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Academics are unhappy – it’s time to transform our troubled university system

Students and staff leading a protest at Sydney University on August 17, 2016. Richard Milnes/Newzulu

Australian academics are an unhappy lot. Numerous surveys, books and articles have drawn attention to this over the years.

The primary complaint is employment insecurity. This applies particularly to the reserve army of 67,000 casual staff who deliver over half the teaching in Australian universities.

But academics face other challenges. They are overwhelmed by unmanageable workloads and excessive demands from a rapidly expanding bureaucracy of university managers and administrators.

Disenchantment is particularly acute among higher-degree research academics and younger academics, although it cuts across all age levels and disciplines.

Decreasing academic morale

Despite ongoing complaints, things appear to be getting worse.

Many academics trace their discontent back to the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s. The reforms delivered a mass higher education market and cut-throat competition for student enrolments. Degrees were branded as “products” and students reduced to “customers”.

It’s little wonder that cracks have appeared in academic morale. Predictably, reports of mental health problems among academics are increasing. This highlights the human costs of supposedly economically rational policies.

Yet academic opposition to the troubled university system is more pronounced than ever.

This mirrors widespread student protests over fee hikes and other market-driven policies in Germany, Italy, France, England, South Africa, Chile, Norway, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Such opposition has arisen in the context of a broader critique of market fundamentalism.

Call for reform

Academics have responded by calling for institutional reform to management and teaching, as well as an end to fee deregulation, precarious employment and what many consider to be the exploitation of international students.

Organisations like Australia’s National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU), which has over 2,000 members, the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) and the US-based Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), all demonstrate this collective action agenda.

These initiatives have much in common, including their opposition to vocationalised education, privileging individual gain over the common good, casualisation and diminished academic autonomy.

While NAPU largely consists of academics, the CDBU boasts a broad membership of leading literary figures, journalists, Nobel laureates, former vice-chancellors, members of the House of Lords and former cabinet ministers.

Various professional associations, unions and employee federations, alliances, academic councils and numerous faculties also support the CFHE.

These alliances and campaigns dovetail with other forums that focus on radical alternatives to today’s market-driven university system. Examples include the free university movement, freedom schools, the ecoversity, sustainability schools, Indigenous universities and various progressive colleges like the Schumacher College in Devon and the School of Life in London and Melbourne.

Many of Australia’s leading academics have similarly taken a strong stand against commercialised higher education.

A key outcome of a recent conference around the privatisation of universities was “The Brisbane Declaration”. This comprehensive statement outlines the central features of a genuinely public university system.

The declaration states that good universities are:

  • communities, not for-profit corporations
  • democratic public institutions for the social good
  • fully funded by government and independent of corporate influence
  • dedicated to offering free, high-quality education
  • transparent and accountable
  • transformational, not merely transactional
  • democratically accountable to society as a whole
  • committed to an ethical and knowledge-driven curriculum that fosters critical reflection and creativity.

The declaration, which all are welcome to sign up to, calls for universities to cultivate collegiality and collaboration and encourage the free exchange of ideas.

Growing evidence suggests these conditions are vital for research and knowledge generation to flourish.

Research shows this environment, which fosters intellectual challenge and a care ethic, is what students also want.

The declaration also challenges the male-centred, scientific and colonial roots of universities. It calls for opening up universities to include more Indigenous scholars and those living and working in the Global South, as well as rejecting top-down pedagogy and curriculum.

Such calls come at a time when historically marginalised groups, including Indigenous Australians and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, continue to be poorly represented among both staff and students. This reflects the ongoing failure to democratise Australian university campuses.

Inspiring examples around the world – such as Bolivia’s indigenous universities – show that another university, of the kind the declaration advocates, is possible. While Australia has been slow in building progressive higher education movements, this can be expected to change as we increasingly come to understand that our happiness, and so much more, depends upon it.

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