Thursday, May 16, 2013

Budget Cuts, Universities and Social Responsibility

English: The interior of the Wesley College, S...
Wesley College, Sydney Uni chapel in 1930s (Wikipedia)
by Dr Stefan Popenici,

Australian universities received last night the official confirmation that the last 6 months bring a colossal cut of $3.8 billion dollars to their funding.

In a time of tremendous change and the certainty of a very uncertain future, universities across the world should look at this story and see if there are not some important lessons to be learned.

The Perfect Storm for Universities - an article about the type of problems that may affect universities in the near future, which I published last December - was followed by condescending or visceral reactions “at home”.

Most of these were aiming to fix my ignorance and help me learn that Australian universities are stable, affluent and looking to solve only problems associated with continuous growth.

I learned among other things that Australian universities are “growing rapidly due to the changed funding arrangements” and the future is bright because “all student numbers do continue to rise“.

The perspective of a time when universities compete for students and ideas was deemed as absurd. The hypothesis that higher education needs to look beyond fads, local cliques and petty interests to find imaginative and sustainable models to secure their own future seemed eccentric and marginal. It turns out that that time was closer than even I imagined few months ago.

The last weeks have been marked by a very different tone and news about “the changed funding arrangements”: it is possible now to hear some voices warning that “cutbacks place the entire (Australian) university sector at risk”.

There are now advertisements on national television with - what else? - brief dull lectures about the risk of massive funding cuts for higher education and the (missed) benefits of investment in universities.

Despite some sporadic and - unfortunately - poorly designed efforts, the public seems to be as moved by this narrative as it is by a media story about a new recipe for chicken wings.

Few students protested (for instance, in Sydney around 30 students gathered to protest about internal problems that “coincided” in a day of protests announced by the national union of tertiary education), while others had a lunch break to “protest”. Most left this event unnoticed.

Analyzing the new budget presented last night by the Australian Government, the mass media was also blatantly ignoring cuts to higher education, focusing on other “winners” and “losers” of the new budget and on a shocking deficit.

The Gillard Government’s decision to cut billions of dollars in funding for universities is not really big news in Australia. As previously noted, for the last 6 months it has been clear that serious cuts are under way for higher education.

Universities and students were informed that this is coming and they will pay the price. No reaction! A first cloud came almost unnoticed in the form of a report including the story of Australian student debt being higher than expected.

It became clear that we have an official estimate for 6.5 billion dollars in student loans that will not be repaid (which translates into “a significant number of graduates will have terrible jobs and incomes so low that they’ll not be able to pay back loans”).

Mostly unobserved was also the release of statistics revealing a slight drop in international student enrolments in Australia. Moreover, an official announcement shocked some executives when it was revealed that 1 billion dollars in funding research will not be available anymore.

Universities Australia’s Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson recently warned:

"Off the back of $3.8 billion in cuts inflicted on universities and students over the past six months, the Australian community is becoming increasingly concerned that a high quality university system is being sacrificed to fund school reforms - when both are part of the recipe for national success".

There are literally no signs that this warning was heard. There is no doubt that on a medium and long term basis, these last 6 months will greatly impact on the status and importance of Australian higher education.

More importantly, it will impact on innovation and research and local capacity to focus on alternative ideas and solutions for the challenges ahead.

Nevertheless, the public and academics looked at this unfolding story with remarkable nonchalance. The apathy, indifference or denial partially explain the ubiquitous silence.

If some within academia live a pleasant dream feed by ignorance and denial that billions of dollars vanishing from higher education translates into just a few small changes in their budgets, they are certainly wrong.

They may think that this massive cut is leaving mostly unchanged their familiar landscape, but this is just impossible. When reality will hit those in denial it will be too late.

Unfortunately, we have to admit that the foundations of many systems of higher education are weakened now by a stunning lack of vision within the walled gardens of academia.

In a few words, the lack of public reaction to devastating blows to universities is a first important lesson.

