The university experience — then and now

For better or worse, the university experience has changed considerably over the past forty years. University image from

Before the second world war, a very small minority of the population in Western societies went to universities. Most were men, most were from the social elite.

From the late 1950s that changed. With a growing movement towards gender equality, a progressively larger number of people attended university.

Even though there was talk about the value of liberal education and the virtues of a more highly educated population, it is probably true, as British historian Eric Hobsbawm argued in his masterwork, Age of Extremes, that the central reason for the post-fifties growth in universities was the need to train the upper echelons of the administrative and teaching workforce of what was becoming an increasingly sophisticated manufacturing and service economy.

In the absence of any alternative site of training, universities, the principal existing institutions of higher education, filled that need. In Western societies universities moved in half a century from elite institutions where typically less than one per cent of the population spent their late adolescence or early adulthood to mass institutions where eventually 30 or 40% did.

Hobsbawm regarded this change as so dramatic and significant that he analysed it in detail in his chapters dealing with what he calls the most consequential transformation in human history — the post-war economic and social revolutions of capitalism’s 1950-1975 golden age.

It was inescapable that when institutions that once introduced the elites of society to the great disciplines of learning within the Western tradition and prepared them for some of the gentlemanly professions were turned into mass institutions aspiring both to educate and train almost half the population, their character would undergo profound change.

Universities were once governed by their permanent, senior residents – the professors – according to the principle of collegiality. It was unrealistic in the extreme to imagine that mass universities could continue to be managed by academics. Universities – communities of permanent and temporary residents dedicated to the idea of the pursuit and transmission of truth — once claimed for themselves considerable autonomy from the state.

It was also unrealistic to expect that especially in those countries, like Australia, where a large proportion of the costs of running the universities was borne by taxpayers, that the kind of autonomy universities had once expected and been granted, would be able to be maintained.

Freedom and purpose

One part of the autonomy universities once claimed for themselves was lifelong tenure for their permanent residents. If the disciplined pursuit of truth was the university’s purpose, untrammelled freedom of thought was its condition and lifelong tenure its guarantee.

The hope that lifelong tenure might be maintained in mass institutions - a central purpose being to train the workforce of a technologically sophisticated and also rapidly evolving economy - was altogether unrealistic.

Another part of the autonomy universities claimed for themselves was the right to choose among the scholarly traditions and among the gentlemanly professions which disciplines or fields of vocational training would be pursued within their walls and which would not. There was once a time, not so long ago, when the collegial bodies of governance at the universities would debate with some intensity whether or not a newfangled discipline was worthy of being allowed to join the scholarly community of the university.

In the new regime, this form of autonomy was also unsustainable. Now new disciplines or fields of study were introduced by a non-collegial managerial strata responsive both to the pressures of the market and to the wishes of their paymasters, governments. Universities had once rejected sociology, but they now happily embraced information technology or tourism.

Change by degrees

The university systems of different Western countries have been affected to different degrees by the changes brought to tertiary education by the rapid expansion for economic reasons after the 1950s. In countries where tradition had the deepest hold and where the oldest universities were not reliant on government funding — like the Ivy League universities in the United States and Oxbridge in the United Kingdom — universities were much more able to retain aspects of their traditional character.

In these countries much of the technical training beyond the older professions took place in other, newer, more purely vocationally oriented, higher education institutions, sometimes also called universities.

In countries where all universities were very heavily reliant on government funding — like Australia — the character of the university sector was most deeply affected by the new social pressures.

Australia was, in addition, even more deeply affected because of the impact of the native strand of egalitarianism which was intolerant of the vestigial atmosphere of what could easily be construed as elitism surrounding the traditional university. The general process which undermined the traditional conception of the university in all Western countries was radically sped up in Australia with the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s where the universities were merged with the purely vocational Colleges of Advanced Education.

A different education

I am not an expert or an authority on universities. I was, however, once a beneficiary of a university education, at a time when the traditional idea of the university was still quite strong, and have since then spent my entire working life at the university, trying to the best of my ability to give to my students an experience of the kind of university education I was fortunate enough to receive.

Let me describe briefly the central elements of what was valuable about the kind of university I studied at in Melbourne in the mid to late 1960s. The university of the mid-1960s could be experienced, genuinely, as a community composed of permanent residents — the academics — and temporary residents — the undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Academics were believed to be, and to a large degree in fact were, the stewards of the university tradition and the governors of the community. Administrators seemed to exist at the margins. I still remember my surprise when I first learned that there was a modest building devoted to those working in administration.

