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Review: ‘Australian Universities; A Portrait of decline’

Dr Donald Myers has published an important and hard-hitting book “Australian universities. A Portrait of DeclineProtecting academics & students!

Neuroscientist and environmental scientist Dr Donald Myers has published an important and hard-hitting book “Australian universities. A Portrait of Decline” that argues passionately, cogently and with biting irony for a return to decency of a corrupted, dumbing-down, and managerialist Australian university system.

The world is running out of time to deal intelligently with the worsening climate crisis, the associated biodiversity, population and poverty crises, and the doomsday shadow of nuclear weapons. Currently dominant greed- and market-obsessed neoliberalism in the Western Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies and Corporatocracies has sidelined the intelligentsia crucial for what may be the coming last stand for most of Humanity.

This perversion is no better illustrated in prosperous, democratic Australia where destructive, anti-intellectual mangerialism and corporatism have taken over Australian universities in an obscene collaboration between neoliberal governments and bloated, self-interested university bureaucracies. This sad reality is described in “Australian universities. A Portrait of Decline” by Dr Donald Meyers.

In his Preface, Dr Meyers sets out the scope of the book, stating “The destructive “reform” of the [Australian] university sector spearheaded by John Dawkins [1987-1991 Labor Australian Federal Government Employment, Education and Training Minister] and perpetuated by subsequent governments is the subject of this book” (pii). Not surprisingly, given the decline of the intellectual respectability of Australian universities, “The university presses declined to publish this book” (piv). Neuroscientist and environmental Scientist Dr Meyers is particularly incensed by the contempt for Science, scientific methodology and Scientists by the new, money-driven, corporatist mandarins running Australian universities,  and in a touching testament to his indignant resistance to the money-driven mandarins and non-scientist Educationalists making life a misery for his colleagues, capitalizes the first letter of “Scientist” throughout the book.   

Chapter 1, “Punching above our weight”, commences “Australia may be the lucky country… But it probably doesn’t occur to most people, as they watch disaster befall others on the evening news, to ask why Australia is relatively free of such calamities. A large part of the answer can be found in the rigor and standard of education and training that used to be the order of the day in this country. I say “used to be” because over the last 20 to 30 years, Educationalists have successfully promoted highly negative changes in primary, secondary and now, tertiary education resulting in plummeting standards over virtually all areas of education and training” (p2). Dr Meyers concludes “There is no question that the pervading culture in the modern Australian university is profoundly anti-individual and anti-intellectual (p24).

Chapter 2, “An ill wind” describes how Australian universities used to be run in the post-war era. Liberal (conservative) PM Robert Menzies (who ruled from 1949-1966) saw the importance of a strong university system,  increased Federal funding, provided fee-paying Commonwealth scholarships for many  students  and approved new universities. Reformist Labor PM Gough Whitlam in his short period of rule (1972-1975, terminated by a US-approved Coup) abolished university tuition fees and thus opened up universities to able but disadvantaged students. However the emerging culture of neoliberalism - economic rationalism and market-driven corporatism that demands maximal freedom for the smart and advantaged to make wealth while minimizing social equity – meant that the  Federal Labor Government under pro-American Bob Hawke brought in a “user pays” system, the Higher Education Contribution  Scheme (HECS),  whereby students  would go into debt to pay fees (they would subsequently repay the debt with a low level of repayment when they obtained employment).  However the extremely damaging innovation of Hawke Government Education Minister Dawkins was to fuse non-research, teaching-only, vocationally-oriented Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) with the research- and teaching-based universities.

Myers is scathing of Labor, Dawkins and the “Dawkins merger” (aka the Dawkinization of Australian universities) that demoralized “real” teaching and research academics and inhibited academic resistance to the dumbing-down and corporatization of Australian universities. However Myers blames both sides of the dominant neoliberal Australian politics, both the Australian Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party-National Party Coalition: “Both sides of Australian politics clearly have a taste for bludgeoning the nation’s best and brightest” (p43).

