Academic Freedom

(From a letter by Malcolm Saunders in Quadrant of March 2022)

How can academic freedom exist when over the past thirty years or so all of our forty or so universities have been swamped by wave after wave of ill-prepared poorly-motivated and simply unsuitable students whose lecturers and their casual and insecure markers are under enormous pressure to pass?

How can academics be free when the universities that employ them insist that their jobs depend on the income generated from full-fee paying foreign students, large numbers of whose English is just not up to doing any prose-based subject at tertiary level?

How can academic freedom prevail when middle managers systematically¬† demand that lecturers only pursue research that “brings in” money and very often refuse to support – and might even sabotage- research that doesn’t?

How can such freedom exist in a Unified National System in which something like 60 percent of employees are administrative and ancillary staff, many of whose job it is to oversee and even micromanage lecturers’ teaching and research?

How can academic freedom survive in any Australian  university when entire disciplines Рeven schools within faculties Рhave been made into conservative -free zones by selective appointments and more or less constant peer-group pressure to conform to the dictates of the politically correct?

12 Replies to “Academic Freedom”

  1. We need to get the university managements to stick to the knitting. Unenlightenment cultures and corrupted research should not be rewarded. Rather the opposite!

    1. Completely defund any university which does not sign up to the University Code of Conduct (UCOC).
    2. Subtract from its funding the amount of all legal fees paid by any university which has been found to have contravened the UCOC.

    Universities have two outputs; research and graduates. The quality of the graduates depends on the quality of the research.

    3. Remove the funding component which is based on the number of students. Remove the HEX scheme. Replace with a scholarship scheme.
    4. Publish rankings of universities. Rank universities by quality of research. Determine quality of research by the proportion of past research which has (a) undergone an attempt to replicate the findings, and (b) survived that attempt. Peer review/commendation does not count.
    5. Completely defund the lowest ranked university each year.
    6. If universities don’t focus on quality then they should be allowed to fail. If the above measures do not work then we should find a mechanism whereby the quality of the secondary output (graduates) is measured, with consequential complete defunding of the lowest quality establishment.

    1. “Universities have two outputs; research and graduates. The quality of the graduates depends on the quality of the research.”

      A comforting belief, perhaps, but I am not convinced that it is true. I believe research and teaching would both benefit from a separation of the two. Good researchers are often lousy teachers at an undergraduate level (e.g. my old Prof, low frequency radio-astronomer Bill Ellis but he was an excellent post-grad mentor). My best maths teacher was failed physicist Mac Urquhart.

      1. I am yet to put my penny’s worth into this discussion, and am just reading through now, but I stop here to write this, because while I understand the sentiment of Colin’s comments, I also had a kneejerk reaction to his comment that graduates depends on the quality of the research. Like Admin, I know amazing researchers who cannot teach for the love if it, who hate having to teach; and teachers who live for the podium, love their students, and are distracted by research, resenting the pressure to publish.

        More when I read the rest.

    1. Such a great loss, what my generation has seen happening to our Universities and its academia since we were there in the 1950s and 60s, mostly a betrayal of these researchers by their Administrators, from my point of view, my having been one of their first victims, in the mid-1980s. A personal rejection I am NOT unhappy about now, in retrospect, things having gone from Bad to Worse for those remaining, sadly, with my continuing to value personal freedom very highly. A freedom denied even to full professors by those Administrators for decades now. Hence “betrayal” !?!

  2. Thank god someone has finally told the truth about the woeful state of aust tertiary education. I did a post grad degree 40 years after my first and the level of education was about second year high school standard. Many asian students with little english…..and this was a course for palliative care counselling….english DEFINITELY essential.. They were there paying twice what I was and bulking up the numbers. Horrible adelaide uni….shareholders are king and the level of excellence is no longer of interest…or there at all.

  3. When the Universities became degree mills, openly selling qualifications to ‘students’ with such poor literacy and attendance that a domestic student would have been expelled they lost most of their claim to academia. This is like a mafia goon complaining that fixing horse races damages the mob’s reputation. It only makes any sense if you don’t understand how venal and corrupt the organisation now is.

  4. In a recent engagement in Hobart, where I have recruited graduates in IT, accounting, marketing, and while there are exceptions, for the most part I agree with Sue.

    I went to Cosgrove High School in the 1960’s. My home class master defined it as the academic backwater, yet I had an education that has proven second to none.

    Some graduates I have interviewed, do not have what our average high school graduate left secondary school with. It has been embarrassing and I have literally fretted over our future. That has increased when I see the excellence of students and graduates in so called developing countries. In fact it leaves me ashamed.

    I have experience working in universities, in teaching and research and administration and business development. I apologise for sounding like I have done everything, but, well, I have.

    Back at USyd for instance, writing business plans for several faculties to bring rigor to their continuous learning programs, I first became aware of how our cherished institutions became deregulated, under Howard (‘nuf sed), and suddenly academics with little real-world business experience had to make their own living. Expanding on on-line and continuous learning courses was their first foray into profit making ventures. As opposed to academic or research excellence.

    This is where I agree with the sentiments of Colin, just not his solutions.

    Then suddenly this little country’s awakening to the opportunity to teach to the huge populations from the rest of the world, and with so much money and profit, and rose coloured glasses, nothing else mattered. One outcome is that universities have become akin to one product businesses, with the inherent fiscal danger when that product is threatened, such as what happened when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted supply (no students coming here).

    I’ve also had experience in private technology universities in the USA, and see the difference between what was our inherited British tertiary system, and the industry driven USA system. The USA one works because industry participates in and funds research much more there than here, where it was traditionally government support for us. The outcomes are reflective. Research in the USA usually looks to an industrial advantage, whereas for us it was knowledge for the sake of it. There is room for both systems in the world, but to deregulate Australian universities, forcing them to become USA-like, in a system not geared to that, has led to the mess our universities are in right now.

    This is the first time I’ve documented my thoughts on this issue, so I hope I have been coherent.

    As many of you know I turn around enterprises, and my style is different. I am accepting of failure. As long as one has a go. Called stretch targets sometimes. I support having a go by being there to pick it up for my people if it stumbles. I think I think that those at the bottom of a rung are the ones needing the extra help (that was not a typo at the start of this sentence).

    A long diatribe.

  5. It was very stressful to my late friend John Colman. Most stressful of all to him as a highly respected moral philosopher, his having written what many regard as the best book on Locke, was his being required to precede most of his lectures with Warnings that some might be upset by some of the contents of these lectures.
    Indeed, this PC requirement was a major cause of his seemingly incurable Depression imho, an impression I got from driving him to Gowan’s Auctions regularly for many years right up to the week he died.

    1. Colman was the real deal – an academic philosopher who loved and lived his discipline. My disgust at the way he was treated by the university administration was the motivation for this post.

      I miss him.

  6. I don’t know this John Colman story, but on the surface the first thing that comes to mind is how the establishment treated Alan Turing.

Comments are closed.