Thought under threat at Australia's universities



Canberra is a funny town. Mostly we're pretty laid-back, but occasionally the citizenry gets stirred up about something. When that happens, look out!

Professor Ian Young, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University recently found this out, to his cost. His proposal to asset-strip (there is no other term for it) Canberra's prestigious School of Music led to a public furore and the biggest university demonstration in 30 years.

The ANU isn't the only university in financial stress. Recently there were loud protests at Sydney University against increasing rounds of staff redundancies. This is the long-term result of the Howard and Rudd-Gillard governments' under-funding of tertiary education and user-pays attitude.

And there is nothing new in vice-chancellors asset-stripping departments, almost always in the non-economics, business and technocratic subject areas. Culture is much more easily dispensed with.

The result of the furore in Canberra has been that the Regional Chamber of Commerce has got a number of local philanthropists together to support the 'continued excellence' of the Music School. Although far from settled, the offer of private money has relieved some of the pressure on Young.

But there is a sinister aspect to this. Young is proposing changes to the syllabus which previously emphasised one-on-one teaching and excellence in performance. He told The Canberra Times: 'The proposed new subject offerings are designed to appeal to a wider and perhaps different group of students' and focused on subjects such as 'music and media technology', 'the music industry' and 'the pursuit of a portfolio of [unspecified] activities'.

That is he wants to move away from the pursuit of excellence to subjects that can be done on the cheap. Young lets the cat out of the bag when he protests that he believes that these 'new subjects' are 'no less profound'.

This is but the latest manifestation of deep-rooted problems in tertiary education. They go back to the Dawkins educational 'reforms' of 1987-8 which introduced what Judith Bessant calls 'the indiscriminate application of market models and values, a commitment to user-pays systems and the widespread application of entrepreneurial language and practices'. From then on only departments that paid their way were favoured.

Dawkins also broke down distinctions between universities and colleges of advanced education which emphasised vocational training. The consequence of turning CAEs into universities had the effect of confusing two separate educational purposes: the skills and knowledge needed for the workplace, and the skills of critical and creative thinking and scholarship as deeper ends in themselves.

As J. H. Newman said in his Idea of A University, 'Knowledge is not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake.' In the School of Music context replace 'knowledge' with 'excellence in performance' and you have 'an end ... sufficient to pursue for its own sake'.

The long-term result of the Dawkins approach is that serious study is replaced with popular substitute subjects, while non-profit-making arts subjects are neglected and even mathematics and hard science are struggling to attract students.

Perhaps we need to re-establish the distinction between universities and vocational institutions. Universities should focus on high-level teaching, thought and research, and highlight the arts, science and the cultural values that are essential to and underpin our civilisation. Vocational education is something different; it is a preparation for a specific skill or task in life and should be taught differently.

In his ideal university Newman wanted undergraduate students introduced to a comprehensive knowledge of culture before specialisation by undertaking a 'liberal education' before commencing a professional education. To some extent this is retained by Harvard University and in Australia by Melbourne University.

Newman also separates the task of teaching from that of research. 'To discover and teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person.' Interestingly the ANU began as a research university and its research function is still carried on in high-level, non-teaching schools.

If nothing else the contretemps over music education in Canberra has confronted us with the need for a serious re-think about tertiary education. 

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC. 


Topic tags: Paul Collins, ANU, tertiary education, universities


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Existing comments

'the indiscriminate application of market models and values' This belief that the market is the measure of all, is a heresy, which the church should be critiquing with energy. The market now dominates, not only tertiary education, but all of life. Our local council has a draft town plan, in which it is clear that the aim is to produce a town in which people serve the market, rather than the other way around. This "market" thinking is taken for granted to such an extent it is difficult to challenge it effectively.
Janet | 23 May 2012

The Dawkins mindset is far more corrosive than Paul states. Not only the "soft", more vulnerable disciplines have been laid waste but the vice-chancellors' fabled technological cash cows, just as much. How? Less by removing funds than by encouraging and rewarding perceived "winners" vs. "losers". The upshot? The perversion of scientific scholarship into a publication free-for-all, where numbers of papers alone matter and truth not at all. That is now the basis on which our vaunted "Centres of Excellence" are largely built.
Fred Green | 23 May 2012