The university self-consciously saw itself as the heir to something which had deep roots in the soil of medieval Europe. It also saw itself and was experienced as an unworldly institution. The 1960s was a radical moment in the political culture. But because of the self-conception of unworldliness, there was a common - probably mythical - view that draft dodgers might take sanctuary on university grounds because police were not permitted to enter.

As it was thought that the university was always likely in one way or another to betray its essentially unworldly character, the ironic description given to it was “the shop”.

Pursuit of knowledge

For many of us there was little doubt that the central purpose of the university was the pursuit of truth under the rigours of the classic disciplines of the sciences, mathematics, the humanities and the social sciences. It was, of course, known that the university had also long been the place where some of those seeking to take their place in one or another of the older professions — law, medicine, architecture, engineering — received their education.

But in the mid 60s it was the central non-vocational disciplines that were thought by many to be at the heart of the university.

The conduct of research, or what in the humanities was more commonly called scholarship, was a very important part of the life of the academics. Although it has to be said that several of the most brilliant published remarkably little over their lifetimes.

Valuable lessons

But research or scholarship was not more important than a commitment to teaching. For academics, teaching involved giving lectures to large classes and the conduct of small sized tutorials, of a dozen students or less. Perhaps at first year the tutorials might be taken by the non-permanent academic staff of the university, known as tutors.

In later years, especially if one had opted and been accepted into the so-called honours stream of a discipline, one was routinely taught by senior academic staff, sometimes by the particular department’s professor.

For academics, esteem in research or scholarship had about it an eros or a lustre but so did esteem in teaching. Even before I entered the university I had been told that I should endeavour to be in a class taught by the poet and professor of English Literature, Vincent Buckley. No one doubted at that time that the personal relationship between the teacher and the undergraduate students was a central element of the university experience.

Nor was this aspect of the university experience restricted to the classroom. Many academics took their lunch in the student cafeteria surrounded by a circle of students or met with students after (or during) hours at one of the surrounding Parkville pubs.

Frequently the better known academics delivered extra-curricular lectures on politics, science, philosophy or social issues, frequently to large and enthusiastic and rowdy audiences. Sometimes they contributed articles to the student newspaper Farrago or to one of the many student magazines.

To many of us these conversations and extra-curricular lectures or seminars seemed as important as, or even more important a part of our education than the lectures and tutorials of the subjects in which we were enrolled. On such occasions students from the arts, law, science, architecture met and mingled, with the engineers, universally regarded as the rather uncouth student-body outliers.

Undoubtedly at that time, and both before and after the 60s, the majority of students attended university primarily to receive a qualification that would allow them to enter one or another of the professions. But equally undoubtedly at that time a sizable minority experienced the university, as I did, not as the site where vocational qualifications were awarded but as a peculiar community dedicated to the pursuit of truth under the rigour of one or another of the proven disciplines in the sciences, mathematics, the humanities or the social sciences.

Period of transition

Shortly after I returned from postgraduate study at the University of Oxford I took up a lectureship at La Trobe University, one of the several new universities created with the support of the Menzies government. Although university expansion in Australia from the early 1960s followed the general pattern of all Western countries, and was ultimately driven by the same economic considerations, at the time there was a powerful complementary belief in the civilising possibilities inherent in the broadening of the social base. This enabled more prospective students to take advantage of a university education.

The 19th and early 20th century universities were dedicated in almost equal measure both to providing their temporary residents with a liberal education in the sciences or the humanities and preparing them for entry into the most important of the professions. By contrast, ironically, with many of the newly created universities, like La Trobe, and despite the fact that their creation was ultimately best explained by reference to the requirements of the new technologically sophisticated manufacturing and service economy, far greater emphasis was placed on the civilising possibilities of a liberal education than on the provision of vocational qualifications for a new stratum of the professionally or technologically trained.

One of the most attractive features of La Trobe University for many of its early academic appointments — and they included in the humanities and social sciences, Inga Clendinnen, Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac, John Hirst, Jack Smart, Frank Jackson, Peter Singer, Alan and Jean Martin, Hugo Wolfsohn, George Singer — was the fact that at its origin all its schools were devoted to the sciences, mathematics, the humanities and the social sciences. There were no schools which directly prepared the students for entry even into the most prestigious of the older professions, like law, medicine, architecture or engineering.

