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Commercializing universities « Previous | |Next »
May 18, 2003

The neo-liberal press has celebrated the proposed Nelson reforms to the universities. He has found a way forward with clever politics. Setting the universities of Australia free said The Australian. And the Australian Financial Review (no link, 15 May, 2003, p. 70) says the reforms ensure a richer and more fertile future.

The Australian spells out the argument:

"But for all its faults, Dr Nelson's package must be praised. It is designed to impose a market discipline on universities, a concept despised by those academics who believe that they should not have to compete on the basis of talent and diligence. The Nelson reforms seek to create a market culture in education in two ways. First, by allowing universities the freedom to charge students a premium based on course quality and, second, by ending the old-style industrial relations system that determines pay and conditions according to academic rank rather than by individual achievement. The desired outcome of both is to free the universities from the chains of conformity and give them the chance to prosper by focusing on what they do best."

And the consequences of these pro-market reforms?

"The end result for students is that they will be able to choose the university that offers them value for money. The end result for academics is that they will need to provide quality teaching if they and their institutions are to prosper..... Adopting the Nelson reforms will unleash the same expertise and energy at home that has created such a major export market. The idea of change might frighten some academics but Dr Nelson's reforms offer them a unique chance to help their institutions grow and prosper. It is a chance that all who believe Australia needs a world-class university system must embrace."

According to this account the only way forward is to make the universities into business corporations who sell educational services to consumers. Those who resist these reforms in the name of academic values are reactionaries frightened of change. This resistance is wrong headed says Alan Gilbert because it will be:

"...a tragedy for Australia's universities and, indirectly, for Australia's prospects of remaining at the forefront of knowledge-creation, innovation and technological development in an emerging global knowledge economy, if we fritter away this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an internationally competitive higher education sector.....Nelson is to be commended for facing up to the reality that existing public policy settings are leading slowly but inexorably towards mediocrity. The long-term competitiveness of the Australian economy is likely to depend, among other vital prerequisites, on the capacity of Australian universities to match their international competitors. Under present policy settings, most are certainly falling behind."

What this means is that the elite Group of Eight universities will be the winners, whilst the cash-strapped smaller universities will lose out because they will not have the market leverage to charge full fees to students with access to deep pockets. Hence we have a two-tired university system. Robert Manne concurs with this judgement:

"...the Australian university system seems certain to become more hierarchical, with prosperous, high-salaried, research-oriented "world class" universities at the top of the pyramid, attracting the most talented academics and most promising students, beneath which there will be a larger number of less affluent, lower prestige, more vocationally oriented, mainly teaching universities, with limited involvement in cutting edge scholarship or research."

Such a divide is perfectly acceptable says the Australian Financial Review. It says that the regionals can fill the gaps in the market left by the elite universites. I doubt that this will happen as it is the elite universities who will have a richer and more fertile future. What is of concern to the free marketeers is that it is necessary for one or two of the elite Australian universities are freed from regulation so that they can become internationally competitive.

The alternative to deregulation as a way to provide money for cash-strapped universities is a massive injection of public funds. I cannot see that massive e injection coming from the ALP in the near future. So the road to deregulation will continue to be travelled by the liberal state.

Another consequence of the reforms is that the humanities will continue to be marginalized because they are not big money earners. Not a problem says the Australian Financial Review. The small regional universities,it says, can " specialize in the classical liberal arts degrees of the kind offered by successful colleges in the US." Ken Parish diasgrees with this account. He says:

"....the non-vocational humanities disciplines are unlikely to attract substantial numbers of full fee-paying students, with the result that these faculties will probably continue to wither on the vine at an even faster rate than over the last decade. The "sandstones" will maintain viable non-vocational humanities faculties for prestige reasons, but regional universities will probably move incrementally towards an almost entirely vocational mix of course offerings. NTU's abolition of its English department a few years ago will be seen as the "cutting edge", though not in a favourable sense."

The bottom line is the neo-liberals do not really care about the non-elite universities---they can basically fend for themselves. Nor do they treat the humanities sympathetically. because theses are the discplines that have gone postmodern, are the site of political correctness and engage in too much irritating critique.

Gilbert's defense of deregulation implies is that an educational corporation is not in conflict with academic values of the liberal university, and that a corporate university would protect these academic values and even enhance them. Is this the case?

For an alternative and pessimistic view, see Invisible Adjunct Here is a review of a book on Universities in the Marketplace This says that the commercialization of higher education is headed for a crisis due to the sacrificing of academic values for profit-making.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:49 PM | | Comments (3)
Comments

Comments

Change is a good thing, but only if it's change for productive measures. This commercialisation of the university system only allows for greater division between those who have and those who don't. Howard as already admitted without realising he'd done so, that the less affluent of our society can't possibly as academically gifted as the well-to-do. Even the bulk of the vice chancellors tasked with presenting reforms to this government didn't expect, nor propose the scope of changes Howard has put forward. Hopefully the opposition parties will defeat the budget legislation, Howard will dissolve both houses and we'll see what the people really think. After all, the people are the only one's who matter in all of this.

Bring on the DD. Either humanity & sanity will be restored to this country or else we will learn that we were only the lucky who grew up in a golden age and that our children are doomed to live as our parents did.

As a general staff member at a Group of 8 Uni, i must say i am *sooooo* looking forward to the changes proposed by the Fed. govt.