I agree with all you say Paul. The economy is 'god' in our culture and this does need to be confronted by the church. And also by the big end of town - ultimately, living for profit is very shallow, and any business that does not put the welfare of its employees, and indeed all of society, first has some serious re-thinking to do. We can no longer afford to play around with this beautiful, fragile earth and we cannot afford to downgrade our universities - the cradle of our future leaders.
Pam | 23 May 2012

Paul Collins has given a very clear statement of the problems with post secondary education in Australia. When Universities were given the mandate to sell their wares to all comers, the outcome was inevitable.
brian finlayson | 23 May 2012

Swimming against the tide here: i think your logic is quite confused Paul. What you want for ANU is a music conservatorium, a sort of musical equivalent of a "vocational training". That is not what Universities should be providing, and I agree with lan Young and indeed Newman. Please re-read Newman`s quotes again, and realise that you mis-interpret them, and what you are after here is something quite elite training, and not a broad cultural education for a wider audience of young people!
Eugene | 23 May 2012

Thank you ,Paul Collins, for vocalising the dire consequences of the dumbing down of our universities which came in the wake of the Dawkins elevation of job training to academe. Dawkin's, however, is not entirely to blame. The disastrous Whitlam government sowed the seeds of the destruction of universities in this country when his education minister, Susan[spelling] Ryan, vocalised the government position with, "If the universities do not become organs of social change, we will remove their funding". Whitlam also axed the Commonwealth Scholarships which allowed the poor and country students to attend university and this lead to a vast drop in students from these demographics enroled at the universities. (It was even suggested some years ago that the inability of poor rural students to attend university in the cities committed them to a meaningless existence in the country with poor prospects of advancement and may have been a contributing factor to the high rural youth suicide rates in this country at the time). Dawkins was simply the Labor survivor who eventually managed to implement it. Subsequent governments offered university education to anyone and everyone producing Hawke's sham "clever country" while Keating bleated ignorance with "you don't need a university education" and as a reward,some clown made him a professor at a major university. Howard, of course, made a major contribution to the destruction of our universities but cutting a swathe through research funding, perhaps the area of funding that a true university requires more than any other. We now live in an environment where education is not an essential for societal advancement and service but an earning commodity. Mickey mouse universities offer courses in the soothsaying and witchcraft leagues that signal the decline of an educated, civilised society full of ignoramuses with grand titles and meaningless vocational degrees (eg, Professor of Leisure Studies?). A genuine pox on all their houses!!!!
john frawley | 23 May 2012

The salvation of the Music School in Canberra was not just the result of Canberra activism but of online networking. Signatures for the petition were received in thousands via politicking on e-lists, Facebook, musicians’ share lists &c. all over Australia, and overseas. People are very protective and supportive of their beloved musicians. Australia has an incredible musical life because we believe in our musicians and their music. We detest the philistine stupidity of bureaucrats who don’t understand culture, even when it blasts at them in full symphonic form from their car radios on the way to work. This includes university bureaucrats who have enjoyed the full upbringing of our own cultural heritage, given to them by people who fought hard for it. But what do these bureaucrats do? Deprive the young of the very thing they themselves were given. The selfishness and short-sightedness of this situation has been building for years. One only has to remember the scandal when the best new music composition school in Melbourne was closed because La Trobe University was driven by ideology rather than cultural values, to know how easy it is for the wrong people to be put in charge and for everyone to lose out. The salvation of the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne is an example of what happens when the musicians and the people show what they believe in.
PHILIP HARVEY | 23 May 2012

Today's offering right on target with our discussion
Peter Costin | 23 May 2012

I agree with your analysis, Paul. The Dawkins reforms which also include the introduction of the user pay HECS system were the result of neo liberal economic rationalist policy. This economic policy has and continues to be popular because Australia has become a society where the popular philosophy is secular materialism and most people are only interested in the moment of consumerism. Things such as music are nothing more than commodities for most people. Most people have little or no interest in the technical, culture and history of music and other forms the both the performing and visual arts.
Mark Doyle | 23 May 2012

I presume that those who can afford a liberal education that doesn't lead them to a paid job at the rely on trust funds from wealthy parents or are happy to live on welfare or an artist's wage.
AURELIUS | 23 May 2012