The rise of the university administrator

In the forty years that followed, there were major changes to the culture of the La Trobe University. Some of these changes were particular to the “new” universities created during the sixties and after. Most, however, were part of a pattern or trajectory common to all Australian universities.

During these four decades the governance, the decision-making processes and control over the trajectory for the university shifted steadily away from the academics and towards a large non-academic cadre of administrators. The idea of academic collegiality as the theory and practice of university government increasingly became more and more self-evidently irrelevant.

During these four decades the idea of university autonomy from the state was increasingly eroded. It was more and more obvious that unless university administrations were able to respond immediately, sensitively and cannily to government requirements or, even better, to anticipate them, they were unlikely to flourish.

Over these years fields of study that would once have been thought not to belong inside a university — information technology, business studies, tourism, nursing, other practical health sciences and so on — were not only introduced to the university because of market pressures or at the behest of governments but without even the pretence that their entry should be conditional upon a prior discussion among academics about their suitability for a place within the curriculum of the university.

This was made possible because the once lively discussion of the idea of the university, of what a university was, had more or less ceased to be of interest. In part, John Dawkin’s largely uncontested amalgamation of universities and vocational colleges of advanced education was a cause of this new conceptual indifference. In part it was a symptom of the conceptual collapse of the university.

Forgotten values

Over the decades certain features regarded as central to the conception of the university were relinquished. The principle of lifelong tenure was gradually abandoned. In turn, the principle that had once stood at the centre of the university’s self-conception and that was lifelong tenure’s one and only justification — the idea of academic freedom — was gradually forgotten.

Academics came grudgingly to accept the idea that they might be reprimanded by the university administration or even in extreme cases dismissed if they publicly criticised their own institution or expressed a sufficiently unpopular view. More importantly, the research output of academics was increasingly measured and rewarded by standards set by government.

Even though the brand of the university was regarded as more and more important and the marketing branches of the university given, accordingly, more and more prominence, because of this emphasis on easily measurable research outputs academics were placed in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, their university benefited from activities like participation in public debates or writing for newspapers or magazines.

On the other, because such activities fell outside the government’s definition of the research output measures, effectively they were discouraged.

Perhaps most importantly of all, as a consequence of all this, despite much not insincere lip service, the bread and butter of the university, even the reason for the sector’s massive expansion — the teaching of undergraduates — according to objective standards like promotion tended gradually to be valued less and less.

In certain areas of the university, where the training of technical personnel rather than the offer of a liberal education became the purpose, it was now even discovered that online means of delivering the necessary information to the students was both a less costly and a more efficient means of teaching or in reality training.

Not bad, just different

In what I have just said, I hope not to be misunderstood. Once it was decided to transform the universities into something called the higher education sector where traditional disciplines and old professions were joined by courses designed for the purpose of training the workforce, and once it was decided to obliterate the distinction between universities and colleges of purely vocational training, and once it was decided that up to 40% of the population ought to go to institutions of higher education frequently called universities, very many of the changes to the idea of the university that I have witnessed over the past forty years were both inevitable and sensible.

There is no justification for the extension of lifelong tenure to someone employed to teach tourism. There is no reason to believe that the principle of academic freedom should be extended to someone employed to teach business studies. There is no reason for someone studying information technology to be taught in a small tutorial group rather than through a well designed and far less costly online program.

There is no reason to believe that mass institutions of tertiary education training students in both traditional university disciplines and multiple kinds of technical subjects should or indeed, could be governed by academics according to an ethos fashioned by the needs of small institutions and the ideal of collegiality.

There is no reason why young people who come to one or other institution of tertiary education wishing to be prepared to be business managers or nurses or podiatrists or marketing managers or information technologists ought to study according to the practices or in the spirit of those students who have come to the university in search of understanding in one or other of the disciplines of traditional learning in the humanities, the social sciences, mathematics or the sciences.

Looking back

I am retiring this year from the humanities and social sciences faculty at La Trobe University, one of the “new” universities. I am also retiring at a time where several attractive aspects of the older conception of the university I encountered as an undergraduate in the 1960s no longer, often for sound reasons, cut much ice.

The idea of academic lifelong tenure has gradually vanished. In mass, hybrid, often partly vocational training institutions, it actually makes little sense. Hardly anyone for that matter still remembers what was once meant by the idea of academic freedom.

