Bloodletting in academia

Knives out as academics look inward

Australian Society, volume 2, number 1, 1 February 1983, pp. 16-18.

Brian Martin

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ONLY a decade ago, Australian universities were rapidly expanding in size and number. But since about 1976 ever more stringent budgets have become the rule. How are universities coping with the squeeze?

The most salient feature of their response is acceptance of external constraints without much apparent objection. One possible response would have been to take the case for the social benefits of universities to the public, and to mobilise staff and student pressure against the cuts. That such a course was not taken is not surprising.

Most academic research and teaching, from physics to economics to philosophy, is oriented either to other academic specialists or to interest groups in government, industry or the professions. Seldom do academics address their writing or teaching to a wider public on topics of community interest such as employment, diet and exercise, human relations, or peace and war. Those who do are often looked down upon as mere popularisers.

Most academics and many students are also rather disdainful of the untutored masses, and are reluctant to descend into the political fray to defend universities from cutbacks. Even the reduction of study leave and proposals to weaken tenure have stimulated only a few staff to protest vigorously.

Few academics have made any attempt to build networks of support in the wider community by suitable orientation of courses and research, or even through public relations. Rather, they have depended on the goodwill of government for funding. And when the government changed its tune, the university could only sing along.

To refer to the "university"' as a single entity is of course incorrect. Indeed, the funding cuts have highlighted the differing interests of groups within the university. The result of the squeeze has been the sacrifice of the weaker members of the academic community, irrespective of their academic merit. In other words, instead of opposing the cuts externally, academic power brokers have been assiduous in wielding the axe internally.

To some extent funding cuts can be absorbed by reducing capital expenditure and containing expenses such as travel money, photocopying and the like. But as the squeeze tightens, positions must be pruned. Among those most vulnerable are untenured staff such as temporary lecturers, tutors and research assistants. Because they do not have tenure, their positions may be eliminated regardless of their academic performance. One incidental but important consequence is that in many cases the proportion of women - who are concentrated in the lower academic ranks - being retained or appointed is going down.

Some positions become vacant through retirements and resignations. Many of these are not filled. But some positions are filled, and even some new ones created. The competition for these positions is now incredibly intense. Indeed, a sizable fraction of tenured academics would be very lucky to obtain their own positions should they be openly advertised. There are some tutors for example, struggling one year at a time to keep their positions, whose teaching load and research productivity shames tenured academics on twice the salary. Universities have never been meritocracies, but the squeeze has made the resemblance even more remote.

Inside the decision-making bodies of the universities, the question is: which posts should be cut and which ones filled? The answer is more often determined by political power than academic merit. Departments with powerful professors or with friends in high places are much more likely to maintain their positions in the ruthless battle for staff, and for promotions, courses, equipment and other perquisites. Things have always been this way, but the game is less forgiving these days. The knives are out, and demarcation disputes between departments more shrill. Faculty meetings are not nearly as boring as they once were.

WHILE among individuals the untenured staff are most vulnerable, on a larger scale the smaller departments and independent programs are most likely to be trimmed by staff cuts, amalgamations or cancellation of courses. For example, at the Australian National University staff cuts are planned in 1983 for both women's studies and the human sciences program. Both are small, popular with students, and have low to average total costs per student. But unlike larger traditional departments, these programs have no professor in charge or other powerful figure to press their case. The areas most severely affected are ones such as women's studies and environmental studies, which are innovative, socially relevant and interdisciplinary, and thus threaten professional territories and offend traditionally minded staff.

All these processes are leading to a fossilisation of tertiary research and teaching. As government funding is cut, the academic razor gangs chop out or keep out the most challenging and dynamic individuals and programs. As the relevance of tertiary education declines, student numbers drop and so government funding is cut to continue the vicious circle.

Those who make the decisions about funding priorities are the deans, professors, heads of departments and higher administrators. All of them have tenure and comfortable salaries, which apparently are prerequisites for deciding the fate of those in lesser positions. Since most of them rose to their present positions by doing narrow disciplinary research, staying strictly within the university hierarchy, maintaining social links with those of similar inclination, and generally not rocking the boat, it is not surprising that they are ready to make the necessary but unpleasant decisions - namely chopping someone else's job or course. It is also revealing that in many cases while the number of academic posts has steadily dwindled, the number of administrative positions has remained stable or even increased.

Indulging in a bit of instructive daydreaming, one might imagine a radical solution to the academic squeeze: create many more positions by flattening all salaries, perhaps to the average wage. (A wage freeze on all higher salaries would accomplish this gradually.) This would create numerous opportunities for the many talented and idealistic people who would be quite happy to do research and teach on a moderate salary, without concern for the extra prestige and power of a professorship and $50,000 a year. There would also be more scope for innovative teaching and attention to pressing community issues. Universities could take a lead - and gain considerable public support by doing so - by promoting flattening of wages and sharing out of the workload as a contribution to the unemployment problem generally. But among academics, especially those presently in positions of power and prestige, egalitarianism is extremely unpopular, just as it is in other elite professions and indeed among the intelligentsia in communist countries.

Seeing into the future is difficult. On the one hand, the squeeze is having the effect of further entrenching the existing academic power structure. Those ejected from academia most often simply accept their fates without open protest. On the other hand, frustrated aspirants to the academic life may channel their discontent into social action through community groups or political parties. In either case, the image of the universities in Australian society is not good, and resentment of the academic razor gangs is helping to make that image worse.