The legendary Professor George Marshall Hall (1862-1915) was composer, musician, and teacher. When the University of Melbourne would not fund his proposals for a conservatorium he went outside the University and created one of his own. As far as he was concerned, a music school that did not provide performance training was not a music school, at all. This all sounds far away in the 19th century, but attitudes persist that music can just make itself. When we add the business mentality of contemporary consumerism into this discussion it only gets worse: it’s good if it sells and it is up to the musician to sell herself. Another issue at stake here is the historical one between university and cultural production. The poet Vincent Buckley taught English at the same University in the twentieth century, but he would say sometimes that English Departments are subtly hostile to poetry and writing. Their real purpose is to create more academics and critics, not poets and novelists. Transfer the attitude identified by Buckley to Music Schools and you can see why some teachers and bureaucrats in these places have the same view of musicianship. What Marshall Hall and Buckley are saying stays true in this century, it seems. Although universities pay lip service to the creative act, they are more interested in theories, status and money than in the actual creative act, which is much too threatening and impossible to control. One way to control it, at the back of their minds, is to close the department.
PHILIP HARVEY | 23 May 2012

@ AURELIUS: Firstly, I invariably like your comments and contribution to any debate. However, a "liberal education that doesn't lead to a paid job" can still have enormous benefits to the individual and to society. Usually, university graduates find their study useful to them in life - whether they find the job of their dreams, volunteer or live in a garret and paint/write!
Pam | 23 May 2012

Thank you, Paul. most insightful, and right on the button. Like you and many others I decry what has happened - and is now entrenched- in our universities. The destructive effect of running them primarily along "business" lines is all too evident among staff, and often to students also. As one who would not have had a university but for scholarships pre-Whitlam and Dawkins, comning from two parents who both left school at 13, and who subsequently gained several qualifications, and served in the professoriateat one unioversity for over a decade, I cringe at what I continue to see. Students are "customers", courses are "educational products" and performance is measured by graduation rates and publication numbers, and so on. But do not look for the causes within universities alone- the "user pays"business model affects every major service in the public sector now - transport, warter supply, local government etc etc all seek to claw back all (or as much as possible) of what it costs the taxpayer, aninstead of being regarded as investment in people, re-distribution of the benefits of the economy, or even support to the needy in some respects. Bean counters are not economists, let alone good custodians of our welfare; they do not even understand that in economics itself a key function of government has long been held to be re-distribution of income to even out the benefits of democracy and the market economy to redress inequality and also to invest in the fture. Newman's notion of education and the davancement of knowledge being a good in itself has long disappeared in this climate where virtually nothing is seen as good in itself, only those which lead to greater wealth - and then without thought as to how that wealth is spread.
Dennis Green | 23 May 2012