No one today would be greatly surprised if an academic was reprimanded or even threatened with dismissal for expressing an outlandish opinion. No one any longer expects or even pretends that in a system where more than 30% of adolescents or young adults attending what are still essentially taxpayer funded institutions that universities can exercise autonomy from the state or that they need not be responsive to the demands of their paymasters.

No one any longer seriously expects academics to administer the university, except at the margins, let alone that crucial decisions will be taken by processes plausibly describable as collegial. While academics are still expected to teach, no one seriously thinks that teaching will be accorded the kind of respect given to research.

In all these ways the old conception of the university, as I experienced it as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne in the mid to late 1960s, is dying or is dead. One may regret its passing, as I do in very many ways, but minimal realism forces one to accept that it will not come back.

Core ideals

The one old idea, however, that still has life in it is the one that suggests that there exists at the university a kind of virtual community of scholars and students, who are involved in the pursuit and the transmission of truth and who understand that one vital part of a university’s purpose is for the scholars to educate a self-chosen segment of each new generation of students in one or more of the core Western academic disciplines.

No one ought seriously to think that such tasks are all that the university will do. No one who researches and teaches in these core disciplines ought any longer to think they are at the centre of the university and the schools of professional or technical training are only on the periphery. No one ought seriously to argue that initiation into the core disciplines of the Western tradition can, or indeed, ought to be the choice for most of the more than 30% of adolescents or young adults who attend one or another institution of higher education, the majority of them to prepare themselves to take their part in the upper echelons of the professional or technical workforce of the modern economy.

Yet equally, no one should deny that one of the fundamental purposes of the contemporary university is to educate a part of each new generation; to introduce it to the life of the mind; and to acquaint it with the disciplines of the sciences and the humanities that have proven their capacity in the search for knowledge and understanding and the rigorous pursuit of truth.

Open knowledge

Once, what part of each new generation was initiated into one or another of the core academic disciplines was decided on the basis of privilege of class and gender. Thank God, that era has passed.

Now it is to a great extent, and certainly ought to be, decided on the basis of disposition, of talent, of eagerness, of inborn or awakened intellectual hunger.

Teaching at a university for almost forty years has convinced me that there exists a minority in each new cohort of students who are drawn instinctively to the most traditional purposes of the university; whose interest in one or another of the traditional disciplines can be awakened by teaching that opens eyes to the beauty and the power of philosophy or physics or mathematics or history or literature; and who will soon discover, often to their surprise, that they have come to university not only or even primarily to earn a professional qualification to equip them for the workforce but to take part in the search for knowledge and understanding and to experience the life of the mind.

There are various ways in which this purpose can be fulfilled. In the older of the Australian universities it is possible, as Melbourne University has done, to follow the example of the Ivy League universities in the United States and require students to take a first generalist degree in the sciences, mathematics or the humanities before specialising in a professional or vocational post-graduate degree.

In new universities, like the one I have taught at, this is not practical. What is, however, possible here is a differentiated offering where students in the same institution can choose either to move from high school straight into a preparation for professional or technical employment or can delay their preparation for participation in the workforce by spending three or four years studying in one or another of the disciplines for what we call its own sake.

A strange paradox

There is, however, a paradox in the way the traditional disciplines are offered at Melbourne and La Trobe. At Melbourne students are required, as I understand it, to read for a generalist degree in the sciences, mathematics or the humanities. At La Trobe reading for a generalist undergraduate degree is one option among many.

On the other hand, at Melbourne the face-to-face teaching the students will experience as undergraduates will as likely as not be delivered by postgraduate students or by what the Americans call teaching assistants, as it now is in the American ivy league universities. At universities like La Trobe those studying generalist degrees will, most likely, from time to time, be taught face-to-face by the permanent academic staff, as they would be in one of the splendid American liberal arts colleges.

Increasingly, in the old elite universities in Australia, which are dominated by the research outcomes culture, so far as possible undergraduate face to face teaching is avoided, as it is in the best universities in the United States. In the newer universities students are more likely to experience the kind of teaching that the older universities once offered their undergraduates, that I experienced at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s, and that I learned was utterly central to what might be called the university experience.

That the kind of experience of the teacher-student relationship once routinely offered by a university education in the humanities and the sciences is now more readily available in the newer hybrid universities than it is the older universities themselves is a paradox of some significance in thinking about the kind of challenges the contemporary universities in Australia now face.