Chapter 3, “A policy, a plan and KPIs for everything and everyone” describes the post-Dawkins bureaucratization and corporatization of Australian universities that transferred academic decision-making  from collegial , academic experts into the hands of non-researching, non-teaching, academic line managers and their academic flunkies, and imposed a heavy burden of bureaucratization on the disempowered, threatened and demoralized academics who were forced to comply with mountains of “Quality Assurance” (QA), “Key Performance Indicator” (KPI) and other reporting “metrics”. Myers commences this chapter thus: “Bureaucrat: an official who works by a fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment (Macquarie Dictionary, The Economy Edition 1990). Without exercising intelligent judgment! This simple phrase encapsulates management in the modern Australian university”. Myers concludes with biting comments on the cost of university managerialism: “One may well ask where the 90% or so of income not used for course delivery goes. I doubt that anyone knows for sure but it’s a fair guess that much of it goes to pay the huge and growing number of senior management, their offices and entourages and administrative positions required to oversee the vast number of pointless administrative activities in which universities appear all too eager to engage in. This, apparently, is the “efficiency” that corporatization of our universities has delivered” (pp72-73).

Chapter 4, “Student-centered pandering” deals with the takeover of university teaching and learning by the non-scientist Educationalists and their dominant Constructivists for whom “Any involvement of mimicry, imitation, program-level imitation (the imitative transmission of ideas) or emulation in human learning is an anathema… Indeed, it is the hallmark of the student-centered/constructivist approach that the teacher is primarily responsible for student attitudes and behavior rather than their comprehension and knowledge… The extent of the factual, methodological and theoretical content of university science courses is a problem for Educationalists” (pp75, 76). Meyers is scathing: “The absurdity of education theory arguably reached its zenith with the appearance of “Brain-Based learning” – an obvious tautology if one considers the challenge of trying to learn without a brain!” (p77).

Neuroscientist Meyers takes us through the latest aspects of neuropsychology that are foreign to the non-scientist Educationalists: the location of and developmental changes in particular learning-related functions within the brain, commenting “If educationalists were serious about establishing a rational basis for improving learning and teaching, they would do well to acquaint themselves with the products of the last 100 years of research in neuropsychology” (p84). The managerialist business model involves lowering standards, maximizing bums-on-seats, maximizing pass rates at all cost and the notion that the customer (the student) is always right. Meyers concludes “While the rhetoric is all about preparing students for life beyond the university, the action is all about shielding students from challenge and failure. Yet again, the system achieves the opposite of what it claims to be delivering! (p112).

Chapter 5, “Every child wins a prize”, continues the theme of money-driven flooding of the universities with weak students and the need to maximize pass rates. Meyers states “With respect to numeracy, by my estimate, more than half the first year science  students who I encountered [at the  University of the Sunshine Coast] could not successfully manipulate simple fractions and a higher  percentage could not rearrange simple algebraic expressions to solve for a single unknown” (p116).  I note that I was taught how to do these things in first year high school in Australia in the middle 1950s. Things are surely not as bad in the top Australian universities (the Big Eight or “sandstone universities” as compared to “the rest” out of a total of 39 state universities and several private universities in Australia) but anecdotal evidence from some top medical professionals suggests that the Big Eight universities have not escaped the prevalent managerially-imposed “dumbing down” disease despite taking the very top students in the system.

Meyers describes the negative impact of poorly devised and considered student feedback on teaching and courses, grade inflation, “dumbing down”, the rewarding of bad student behavior  and intimidation of dedicated academics.  Meyers concludes “In spite of university policy, “mission statements” and codes of student behavior, the system protects students who contravene the rules while delivering humiliation and unnecessary work for academics attempting to maintain standards… While [for academics] the passion may wane and the cynicism rise, in the end, if you want to keep your job, it’s much easier to go with the flow” [p133].

