What’s up with universities – Whackademia or just grumpy old academics?

The traditional academic world has gone, but what has replaced it? Flickr/Nick in exsilio

When a friend showed me the blurb for Whackademia: an insider’s account of the troubled university, I immediately left the office to buy a copy, solely on the promise in the title.

I read it in just two sittings but finished with conflicted feelings. This book made me angry when I agreed with what it had to say, and even angrier when I disagreed.

It starts well; Dr Hil criticises academics for succumbing to a “culture of complaint” about university management, for accepting unreasonably high workloads, parlous conditions for casual lecturers and for failing to suggest viable alternatives. He then goes on to rant for 200 or so pages without offering any viable alternatives.

There is a short list of “tactics” at the end which are not, in my view, very useful.

On reflection, I would have been much happier with this book if had just been the memoirs of a grumpy old (academic) man rather than what it is: an extended essay on the ills of the contemporary university from a left of centre point of view.

Richard Hil went to university in the 1970s when, apparently, Things Were Better. It all went to hell in the 80s when governments around the world had a neo-liberal makeover. Suddenly academics were accountable to taxpayers, the HECs scheme was introduced and universities started selling education to students from overseas.

Now, according to Hil, academics are not trusted to do their primary job, which he believes is to produce engaged and informed citizens. Hil claims that campuses have become like malls, with cafes and shops. Students are treated like “shoppers who have come to expect that they will get the degree they pay for”.

I do agree with Hil that a purely vocational education is not what universities should offer, mostly because we cannot predict the future. My job and the jobs of many people I know did not exist when I was at university. But I’m not convinced academics have a large role to play in the political education of their students.

Richard Hil’s new book Whackademia looks at the dysfunction in today’s universities. Robert Hil/UNSW Press

Perhaps Hil has not looked at the primary and high school curriculum lately; the pre-tertiary educators are doing a pretty good job of covering the basics. I do think we should help students to become critically aware, informed and ethical professionals, but this does not have to be at odds with ensuring and maintaining quality.

I paid for my education, which began the year the HECs scheme was introduced. I don’t remember lively, socially engaged campuses; I do remember the terrible food at the ghastly unionised café and plenty of boring, irrelevant lectures from professors who had not changed their slides since the 1960s. When I finally hit the workforce and could not perform the basic tasks expected of me I was not at all sure my undergraduate education was value for money.

My views on the importance of ensuring teaching quality have only been reinforced since I started working in the most lightly regulated part of university teaching: research education. Until recently, PhDs didn’t even have time limits, let alone statements of outcomes and expectations.

Most of the problems I see in my area occur due to lack of oversight and rules, not because of them. In fact, in my opinion PhD students would be a whole lot better off if they were treated a bit more like shoppers - or at least like clients. Universities offer the opportunity to gain a degree, but some PhD students find all sorts of barriers are put in the way of taking advantage of this opportunity.

The most disappointing aspect of this book for me is the tone of nostalgic activism, which offers no obvious way forward. I agree with Hil that there are problems in our academic workplaces, especially with workloads and the vast numbers of marginalised employees. Academics should be more actively involved in policy making for example. But in my experience many are so disaffected they don’t even open the emails inviting them to be part of the process.

Hil’s list of “tactics”, for the most part, sanction this apathy, in particular his suggestion to pretend to listen to, but basically ignore, those like me, who work in improving teaching quality. I suspect an anti-technology agenda lurking behind Hil’s disdain for professionals in learning and teaching units. In my view more academics should seek advice from specialists about how to make changes to the way they work.

Academics can leverage technology to save time, which could be spent in being more active in workplace decision making.

So – should you buy this book? It’s one of the more entertaining critiques of the state of higher education in Australia I’ve read, even if I think it could have been so much more. Sure - it made me angry, but it was a good kind of angry; the kind that made me think deeply about what we might do to make academia a better place.