While I have no major argument with the broad thrust of what Paul Collins has to say, could John Frawley please clarify his statement about what Whitlam did? I was a student who was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship and a year later, when Whitlam was elected, he abolished fees. So I don’t understand John’s statement: “Whitlam also axed the Commonwealth Scholarships which allowed the poor and country students to attend university and this lead to a vast drop in students from these demographics enroled (sic) at the universities.” As one of the “poor...students”, I would not have started my tertiary education if I had not been awarded a scholarship, because my parents were pensioners and could certainly not afford to pay fees, but in fact the scholarship became irrelevant when fees were abolished. It is true that I lived in Brisbane. But Whitlam also introduced the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme to pay a means-tested living allowance to all eligible students, which would have supported those living away from home. The whole intent of Whitlam’s reforms was to make tertiary education accessible to poorer students, when it was previously the preserve of a rich elite. It certainly succeeded in my case. My course was full time, and it would have been nearly impossible for me to have a part-time job, because I had 36 hours per week of lectures or tutorials, and an incredible workload in assignments etc., so that I had on average an 80 hour week. It later became apparent that Australia could not afford free university education, so that eventually a Labor government introduced the “user pays” system. My daughter is using that system now, and it still permits deferral of fees until her earnings are sufficient to support repayment. I would have been happy to have had that available when I was a student. However, it is clear that the required level of funding for universities has not been met for some time and I hear reports (that I cannot substantiate and so do not warrant to be true) from others recently in the system that this has driven universities to become factories with degrees as the product; and that students who clearly have very little English comprehension are being awarded degrees at some universities. This, together with the number of contact hours in courses being much reduced since my day (even at the “sandstone” universities) – in my course the hours have been halved – to maintain the student numbers so that funding levels are correspondingly maintained, cannot auger well for the standard of education being achieved. When universities even have trouble imparting the skills and knowledge needed for the workplace, then how much less likely will it be that they will impart sufficiently “the skills of critical and creative thinking and scholarship” in any course. It is also clear that this continued funding pressure on universities is not sustainable and something must give. Either this results in further dumbing-down of courses, loss of courses as is evidenced in this example at ANU, more overseas full-fee-paying students, or higher fees for domestic students (or combinations thereof). Someone has to pay, and the government by its actions is clearly suggesting that it does not expect that taxpayers will. Even when I was last a full-time student 36 years ago, the debate raged about the need for a “well-rounded” education; about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (as quoted from Newman’s “Idea of A University” in Paul Collins’ article) and it seems nothing has changed in that respect. However, I remain somewhat sceptical about the honesty of this argument, because it appears that these terms and ideas were more often euphemisms for a liberal-arts education. While scientists and technologists would benefit from some liberal-arts education, neither can those whose education lacks any understanding of science and technology be said to have received a “well-rounded” education. Any scientific or technical university course necessarily teaches skills in critical and creative thinking, which are perfectly transferable to non-technical subjects. In any case, the vast majority of students are under pressure to get a degree and get a job, and unless they are from a wealthy elite, do not have the luxury of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. That can wait until they have a well-paid job. But I do agree with John Frawley, that we are seeing a proliferation of “Mickey mouse” liberal-arts focussed university courses leading to meaningless degrees. A short history of federal government policies in higher education is available here:
Frank S | 23 May 2012

Perhaps the key realization that can be taken from this incident is the fact of being an "integral part of something." All the things each of us do have effects beyond what we can see. We must not only take care to notice the effects we may have on others, but also to appreciate the benefits we receive from the contributions of others (whether they are glamorous stage performers or drab accountants- each may carry an overall 'equal' value). There is no room for over-inflated self-aggrandizements nor for violent slashings in a harmonized equilibrium of "integral parts." "You can do what I can't do. I can do what you can't do. Together we can do something beautiful for God." ~ Mother Theresa
JJ | 24 May 2012

Another irony of this discussion has to do with ‘relevance’. I was fortunate enough to know peers who enjoyed a classical education. When asked what was the relevance of reading Pliny or writing an essay on Plato’s ideas of the true, the beautiful and the good, they would reply, “there is no relevance, that’s why I do it.” In other words, learning for its own sake. The irony becomes apparent in a society today overflowing with self-help literature, much of which is full of stuff about having several interests in life, some of them ‘not relevant’ to your workday life, in order to achieve proper happiness. This was always part of the secret of a classical education, it brought health and well-being to mind and body. I myself sometimes wonder what question Plato would put to his students about self-help, e.g. why have these books if you already live a full life? What is a full life? Added to which, there is a great deal of difference between the ‘not relevant’ widening of the person’s soul entailed in a classical education and the splurge of random entertainment and information that our society deems okay for people to indulge in in their spare time.
PHILIP HARVEY | 24 May 2012

Just one comment on John Frawley's contribution: Susan Ryan was never Gough Whitlam's Education Minister, she wasn't even in the parliament. Whitlam's Education Minister was Kim Beazley snr.
Paul Rodan | 24 May 2012

Yes Pam, it might be useful while contemplating why I didn't study something useful like engineering or even plumbing for that matter - while heating up my baked beans.
AURELIUS | 24 May 2012

Janet is right in criticising the domination of 'the market' and the same disease extends to the acceptance, even promotion, of greed. There is seeming acceptance, without criticism, by the mass media, and even by church leaders, of the huge wealth of billionaires - and their influence - alongside difficulties faced by families on modest incomes.
Bob Corcoran | 24 May 2012

