There is a university at the end of our street. We sometimes walk our dogs there. Like many campuses across regional Australia, it is a delightful, leafy garden, festooned with gum trees and dotted with native plants. And now, with huge, all-but-empty car parks.
Like the fictional Minister Jim Hacker’s hospital, which “had no patients”, the Australian university now has no students. Or so few as to be invisible. This makes for a sad, indeed, a gut-wrenching spectacle. And, incidentally, it also makes for an economic catastrophe of massive proportions, what with all those sunk infrastructure costs and expensively empty buildings.
Many of us, former university students and teachers alike, will recall with great affection our own time at university, a time of heaving lecture halls, buzzing tutorials and bustling avenues, libraries, bars and shops. And just-as-bustling car parks.
Such scenes are now mere memories. For our university campuses are now ghost towns. How long they will remain ghost towns is a matter of conjecture, but I hold out little hope that they will ever return to the age of student buzz. This is because at least some of the drivers of change were already underway, and are powerful.
The causes of this disaster are both proximate and remote, and relate both to government action and inaction. Like so much else, the immediate cause of our dodo campuses is “the pandemic”, or, to be more accurate, the lockdowns imposed on us all by panicked, clueless governments and the state and media-driven fear engendered in third parties who deliver services funded or regulated by the state. Including universities.
The two most obvious and immediate causes of the emptying of our campuses are the end to immigration, and hence overseas students, for the foreseeable future, and enthusiastic embrace – at least by the universities’ bureaucratic hierarchies – of Covid-friendly, online learning. The now-exposed Australian universities’ business model is a busted flush, to put it politely. It was built on full fee-paying international students (who are mostly unable to speak good English and therefore unable to learn in English) and off-campus, mostly mature age, students who “learn” online. The former pay most of the bills not already paid for by the Australian taxpayer, and the latter are relatively cheap to teach. A win-win for the extremely money-conscious universities and their overpaid, under-performing vice-chancellors.
But the model is not remotely sustainable – certainly not now, since the supply of never-ending international students, often motivated more by the desire to live permanently in Australia than merely to study here, has dried up completely. Denied access to those money-spinning internationals, the universities will now, no doubt, double down on online learning, which, in addition to the already commenced voluntary redundancy program we see at our local campus, will be the only pathway to balancing the books. Such a move will further devastate teaching and learning, especially for the young, and will deliver the permanent knockout blow to campus life. The latter, like the work-from-home craze that has emerged during Covid and which may now become embedded in workplace culture, will also create an immediate surfeit of unused real estate for the universities. This, of course, is itself unsustainable. The universities, little deserving of our sympathy for a range of reasons, are caught between a very big rock and a very hard place.
Yes, even before Covid was ever thought of, the universities themselves were driving life out of their own campuses. This is where we enter a rather complex, far bigger story – the story of the decline of our once great, or at least pretty good, universities. Charting the decline, and assigning appropriate blame for its various elements, is a book-length task. And because it is such a long story, going back around sixty years, the decline has many, many fathers.
But some of the main threads can readily be identified.
Three stand out – low standards, commercialism (hence corporatism), and ideology. A little explanation of each is required, to begin the process of understanding where all the problems came from, and therefore to proceed to the urgent task of solving the problems. (Ideology will be discussed in The Empty Campus Part Two). The task is not made any easier due to the fact that each of the three problems can be considered both cause and effect, and are complexly interconnected.
To take the first of the three threads – low standards. Who was responsible? Which policies led to this outcome? Who do we blame? How do you fix it?
Three things led to opening up higher education for everyone. First, the ideology of equality that gripped left-of-centre governments in the nineteen-sixties gave rise to the idea of education, including higher education, emancipating the underprivileged. Therefore, more people should go to university. Universities should be opened in low socio-economic regions. Tuition should be free. Admissions should tilt towards particular groups, and away from intellectual standards.
Second, then came the eighties, and recessions which led to high unemployment, including high youth employment. Let us take young people off the dole queues and let them go to university. The culprit here was Susan Ryan, Bob Hawke’s Education Minister and a champion of expanded university places, for all the wrong reasons.
Third, then came the era of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Gillard in Australia, who each championed the absurd idea that there should be targets for university entry – forty per cent, then fifty per cent. Why not let everyone in? After all, everyone, it was now deemed, had a “right” to higher education.
The predictable results of open slather – increased-to-bursting demand, demand not matched by increased government funding, which led to students having to pay a contribution, then a greater contribution, then (in some cases) full fees, then loans, so that governments could claim they were maintaining standards in the face of a decline in real spending on higher education.
This led to universities seeking outside funding, which has the tendency always and everywhere to corrupt the whole research process. It also led to importing more and more full fee-paying students from overseas. This in turn lowered standards and increased the pressure to pass students in their tens of thousands, at all costs. It also led to expensive, tailored masters degree programs which are linked to careers and marketed as such. These programs are glorified bachelor degrees. We also created new degrees for people who did not need a degree to gain a job qualification, as with nurses. This is rampant credentialism. Standards again are shot.