Chapter 6, “The scholarship of teaching and Education Research”, Meyers commences; “In recent years , universities have been swept by a puerile fascination for education “research” and in particular, research into teaching methods” (p135) that is associated with various  major bureaucratic initiatives, Quality Assurance (QA) and the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA, now the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, TEQSA.), the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching  in Higher Education (now known as the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, ALTC) and the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund (LTPF). Myers is scathing in his critiques of the “Edu Babble” and lack of intellectual rigor of the non-scientist Educationalists e.g.  “Evidence anyone? Evidence is the coin of the realm of science and Scientists are particularly good at evaluating evidence and determining the veracity of conclusions drawn from it. I suspect that Scientists are somewhat bemused when Educationalists start talking about “evidence-based research” as for Scientists, there is no other form of research” (p141).  Meyers gives examples of Education research shoddiness and its failure to demonstrate any practical utility, and concludes “Is it any wonder that Scientists have such a poor opinion of Educationalists, Education research and the Education establishment” (p147).  I have received a similar expert critique from a brilliant scholar at a top university who has been investigating this area.

Chapter 7, “Management versus Academic… no contest!” commences with a blunt statement: “To say that there is a divide between University management and academics is a gross understatement. Twenty years after Dawkins the divide is an abyss, the creation of which should have been foreseen. Perhaps this was a desired outcome of the “reforms” – a desire by government to purge universities of those who would not cheer-lead its university-as-factory vision and actively support the implementation of the concomitant tertiary sector polices” (p149). This chapter details what Dr Meyers calls managerial “thuggery” involving censorship, intimidation, heath- and family-damaging working conditions, highly stressful bullying, overworking  and dismissal of academic staff that is unacceptable to decent people who respect intellectuals and their vital role in society. Dr Meyers concludes “While a university cannot exist without academic staff, 800 years of history shows that universities have prospered in the absence of corporate managers” (p180).

Chapter 8, “Where to from here” provides some thoughts on how the Australian tertiary education system can be saved and commences with a statement of the problem: “If the tertiary sector is surveyed from the high ground of retirement, one is struck by the contradictions within the system. Universities are supposed to be agile players in the global education market, yet are constrained by a truly staggering array of external (i.e. government) and internal accountability requirements. Constantly required to alter course to capture the fickle education consumer dollar, they are also supposed to power the nation’s long-term success in the knowledge economy” (p182). Dr Myers gives qualified support to a kind of de-Dawkinizing, a return to a quality “tiered” tertiary education system involving the very top universities (e.g. the dozen  with medical schools), and further variously  specialized quality universities  - “these also-rans would be similar to the former CAEs [Colleges of Advanced Education] and Institutes of Technology” (p183). However one notes that some of these ‘lesser” universities perform valuable roles in providing tertiary education to students from deprived areas who have been disadvantaged by de facto bipartisan (Liberal-Labor, Lib-Lab) support in Australia for an Educational Apartheid policy that determines that the majority of children attending State schools are disproportionately excluded from university, top universities and top courses (e, g. medicine and law) (Google “Educational Apartheid”).  

Dr Meyers acutely observes that “Foreign universities are now free to set up shop in Australia … our students and foreign students will see Harvard Australia as a better option than, say, the [prestigious] University of Sydney” (p183). Dr Meyers argues for a de-throning of the non-scientist Educationalists and a reversal of the damage they have done to primary and secondary as well as tertiary education in Australia. And as for the bureaucrats, Dr Meyers is adamant: “And if something is to be restructured, why not restructure the bureaucracy? A reduction of administrative staff, particularly at the senior management level, is long overdue. How many pro-Vice Chancellors (pro-VCs) does the system need? … How many [senior bureaucrats] do we really need? Almost none, if the destructive competitions between institutions were eliminated” (p190).

Dr Donald Myers concludes that “Fear in many forms pervades our universities… Tenure, independence, and the right to challenge the assumptions underlying the administration of their workplace, the nation’s once-esteemed universities, have gone – they have nothing now to lose except the chains of bureaucracy…  The driving force for this book was the need to publicly expose a great wrong… if my work convinces one other to do likewise, I will consider the effort worthwhile” (pp195-196).  Bravo, Dr Donald Myers – I am sure that this cogently argued and extremely well-written “J’accuse” will elicit indignation and demands for action throughout Australian society.

