'Ratbag' student activist decries Education Revolution

'Education Reform', by Chris Johnston Current debate about higher education and the role of universities tends to be dominated by super-efficient, economic rationalist thinking.

The Federal Government's review of higher education, for example, aims to ensure the system is 'contributing to the innovation and productivity gains required for long term economic development and growth', and that 'there is a broad-based tertiary education system producing professionals for both national and local labour market needs'.

Perhaps the time is right to wonder about alternatives to this view of higher education.

It might be strange to look for such an alternative in the words of a well-known economist and public servant, but in 1931, H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs, President of the Guild of Undergraduates at UWA., gave a report at a general meeting of the students. The secretary of the guild faithfully recorded both his words and his mood:

Mr Coombs spoke of student life and the attitude students should adopt towards the university as a whole ... [Coombs] enjoined the students to do things, not because they had to, but because it was worth while doing them ... The university was not a graduate shop to train men and women for professions, but the home of knowledge, where they could develop their intellect and ideas.

Universities in Australia have since become more or less what Nugget Coombs feared: graduate shops to train us for professions.

The well-documented and much-lamented stripping away of funding that occurred under Howard, and before then under Keating, has forced universities to seek funding from private and corporate sources, run lucrative fee-paying courses, and place a greater financial burden on students by pushing for increased HECS fees.

These complaints have been well-rehearsed over the past decade, and it is not my intention to drag them out again — not least because it is a painful reminder of the battles my generation of student activists failed to win!

In any case, for all the vitriol directed at him by ratbag student types such as myself, John Howard was not the first to let the idea of universities as places of community and higher learning fall out of his head. Coombs' speech suggests that even back then, higher learning occurred on contested turf.

Which is not to say the discourse surrounding higher education does not need changing. But looking longingly back at the halcyon days of student activism and campus philosophising makes it too easy to blame the most recent government, and to relax in the belief that the Big Bad of neo-liberal governments has left the building.

Kevin Rudd should not be let off the hook so easily. It is time to measure the Labor Government's 'Education Revolution' against the challenge Coombs established. The Federal Budget in May did indeed show a renewed focus on education. But was it 'revolutionary'? Well, no.

The $5.9 billion promised to education represents a significant boost to the sector. Other initiatives outlined on 13 May will help Australia's higher education system recover some lost ground. The Education Investment Fund to support infrastructure for higher education is a good initiative, as are the extra scholarships for postgraduate research students.

Missing, however, from the Government's rhetoric was a sense that higher education represents more than a training centre for the professionals of the future, or that graduates represent more than pegs to plug the holes in Australia's collective skills set.

One way to achieve space for in-depth learning is to create a system, similar to that of the USA, where students are required to undertake a generalist Arts or Science degree before undertaking a professional qualification.

This might enable students to find space and time for intellectual exploring before they devote themselves to their professional degree and for 'resumé-builders' such as clerkships, internships and work placements.

Increased student income support and greater freedom for academic staff to spend time on their own research would also help drive reform. These things are, naturally, code for 'spend more money' — which is what makes this argument a difficult one to win.

In any case, the review is unlikely to provide solace to those who were hoping this government would start to redefine the education debate. Not when its terms of reference focus on 'productivity and participation' and 'effective and efficient investment', with a nod to 'underpinning social inclusion through access and opportunity'.

Unless the government turns its attention to supporting universities as 'homes of knowledge', then areas of pure research and the humanities will be neglected, non-profitable as they are. Nugget Coombs knew the dangers of that. Let's hope that this government comes to recognise it too.

Digital Education Revolution (Australian Government)

Susie ByersSusie Byers has worked as a welfare rights advocate and tenants advocate at a community legal centre in Perth. She is currently researching a PhD in History at the University of Western Australia and is a former President of the UWA Guild of Undergraduates.

Topic tags: Susie Byers, higher education review, education revolution, H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs



submit a comment

Existing comments

Your central point 'supporting universities as "homes of knowledge" is exactly the sort of "revolution" education needs. As a PhD student you might be aware of the increasing focus on three-year completion and I suspect a lot of potential PhD candidates are denied scholarships because their project contains an element of risk. Prior to starting my PhD I read a lot of abstracts in my field and it was very rare to read one and be surprised by the novel contribution to the field. I suspect "original research" now means "present a semblance of originality but don't take any risks with our money".


david akenson | 28 July 2008  

It is now over 25 years since I left university after spending 10 enjoyable and fruitful years there. The things that I learned have been virtually of no direct use in my career but I would regard my university training as invaluable. Working in the IT industry has shown me that a broad knowledge is critical to being able to operate effectively in any work place.

Specialised courses breed specialists and there is certainly a place for them but it is interesting to note that only 50% of people finishing law degrees end up practicing it. What does this say about the current focus on specialist degrees? This does not seem focused to me. Neither is it efficient.

Peter Anderson | 28 July 2008  

A very interesting and important article. Most universities have the term “social justice” in their charters or mission statement yet university management is compelled by the nature of things to increasingly become a form of corporation, a social form not particularly concerned with such niceties as “social justice”.

It is stated here that, "One way to achieve space for in-depth learning is to create a system, similar to that of the USA, where students are required to undertake a generalist Arts or Science degree before undertaking a professional qualification."

We do indeed have such a system; The Melbourne Model at the University of Melbourne, which is taken to be an elite project animated by an "economic rationalist" ethos. I thought so myself, until I taught there. I discovered that in fact the emphasis on breadth of knowledge did run counter to the notion that the university is a more up-scale version of TAFE. This in turn encouraged a great deal of intellectual openness and helped to make it the most hospitable place I have been involved with at university level.

It is true that the impact of economic rationalism on the university has encouraged further class divisions in the tertiary education sector. However, I think there are more than just economic factors at play here. The university is packaged within a form of culture that discourages working class participation and, in my experience, this factor is actually at its worst at those universities that claim for themselves an ethos of social justice.

At a more abstract level this issue further demonstrates the contradiction between liberalism and “neo-liberalism”. According to classical rationalist thinking we pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge but under the reigning doctrine knowledge is becoming a form of commodity. The classical liberal thinkers of the enlightenment, such as Humboldt, would have recoiled at the notion that the university should become something akin to a joint stock company.

Marko Beljac | 28 July 2008  

Ah, how sweet it is to read this! I'm a now retired oldie who gave up his PhD aspirations after a visit to Assisi in '95! What was I researching? "The proletarianisation of academics in distance education". Sounds familiar?

paul finnane | 28 July 2008  

Nugget Coombs' 1931 comments were not instructions to governments; they were advice to students not to limit themselves to their degree course, but to take advantage of all university facilities - including inter-faculty friendships - to develop a broader intellectual outlook that would buttress their specialty.

Although probably harder to achieve in today's crowded campuses, it is still the best thing most universities offer and it still depends on the student's attitude.

The only approach we have to an 'education revolution' is Notre Dame's insistence that all students learn basic theology, philosophy and ethics. Experience already shows that this broader education enriches the person and their approach to their profession. It overcomes the disadvantages of a narrow mind and a narrow education.

It is also a reminder that a genuine revolution in education must involve content and particularly content about the personal and social nature of humanity.

Hugh Ryan | 29 July 2008  

Similar Articles

Humanity lost in digital classrooms

  • Frank O'Shea
  • 01 August 2008

Today's teacher has to survive in a world of gimmickry. Students pay better attention to ringtones than to the human voice. In the brave new world of Rudd's Digital Education Revolution, teachers risk being replaced by technicians.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up