November 24, 2005
It was often held that the Howard Government's recent shift to market instruments to govern universities in a global knowledge economy would produce a "super university” through amalgamations. This is the classical option to ensure survival in Nelson’s deregulated higher education world, where all universities struggle for “market share” against their competitors, and some try to build a world class university.
Instead, this neo-liberal mode of goverance has bought about a reappearance of the old binary divide: undergraduate teaching only universities and elite postgraduate research universities. Brendon Nelson, the Minister of Education, is shaping the market structure so that it produces a system that encourages students to do generalist first degrees at outer-suburban (eg., Flinders Uni in SA) and regional campuses and then enter the elite graduate schools at the nation's sandstone universities (eg., Adelaide University in SA) to do their increasingly expensive postgraduate degrees.
This develops what I noted earlier here in relation to Melbourne University. The graduate school approach would make students complete a three-year generalist degree in subjects including science or arts at a teaching-intensive university before entering graduate programs at sandstone universities in medicine, law etc. The latter would downgrade their undergraduate courses to put more of their resources into the postgraduate courses.
This approach addresses two problems: the low quality, the limited resources and poor expertise of the postgraduate sector in some of our regional and suburban universities; and, secondly, the lack of teaching qualifications of many academics teaching the undergraduate courses. It enables or facilitates the shift to a global knowledge economy where the focus is on utility not truth.
As Lyotard observed in The Post-Modern Condition back in 1984:
The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professional student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’ In the context of the mercantilisation of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’ And in the context of power growth, ‘Is it efficient?’ (Lyotard, 1984, p. 51)
The business literature understands universities as standalone corporations swinging free of government in their own global marketplace and subjected to the familiar novelties of corporate management and leadership. In this kind of understanding---eg., that of the AFR--- the university has no history. It is a corporation oriented to profitmaking that exploits prestigious traditional sandstone images for a variety of marketing and branding strategies to increase its market share.
In this shift to a deregulated market system based on user pays, a priority for public spending should involve equity and access measures, including scholarships and bursaries, designed to make access to quality research universities equitable.