One key reality barely mentioned in the book (see p177) is that over 50% of undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is now done by casual staff. Just one (1) non-researching, non-teaching Vice Chancellor on $1 million per annum plus perks earns the same before  tax as one hundred (100) casual academic teachers crucial for the teaching and research job of universities  but earning only about $10,000 each per annum. The present system cannot surely continue when such absurd inequities are made public. An eminent academic friend suggests that VCs should earn no more than a professorial salary.

A dozen years ago I made a national broadcast entitled “Crisis in Our Universities” in which I quoted   Dr Andrew Butfoy (Monash University) on financial stringency and academic ethos “Further cuts may be inevitable. Much here is in the hands of government and public opinion. But God help us if universities, of all places, confuse fund-raising with education, bullying with leadership and propaganda with truth”. I also quoted the highly-respected former Vice Chancellor, Professor John Scott, on the key functions of a university: “The prime roles of a university are threefold: to teach, to conduct research and to provide service, including constructive criticism, to the community. The teaching role has been severely threatened. Fundamental research is now difficult to conduct. Critical comments by university staff have been censored. It is time that governments recognized that universities are not just an expensive luxury, but a highly important part of our national activity” (see Gideon Polya, ““Crisis in Our Universities”, ABC Radio National, Ockham’s Razor, 19 August 2001 :). Dr Meyers’ book makes a compelling case that things have got far worse in our universities over the last dozen years.

A key issue raised by all the above commentators is free speech and academic free speech in particular. If our “brightest and best”, our academic intellectuals and their former students, cannot freely communicate then there is little hope that our society will be able to respond effectively to the huge challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is apparent that these problems remain and are becoming worse, principally due to lack of “effective free speech” for intellectuals in the neoliberal Western Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies and Corporatocracies whose descent from democracy into neoliberal corporatism is reflected in the neoliberal perversion of our universities   (for expert opinions in relation to the worsening climate crisis Google “Are we doomed?” ).

Again, about a dozen years  ago I presented and thence published a detailed analysis of free speech in Australian universities (Gideon Polya,  “Current academic censorship  and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Public University Journal, volume 1, Conference Supplement, “Transforming the Australia University” PDF, Melbourne, 9-10 December 2001). My final recommendation was that “Finally, we should publicly insist that universities that constrain free speech are not fit for our children”. Unfortunately in 2013, in addition to the on-campus free speech constraints outlined by Dr Meyers in his book and by Dr Richard Hil in his recent book on Australian universities entitled “Whackademia”, there are mounting constraints on free speech from the neoliberal Australian Government.   

Thus the pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey, human rights-abusing, neoliberal Australian Federal Labor Government  has caused an outcry from both Left and Right in Australia  by proposing legislation for punishing people making statements that “insult or offend”, a proposition regarded by leading conservative Coalition MP and former leader of the  Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, as “outrageous”. US lackey Labor has already gone to the extraordinary length of passing the Defense Trade Controls Bill that makes it an offence punishable by 10 years in prison for an Australian academic scientist without an Australian Defense Force (ADF) - or Australian Public Service (APS)-supplied permit to inform non-Australians (e.g. by lectures, conference presentations, or publications) about thousands of chemical, biological or technological matters listed in a huge Defense Strategic Goods List. UK and US academics are exempt from corresponding laws  i.e. US lackey Labor wants to discriminate against Australians in cutting edge research and teaching, and is also threatening Australia’s  $16 billion per annum Education Export industry involving 240,000 overseas students (see “Impact of the Defense Trade Controls Bill on academic freedom”, NTEU, 10 October 2012:).  

In summary, “Australian universities. A Portrait of Decline” by Donald Meyers (AUPOD), is a hard-hitting, must-read book for all Australians and indeed for everyone around the world concerned about academic freedom and the vital importance of unfettered freedom of speech for an informed intelligentsia – largely academics and their former students - in our world today in which Humanity is facing worsening climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and nuclear annihilation threats. It must be repeated: universities in which free speech is constrained are not fit for our children. Protect our academics and students!

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