Rigorous subjects are dropped because they are unpopular with students who are not up to the challenge and who inevitably choose soft options. Universities start allowing students to rate their teachers, and so teachers pander to student demands for easier work in return for getting their own higher grades.
If everyone has a degree, or two degrees, how do employers assess job applicants? The more people that have a degree, the more its value falls.
There were other awful impacts on universities from greater demand for places as well as the direct efffects on standards. With greater demand, we (or should I say, the Government under John Dawkins) simply doubled the number of universities at the stroke of a pen. At the same time, greater competition for student places led universities to become marketing corporations fighting one another for students. Again, all this had an impact on standards. Universities seldom competed on the basis of offering the hardest degrees and courses. It became a race to the bottom.
The final result – we decline in education standards when measured against our competitors. This is the inevitable outcome of noble (utopian) intentions and unintended consequences. The road to hell is so paved. And the grimmest of ironies is that the decline in the standard of higher education hurts most those for whom the expansion was designed in the first place. The disadvantaged are in no way helped by a poor education. Graduates, especially those with an ordinary degree, are finding it hard to get any job, let alone one related to their degree. Instead, they have a massive debt, generated from the fees they are forced to cough up in order to pay for expanded higher education.
There is a connection, too, between ideology and declining standards. The liberal arts (aka the humanities) have been all but killed in Australian and international universities, mostly as a result of leftist and post-modernist world views which have seen the takeover of classic disciplines like literature, economics, philosophy and history by feminism, critical theory, post-colonialism, queer theory and the like.
But the radicals didn’t just take over the principal disciplines of the humanities one by one, only to transform them beyond recognition. They also chucked out the whole idea of “the humanities”. Those most with a stake in preserving the liberal arts, the universities themselves and their faculty, threw their core objective to the wolves. This objective of a liberal or classical education always was to pass on, as Matthew Arnold once observed, the best that has been thought and said, to the next generation. Ideology determined that the very notion of “the best” was now passe. Blind Freddie could see what would happen to standards when literature, history and philosophy were turned into women’s studies. Change the curriculum, and you change everything. “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go”, as Jessie Jackson and his marching fellow radicals put it in 1987.
And go, it did. Only now are a few awake souls noticing that what are now limply called “twenty-first century skills” are the very core skills that the liberal arts once taught, and that we as a society no longer have – critical thinking, crafting arguments, writing clearly and correctly, logic, coherence, depth of understanding, joining the dots, solving intellectual problems. No wonder the smartest CEOs always want philosophy graduates.
The second high order problem with higher education relates to commercialism – when did “students” become “customers”? And what did this change portend? In many ways, asking these questions is the flip-side of the first question about standards.
As to the date when it all started, the then President of the American National Association of Scholars, Peter Wood, writing in 2008, placed the birth of the notion of student-as-customer at the early 1990s. This seems about right, as we will see.
We have now the venal university, a perfect corporation where over half of university staff are administrative, employed in areas such as marketing and public relations. Not in teaching and learning. We have corporate executives with salaries in the millions running the universities. In the UK, universities in the age of lockdown have lured students to a year (or more, who knows?) of virtual imprisonment in colleges, without face-to-face teaching and demanding full payment of fees up-front, without any opportunity of redress. These are organisations which have lost all sense of teaching and learning, the core mission of the university. This is robbing the young of their one opportunity to learn at university. It is theft.
That much is down to Covid. But the march of universities towards corporatism pre-dated Covid. What on earth should one make of the statistic that twenty-five per cent of strippers have university degrees? Or that so many cab drivers have PhDs?
It began long ago, when, at some point that is difficult to locate precisely, students became “customers”. This changed everything for Australian universities. The movement towards making students customers was linked to the fashionable neo-liberalism and the theory of New Public Management that took hold in government in the same nineteen-eighties. The NPM thinking that so captivated governments coincided too with the emergence of “quality assurance” among private corporates, and hence among universities.
The era of the eighties was that awful time when conservatives and libertarians decided to concern themselves with economics rather than culture. The Thatchers and Reagans and their disciples totally missed what was happening. But worse, some of their ilk decided to apply the principles of the market to teaching and learning, thinking that this would be a good idea.
Javier Paricio Royo has termed the new model as a “paradigm shift”. This is true. It is. Whatever else one might call it, it has also truly been a disaster for students, for education and for society.
Guess what happens when you apply the old business rule, “the customer is always right”, to students and education? Guess what happens when education becomes a “product”? When universities become “providers” of a “service”? When education becomes a costly “investment”? Try telling a student now that he or she has failed, and shouldn’t be at a university. See how that goes, now that every university on God’s earth has a complaints department and a legal budget. And now that students fork out a small fortune for their degrees. Who can blame students who will be tied up with massive debts for their lives for expecting an easy ride, without too much “brain-hurty” teaching going on?