Universities should not mingle in subjects they have no expertise in. The funding must be taken away from them and given to responsible and musically qualified people with educational capabilities to operate proper Conservatorium style Music Schools that can deliver a standard that is internationally comparable. To charge students $10000-$25000/year for miserly 13 lessons of 45 minutes is a monumental rip off and then to give them $600.- to find their own teacher is scandalous! Does anyone really think that people are that stupid to accept such an offending and disrespectful proposition. Prof Young is a disgrace and should resign. The salaries, some of them well over a million Dollars, that are wasted on completely surperfluous Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, and the list goes on, who have no musical qualifications. This money would go a long way to guarantee excellent training of musicians. And establishing a new "performance"curriculum that will only result in producing even more unqualified music administrators is ludicrous. It can only be compared with trying to train dentists who have no access to teeth and are expected to go and find their own. Would you trust yours to someone so poorly qualified?
Thomas Pinschof | 24 May 2012

Good morning, FRANK S, You have certainly outlined a far more detailed appraisal of what the Whitlam government did. I left out the part about the free universities which did in theory offer the prospect of tertiary education to all and, for purposes of brevity, I went to the long-term outcome of what the Whitlam government began. As you know Whitlam's original scheme failed and required modification. "Free universities" were no more when of economic necessity HECS was introduced and fee-paying students were enrolled depending on ability to pay rather than academic excellence (although many such students were academically sound). When you received your Commonwealth scholarship, Frank, the demographic of student populations indicated that 80% of tertiary students came from the upper socio-economic "class" and 20% came from the lower. Both of these groups contained scholarship holders based on academic results but, in the lower socio-economic group, there was a preponderance of students from country areas who received book allowances and living away from home allowances as part of the academic scholarship they had won. A study conducted (I think in the early to mid 80's, but can't remember th reference, I'm sorry) indicated that the Whitlam reforms did not alter the 80-20 ratio, other than in the make up of the 20% which then contained significantly fewer rural students from the lower socio-economic group who could not afford residential and living costs in the city despite the available allowances. This, I imagine, has been partially if not fully addressed with the rise of the rural universities which allow students to live at home and have mum and dad available to feed them. However, the rural universities still accept many students from the cities and overseas taking up potential places for local students. It's a great flamin' mess in the wake of just about every other service the Whitlam government set about "reforming".
John Frawley | 24 May 2012

The undervaluing of Universities began with Dawkins albeit with supposedly good intent. Perhaps the only faculties that have maintained their status are medicine and allied health professionals along with law and architecture. Science has taken a real hit but so too have the arts faculties and now music which is all but extinct as an in-depth, innovative research pursuit. For those of us who enjoyed the pre-dawkins days, we really do feel for the plight of academics - staff and students together - under these new "money-means-everything" days at our Universities.
Jim | 24 May 2012

Dear PAUL RODAN, YOU ARE QUITE CORRECT. THANK YOU FOR POINTING OUT MY SERIOUS ERROR IN MY ABOVE POST REGARDING SUSAN RYAN. The comment I quoted was made by her as Minister of Education in the Hawke government which was at the time struggling with the failure of the Whitlam reforms which finally resulted in the introduction of HECS (not by Ryan). The really sad thing, however, is that it reveals a serious defect in my memory and indicates that I am becoming a silly old buggar as defined by Bob Hawke!!!!!! However, right or wrong, I still attribute the beginnings of our university and educational problems to Whitlam, as I do our problems with medicine, the law, education and the erosion of parliamentary process. So you see, I probably am a silly old buggar!
john frawley | 24 May 2012

Never heard of J.H.Newman .Did you mean John Henry Cardinal Newman ?
Charles | 25 May 2012

John Frawley
As a Diversional Therapist I am saddened by your thoughts on Professors of Leisure Studies. Diversional Therapists use leisure to rehabilitate patients after a stroke or car accident - for example. We also help to maintain leisure interests for those who are living with Dementia to ward off depression or ameliorate sun downing behaviours. As a Grandma but also an Honours student under the supervision of a Professor of Leisure Studies I feel somewhat slighted by your pox on our houses - surely we don't deserve that!

Liliane | 25 May 2012

Asks Charles,"Never heard of J.H.Newman.Did you mean John Henry Cardinal Newman?" Er, yes Charles, John Henry Newman, one of the many great products of the Church of England.


To John Frawley - I guess you thought IT studies focussed on the internet was just a passing trendy lefto pinko fad back in the 80s. You label yourslef a silly old fool, but you keep saying the same negative things about anything new.
AURELIUS | 29 May 2012

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