Monday, July 9, 2012

Can the Idea of a University survive political funding?

WHACKADEMIA: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University,
by Richard Hil, NewSouth, 238pp. 

The liberal ideal of the free-thinking, knowledge-producing University has always been challenged by those who sought to direct the output of intellectual effort, whether for ideological or economic purposes. Currently in the West, it is utilitarian economics that most threatens that liberal ideal.

There was outrage in Canberra, Australia's capital city, when the Australian National University announced substantial cuts to the teaching budget at its School of Music.  The School had started as an independent conservatorium with wide community and local government support, but was absorbed by the ANU about ten years ago. The incident was a stark reminder that the relations between a university and its host community can not be taken for granted.

Where universities are funded by taxation, the priorities of the university can reflect the politics of the state.

Richard Hil  makes a compelling case that the intrusive administrative demands of today’s universities drive highly-motivated academics to despair, resignation, or mute repression, in a “Whackademia” dominated by glib managerialism.

Is it efficient to make salaried academics devote thirty percent of their time to writing applications (mostly unsuccessful) for research grants, countless more hours filling in university-generated forms and sitting in committees for dubious “performance management” schemes that purport to measure the immeasurable?  Or  trying to meet publication quotas regardless of the state of their research projects? 

Few of Hil’s interviewees had any faith in the accuracy of the bureaucratic measures by which their careers and future opportunities were being determined.  Patronage, favouritism, rivalry and revenge were assumed to be at least as significant for a person’s rating as any documented criteria. 

University leaders have become brand managers focussed on competitive ratings and arcane measures of research performance, because these dubious criteria determine the flow of funds to their institution.

We are left pondering how the global demand for vocational credentials, at competitive market rates, can be met by the same institutions that we might fund to foster thoughtful long-term contributors to our national cultural and scientific capital, with no immediately measurable market value.  This used to be the ideal of the University.