The political dimension is relevant to understand why. It is clear now that politicians from both Australian political party's understand that cutting funds from universities to give this money to schools translates into more votes.

Just before elections, a rare implicit consensus on something of major importance (when it seems that local politicians try as hard as they can to reenact the The Tower of Babel) shows that universities are not close to the hearts of voters.

Taking from universities to give to schools doesn’t make any sense for public policy and a sustainable future, but in political terms this move is in line with voters’ preferences.

The fact is that the Australian public has proven now that it is mostly indifferent about what is happening with local universities. This must be a source of great concern for academics and administrators.

They now have been given an urgent call to reconnect their institutions with the community.

The simple rhetoric about “sustainability”, “community involvement” and civic responsibility may work within some institutions - although low morale and staff disengagement usually reflect very clearly the complete failure of this type of discourse - but proves to be completely ignored by those communities which are served just in discourse and not in real life.

Seduced by their imagined realities and the sound of their own voices, academics and university administrators have lost contact with the world around them. That world now remains indifferent to their fate and obvious arrogance.

To ignore this when there is no doubt that the future holds many turns and tests can be a fatal mistake.

In Why Australia hates thinkers Alecia Simmonds explores how it is possible to show so blatantly that higher education is not seen as an investment in the future by the government and political establishment.

Answers to this puzzle are more important than it seems, even if we consider just the fact that Australia is a country where universities are the third-largest export industry. The author’s explanation revolves simply around the effects of an ingrained anti-intellectualism:

There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why? [...] Perhaps there’s a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism". 

"Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England’s stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We’re a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don’t mean intellectual labour". 

"Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we’ve interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool".

There’s also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn’t sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It’s equated with sexual unattractiveness". 

"And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It’s as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.”

The limit of this explanation is that anti-intellectualism is not an Australian invention, nor monopoly. A simple look at public (and political) life in the US reveals why it was possible to see a politician like Sarah Palin taken seriously for such a long time.

Public displays of anti-intellectualism, anti-science and glorified ignorance are quite popular across North America, but we still find there some of the best universities in the world. Moreover,  we see a culture of public support for universities.

The mass media is constantly reflecting problems and changes in universities and very often Nobel laureates and globally influential public figures publish first-page editorials about the fate of students and American universities. Any change in funding, social and economic context of universities is vastly reflected and discussed by the media, think tanks, politicians and public figures.

It is something else about the Australian story and the key may be within the walls of universities … to gain civic support, help from the public and to see students building barricades to defend their universities (1968 style or less confrontational, but still very efficient), universities must be seen again as hubs of knowledge, civilization and progress for society.

These institutions make sense if they stay as islands of free thinking where important challenges for society are approached with an open mind and expert insights.

Citizens cannot be accused if the importance of an institution is hidden behind an oblivious existence focused on bureaucratic hierarchies with glorified mediocrity, where obedience is the condition for survival. TV ads reminding the public that universities are beneficial just miss the point.

If a university is reduced to a profit-oriented assembly line built to deliver credentials (diplomas) and a set of skills to customers, then we have no reason to complain that the outside world relates to their stories in the same way they do when a local fast-food restaurant is a risk of being closed down.

Now it is time not only to encourage academics to speak truth to power, but the “power” itself must realize that this is a key for success and, ultimately, the survival of their own positions.

Everyone is responsible and the change can start immediately: a simple honest look can show if there are different opinions in the same faculty - and if these different opinions are publicly discussed or just whispered (the current fascination of academia with ‘whispers’ is a very interesting cultural detail …). If not, it is time to start the change.

Lack of vision, “forbidden knowledge”, avoiding inconvenient truths, encouraging mediocrity and denial bring tremendous costs and risks for universities. Why?

Because if we leave the future of this important institution to be decided by politicians running for votes, than we have no future.

Most importantly, because we have to realize that we already living the early days of a global revolution of higher education. Those failing to see this will greatly regret that today they did not change.
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