When governments started to charge students for their degrees, these students had already been radicalised in the 1960s and felt entitled. They were now paying big-time for their degrees, marketed to them as pathways to careers and high salaries. Their expectations changed, and their power grew. Curricula changed, there was easy marking, students increasingly got to determine “outcomes”, and to mark their lecturers (noted above).
So yes, much of the problem of the commercial university is about decline in standards. But that isn’t the whole story.
Some of the outcomes of the commercial revolution in our universities have been: rampant corporatisation; the triumph of administration and the burgeoning of administrative staff, at a terrible cost to teaching and learning; the emergence of the CEO to replace the vice-chancellor; salary inflation; the rise of human resources departments and university “policy”; fierce competition among universities for students; replacement of “excellence” as an objective with the dubious notion of “quality”; turning education into an “industry” then an “export sector”; conformity of thought among academics now fearful of bucking the corporate line, and the associated erosion of academic freedom; declining standards (as noted); acquiescence in the Government’s ponzi scheme economy built on immigration, shovelling through students ill-equipped to benefit from even an inferior education; abandoning the core principles of teaching and learning through the pretend education that is delivered by online means rather than face-to-face, where real learning is done; making students the boss has delivered, not only the era of the complaining student, but also the coming of the “snowflake”; linking education and orienting curricula to graduate employment and professional development, itself a direct outcome of the corporatisation of the university and the fierce competition for student/customers, has been disastrous, turning universities into job factories, and especially disastrous now when graduate unemployment is soaring. And so on.
The business model collapse we are now witnessing is the direct result of flawed thinking over decades, not just of Covid and lockdowns.
GD Doherty in 1995 said, in relation to higher education, “… if customers like it, then it’s a quality product”. This awful statement, typical of our superficial, transactional age where so many parts of life are seen merely as simulacrums of commercial exchange, alone explains much of the decline of our institutions of higher education.
Peter Wood clarifies things:
We have a perfectly good idea of what being a “student” entails. It is a hierarchical relationship between someone who seeks knowledge and others who teach knowledge. It requires some degree of humility and forbearance on both sides. Students have to admit that they don’t yet know; teachers have to admit that those who do not-yet-know-but-would-like-to are in a worthy position that deserves its own respect. We have a lot of practice with this, going at least as far back as Plato’s depictions of Socrates.
See also the work of Joanna Williams:
Alas, this entirely sensible, traditional view of the life of the university and of the place of the student in it is seldom to be found in today’s corporate higher education behemoths.
The inexorable, cumulative result of myriad piecemeal policy changes over time have been disastrous for university culture, for academics and for students. We are merely scratching the surface here. The story is one of sad, slow decline, without any individual minister or vice-chancellor by him or herself effecting the disaster.
The way back is far from clear, even were we to possess governments and vice-chancellors of courage rather than of inflated income and corporatist inclinations. This is the case for three reasons.
First, the sources of decline are so multifarious and so entangled, that it is difficult to separate cause from effect, and so identify pathways to solutions. Some of the matters identified here and elsewhere are both cause AND effect, as noted earlier. Moreover, many of the causes of higher education’s decline are hidden from view.
Second, so many of those who might be normally persuaded to believe that the whole rotten system stinks to high heaven lack ability, far-sightedness and courage. They spend their days working “in” the business of higher education, and not “on” the business.
And third, the various ideologues who have strong views on higher education all see different things wrong with the system, and prevent a consensus-driven action plan emerging. A potential holistic solution will therefore always smash on the rocks of differing world views.
Taken together, these three blockers of meaningful reform make this story even grimmer than ever. And the decline of the universities is an event of massive importance for all of us.
The crashing of our universities, and the possibility that they have now been hit by an extinction level event, isn’t just about them. It isn’t even just about our pathetically poor and collapsing educational standards, measured by international tables. No, it is much worse than that. Universities have always been where the thinking goes on in society. Where minds are nurtured and moulded. Where culture is fostered. Where debate roars. Where wicked problems are solved. Where souls, especially lost souls in a post-Christian, soulless world, are engaged in learning about life and might still hope to find meaning.
In the commercial, ideological, low-rent university of today, all these things go up in puffs of smoke. In the age of atrociously poor public policy, moral panics and mass hysteria over ephemeral matters – like Covid and climate change – we need academic freedom and intellectual rigour and courage more than ever.
Things are bleak, there is much denialism about the problems, and the direction of travel is not at all encouraging.
Meantime, in March 2021, the campus remains forlorn, empty and listless. They used to say in jest, you could fire a rifle down the corridor of any academic department on a Friday arvo and not be in any danger of hitting anyone. Now the exercise could be repeated in any part of the university on any day. Only the tumbleweeds play, on the empty campus.
Part Two of The Empty Campus will address the question of ideology and universities.