An enlightened education

Can students still experience university in the way my generation once did? I believe that at least in one fundamental aspect they can.

For the past fifteen years or so I have been teaching in a third years honours subject in the politics program at La Trobe University. I now see that what my colleagues and I have been doing has been an attempt to give to our students the kind of student experience my generation benefited from during the 1960s.

I am writing this piece in the hope that our experience might be of interest to other university teachers in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and natural sciences and even be seen as a template for a form of undergraduate teaching that others might think worth a try.

The subject introduces students to the history of politics in “the West” from the outbreak of the First World War to the present day. Students attend a three hour seminar each week. They are expected to read either a book or an interlinked set of articles in preparation for the weekly seminar.

The topics and authors covered are, in turn, the breakdown of European society from the beginning of the First to the end of the Second World War (Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes) ; the fate of the Russian Revolution by the 1930s (Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon) ; the Holocaust (Primo Levi’s If This is a Man); Left and Right in the 1930s and 1940s (selected essays of George Orwell); the Cold War (essays from George Kennan); second wave feminism (Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan, bell hooks); the recognition of racism (Sven Lindqvist’s “Exterminate all the Brutes”); the rise of neo-liberalism (Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom); the collapse of communism (Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless”); post-Cold War (Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington ); contemporary social democracy post-GFC ( Wilkinson and Pickett; Joseph Stiglitz; Tony Judt; Paul Krugman); environmentalism and climate change (Rachel Carson; Garrett Hardin; Al Gore).

Each week, in addition, the students watch and discuss a film loosely associated with the readings: for the First World War (All Quiet on the Western Front, Milestone, 1930); the British reaction to the rise of Nazism (The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock, 1938); the Holocaust (Korczak, Wajda, 1990); the Cold War (Dr Strangelove, Kubrick, 1964); the recognition of racism (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer, 1967); second wave feminism (Mad Men, series one); neo-liberalism (The Fountainhead, King Vidor, 1949); the collapse of communism (The Lives of Others, von Donnersmarck, 2006); post Cold War-Iraq invasion (Turtles Can Fly, Ghobadi, 2004); the case for social democracy (Wall Street, Stone, 1988); climate change (An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore, 2006).

Enrolment in the subject is exclusively for third year students and by invitation only—based on a B plus average mark. A majority of the students come from Law or from the niche degree offered by La Trobe — the Bachelor of International Relations. Both of these have a relatively high VCE ENTER score — respectively roughly 95 and 80.

In my experience and as measured by various objective means, the subject “works”. The students read for the weekly seminar conscientiously; the essays are of high standard; at the end of the subject, as assessed by a standard questionnaire, there is enthusiasm among the students.

This is clearly not the kind of subject less talented or less highly motivated students could or, indeed, should enrol in. Keen students hear about the subject from those who have already studied it. The enrolment numbers are good and have gradually increased over the years.

This year sixty third-year Law/ International Relations/ Humanities-Social Sciences students are enrolled. All the seminars are led by the full-time academics in Politics with speciality in the particular weekly seminar they teach.

The subject is called an Honours subject. In fact, the subject is for the majority in essence not an entry to the Honours fourth year — the gateway to doctoral postgraduate studies — but as a kind of “capstone” subject for students who have in the course of their undergraduate studies become genuinely interested in the life of the mind and the discipline of Politics.

The old experience made new

I can see no reason why similar capstone subjects could not be designed for third year students in all the core university disciplines of the sciences, mathematics, humanities, social sciences, and not only at the “new” universities like La Trobe University. Intensively taught “capstone” subjects like this, taught face to face by senior academics, can have depth and rigour — of a kind that was, in my experience, open to the most highly motivated students of the core disciplines in the sixties — which are not readily available now in the bachelor’s degrees in the sciences or the humanities in both the sandstone and the new universities.

By this means, one aspect of the old “university experience” could be made available on a permanent basis to that still - existing cohort of students who become for a time part of what I have called “the virtual community” of the university.

Such students usually do not intend to pursue an academic career. They do, however, yearn for something more intense and absorbing and meaningful from their first three or four years at university than successful acquisition of general qualification for a professional career or passage to a further vocational postgraduate degree.

It has been my pleasure to have taught thousands of such students for almost forty years, and my conviction that I have stumbled over the past fifteen upon a way of offering them something closer to what I once experienced and have learned that they too hunger for.

This article is a response to Raimond Gaita’s article, “To Civilise the City?” published by Meanjin.