social science: readings in critical social theory (London: Fontana/Collins, 1972): some critiques of what gets taught in most university curricula.

I would appreciate hearing of other references or experiences related to the issues raised in this article. Email:


Robert Griew helped immensely with numerous discussions. Many useful ideas were generated by participants in the Curriculum Conference. Gwynnyth Evans helped greatly by taking clear and careful notes on the discussion at the Conference.