Will a real university please stand up

Australian Catholic University Fitzroy

In 2012 Australian universities will be undergoing the most radical shift in government policy since the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s created the 'unified' system.

Under those reforms 'Colleges of Advanced Education' were rebadged as universities with the expectation that over time they would become major tertiary educators along the lines of then existing universities. Some have succeeded, while others have struggled.

A major benchmark for government in this regard is 'research outputs', the ability of universities to produce quality research of international standard. Hence the 'Excellence in Research Australia' (ERA) exercise which has recently convulsed our tertiary institutions.

The new reform, recommended by the Bradley Review, is that rather than funding being allocated to institutions which must then admit students according to a quota determined by the government, the funding will instead follow the students. So universities must compete for students.

The student is now the sovereign consumer of an 'education product'. A marketplace of universities and other tertiary colleges will hawk their wares in a bid to attract the best and brightest. Whether all the present universities will survive in this competitive marketplace is an open question. I'm sure a number of vice-chancellors are having sleepless nights pondering their decreasing enrolment figures.

One consequence of this change is that the distinction between public and private tertiary institutions will become largely irrelevant. Private universities such as Notre Dame Australia and Bond University will be able to compete for students on the same basis as any other university. So will other specialist private providers with government recognition, such as private theological colleges and small liberal arts type colleges.

Of course all this is a long way from a conception of a university as a place of 'learning for learning's sake'. Universities are no longer places where students have time and space to grapple with the hard questions of life. Rather it is a place where they juggle study with part-time work commitments (on average over 20 hours per week), aiming to move into one of the various professions open to graduates of professional degrees.

The clear goal is not learning, but employment — teaching, nursing, accountancy, medicine, law, engineering, media and so on.

All this begs the question of what we mean by a 'university'. Although I am not personally a great fan of etymologies as a basis for answering such a question, in this case it does give us some idea of what the great founders of our modern institutions meant when they established the first universities.

Like the similar term 'universe' it relates to the notion that there is one word, one verse, one narrative, one story, which holds the diverse offerings of the university together under a single vision.

For the original founders of universities the preeminent source of this integrating vision was theology, nobly assisted by philosophy, as a handmaid or prolegomenon to theology. Of course with the increasing marginalisation, or even exclusion, of theology in most modern universities, philosophy has often been left to undertake the task alone. But increasingly philosophy too has been marginalised. Even prestigious Australian universities have cut back their philosophy schools and programs to the barest of minima.

The student consumers intent on a career have little place for philosophy in their program, except for perhaps an excursus into an appropriate 'professional ethics' course.

In fact universities are simply no longer universities in the classical sense. They are multiversities, or pluriversities, offering multiple and competing academic disciplines which slice up the world and human existence into manageable pieces. They never talk to one another unless absolutely necessary, and lack any sense that there could ever be some larger integrating 'verse'.

Mirroring our post-modern culture, the grand metanarrative is dead. Plurality reigns.

Ironically one of the other reforms suggested by Bradley is the formation of what will be 'specialist universities'. These are universities which focus on one or maybe two disciplines. The first cab off the rank is likely to be Melbourne College of Divinity, which this year celebrates its centenary.

If successful, this new university will have the integrating vision sought by the original founders of universities, but it won't have the component parts that need to be integrated. Theology and philosophy are fine disciplines on their own, of course. They can also provide a higher vision, but must themselves be in constant dialogue with others in order to do their job properly.

Indeed the only genuine 'uni'-'versities', in aspiration if not necessarily in performance, in Australia are the two Catholic universities, Australian Catholic University and Notre Dame Australia. Both have as their charter the Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which speaks of the integrating role to be played by philosophy and theology in tertiary education. But of course in practice, the same academic silos operate everywhere, preventing genuine dialogue and integration, leaving students to try to put together the pieces as best they can.

And so, will a real university please stand up and be counted? If not perhaps we could take the next step and call them multiversities, apart from a few specialist bodies, because that is what they really are.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: universities, multi-verstitiess, Australian Catholic University, Notre Dame, Ex Corde Ecclesiae


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Existing comments

Our universities are competing for students already. Melbourne U has a four-page insert in The Age once a month (unless it's eight), while Monash, Deakin and LaTrobe advertise regularly. If there is to be a "marketplace" in the future that's not there now, they'll be wasting precious resources on marketing to the nation's ultimate cost.
Michael Grounds | 29 July 2010

Hooray! At last somebody has commented on the job factories that our universities appear to have become.
Outcomes are no longer wisdom, knowledge, understanding, but rather a job and money.

It probably reflects our employment situation, where people have become competitive "units of labour" rather than people with families, feelings, and relationships . . . after all, you can't quantify these things in dollar terms . . . so they don't count!

When people become "units of labour", they can be used up, exploited, and then discarded . . . like garbage. This facilitates the attitude which is that people don't count . . . only dollars count.

So in this environment, why wouldn't our universities be job factories . . . or, if you prefer, dollar factories?

We need to work towards seeing the pendulum swinging back it the other direction on this one.
Robert Rennick | 29 July 2010

Professor Ormerod is right of course. Most universities have abandoned their original charters of learning and have become shelter workshop for the ambitious and mediocre quasi-intellectuals. One of those 'multiversities', a remnant of Dawkins' reforms, produces a plethora of PhDs to maintain its position as one of the country's premier higher education institutes. It has also become the breeding ground of future 'pluralists', no specific value to human condition but themselves. Perhaps it's time to break down the protective barriers of these fortresses of 'multiversities', pull them out of their medieval fiefdom and make them more intellectually accountable to contemporary demands.
Alex Njoo | 29 July 2010

I think ACU has a very good reputation. (Although my comments are only second and third hand.) The older universities seem to be driven by greed - they use a KPI model promoted by accountants. Instinctively, one feels that lecturers and tutors at ACU think that money is not the only thing that is important.
telfer cronos | 29 July 2010

if this is happening to uni.'s why not schools?
p sullivan | 29 July 2010

Many of the newer "universities" are essentially polytechnics. Nothing wrong with such a classification, so let's name them as such, and keep the concepts separate. Better still, aim for an international classification to simplify understanding of what to expect from an institution.
Marjorie, Brisbane | 29 July 2010

The specialist university category mentioned by Professor Ormerod was actually introduced in changes to the National Protocols for Higher Education in 2007 rather than stemming from the Bradley Review. Most private providers see the requirements as difficult to attain, given most are excluded from competitive research funding. This makes developing an extensive research profile challenging. The student driven funding system suggested by Bradley was not completely adopted by the Federal Government, with the vast majority of private providers again excluded from the introduction of the system in 2012. There is a comment in the Budget papers that this decision may be expanded to the whole sector after that time, but don't hold your breath.

The convergence of offerings within Australian universities since the Dawkins reforms is well documented, competing with each other from within a similar narrow range of vocationally focussed degrees. These courses are 'safe' as they are unlikely to lose money, with most universities preferring to blandly stay within the pack rather than take a risk by offering difference. The largest evidence of diversity exists in private higher education institutions. If the Government genuinely supports student choice, why exclude most private institutions from their funding systems?
Tony H, Sydney | 30 July 2010