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Being useful: Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities

Raising the stakes cover
Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities
by Peter Coaldrake & Lawrence Stedman
University of Queensland Press
288pp
$32.95 AU
Published May, 2013
ISBN 9780702249853

Before I ended up where I now sit, as a lecturer in English at an Australian university, I spent some time as an activist and a policy advisor for a politician. In both cases, I was motivated by a vague desire to do something useful. But being an academic is a strange occupation, because universities are strange institutions. Like political and non-profit organisations, they face two tasks that are often at odds with each other: being useful and staying afloat.

Peter Coaldrake’s and Lawrence Stedman’s Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities is a fairly comprehensive introduction to the complexity and unwieldiness of these institutions and the difficult situation they find themselves in at present. Almost all universities in Australia are funded largely by public money, because they exist to provide a number of public and private benefits. Yet the nature of these benefits is not very well articulated – not by governments, or by academics, or by Coaldrake and Stedman. Part of the reason for this is that universities do many different kinds of things at once. Public discussion about universities usually focuses on two aspects of what they do: for individual students, they provide opportunities for personal advancement and social mobility (that is, they give students skills that will help them find a job); and for the country as a whole, they drive economic prosperity and equip the nation to face global challenges. These last functions are ubiquitous in public discussions of higher education, but are vague and limited.

A similar conception of usefulness underpins Coaldrake and Stedman’s account and, I suspect, higher education policy more generally. The role of universities is figured almost entirely in terms of economic value, alongside an acknowledgement of the lack of certainty about how these economic benefits actually derive from university research and teaching. The broader question of the public good that universities provide is dealt with in a cursory fashion in Raising the Stakes, couched, for example, in the language of the ‘global challenges’ presented by the World Economic Forum. The authors specifically exclude ‘culture’ from their account of ‘how universities can be useful to individuals and societies’ because they are trying to take a pragmatic view of the situation. This certainly presents a simpler view of the situation universities face – a less confusing view – but it is not pragmatic, because the benefits universities provide to individuals, communities and nations are civic as well as economic, and these two are related to each other.

University study, in almost any discipline, is intended to foster critical thinking and the capacity to find things out for yourself and weigh up evidence; the civic value of this is that it creates citizens who are willing to ask questions, assess information and decide for themselves. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that study of the humanities, in particular, provides students with the ability to be good citizens: it gives them ‘the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.’ These are qualities that we need more of in our electorates and in our public sphere. It is important that we understand this – and by ‘we’ I don’t just mean taxpayers and policy makers, I also mean academics ourselves. For reasons I will come to, we have become averse to speaking baldly about the usefulness of what we do.

Pointing out the marginality, even irrelevance, of English and the humanities to Coaldrake’s and Stedman’s account is not to criticise the authors, so much as to make an observation about the marginality of our work to the ways in which universities are run, discussed and governed. Raising the Stakes describes with some clarity the budget situation universities find themselves in. Universities are faced with declining government funding and increasing staff costs. Combine this with the limited understanding of the public good that is provided by universities and the reasons for shrinking humanities departments become clear.

Humanities academics may occupy a small and shrinking corner of the universities as they are understood by vice-chancellors and education ministers, but this is not the only space we occupy, or should occupy. Academics are involved in the broader public sphere, and so is the work that we do. I am going to make a claim here, bald and embarrassing though it might be: we do some good. And we do that good in spite of, and not in response to, the government funding and policy settings aimed at ensuring the public money spent on us serves the public good.

Between the benefits to individuals that accrue from attending university and the larger-scale impact upon national prosperity and global challenges, there is a significant middle band of public good that universities provide. This differs widely according to discipline. In academic statements of expectations, it usually fits into some description of ‘outreach’, ‘community benefit’ or ‘engagement’. I am thinking, for example, about academic involvement in community activism, policy development, public discussion in the media. I am also thinking about the ways in which universities support their local communities, not just in terms of regional economies, but also in supporting and sustaining cultural life and civic organisations.

In my discipline, this public benefit involves an engagement with the broader world of readers and writers. I study and teach Australian literature. This has something to do not only with literary texts, but also with the writers who produce them, the industry that publishes them, and the public culture of reading and writing and talking about books that gives these texts something to do in the world. The relationship between academia and public discussion of books in Australia has been strained in recent years. Crisis has been posited, blame has been attributed. None of this is particularly useful, and it fuels the fire of populist disdain for universities and what they do. It seems to me that folks on both sides of this purported divide – the academics on one side, and the publishers, writers and reviewers on the other – have been guarding their gates too enthusiastically. We are both, on either side of the divide, sharing our interest and passion for books with our audiences (students, colleagues, readers of newspapers and book reviews, audiences of literary festivals). The thing is, this is actually one and the same constituency – or it has the potential to be.

This apparent disconnection between the worlds of ‘public’ and ‘academic’ readers in Australia is particularly vexing to me. There are too few academic voices in public literary criticism in Australia. Perhaps this is because academic expertise is not valued or trusted in the public sphere, or because of an assumption that we are unable to speak to a broader audience. There are nonetheless people researching Australian literature in our universities whose knowledge and enthusiasm should be part of this broader conversation. At the same time, the world of book reviewing and public book-talk in Australia often seems quite invisible within academic teaching and research.

If the academic study of literature is instrumental to the broader world of readers and writers, it is in bringing works to light and keeping them there, in thinking deeply about and understanding the history of our literary culture, and, first and foremost, by teaching – by introducing students to wonderful writing and encouraging them to read carefully and well. The vast majority of the students I teach do not go on to academic careers (which is probably a good thing). They go on to become public servants or teachers, businesspeople and parents. Some become writers, journalists or publishers. What I hope, quite simply, is that they all go on to be good readers – people who enable and constitute our literary culture. This is not included in any description of graduate outcomes, which emphasise the skills that are useful for future employment, or training for further research. Our students gain these things, but I think we need to be more explicit in talking about the other things they gain from studying literature.

Perhaps it is difficult to do so because of the tangle of associations that attach to the words we use to describe what we do. Partly what I am arguing for here is an older sense of literary appreciation, which was once the point at which academic and public discussions of literature met. Literary appreciation has, as Patrick Buckridge has pointed out, been divorced over time from its associations with critique and interpretation. It now sounds old-fashioned, and not in a good way – standing for a belief in immutable canons and unassailable critical authority, and yoked to middlebrow cultural institutions. But there is a sense in which we are teaching students to appreciate literature. What I hope my students come away with is the capacity to read carefully, to engage with the conversations writers have with each other across literary history, and to have the confidence to approach literature that is difficult and strange. Much of what is best in Australian literature is difficult and strange.

Australian literature, in the form that we know it, was nurtured and sustained by literary critics working outside of the academy – Nettie and Vance Palmer, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Miles Franklin, and others. This semester I am teaching a course on contemporary Australian writing. When I look for critical work on these Australian writers published in the last ten years or so, some of the most incisive criticism can be found outside scholarly journals. Indeed, it is in teaching recent fiction that it is easiest and most profitable to bring these worlds into conversation with each other. Our first year students have often not read far beyond the bounds of young adult fiction, and are unlikely to have read a book review. I wonder whether our task is to introduce them not just to the world of scholarly criticism, but also to this wider conversation about books.

There are institutional forces that make it difficult for literary academics to be involved in this broader world of writing and talking about books, but at the same time we don’t always resist these forces as strongly as we might. This is partly because such a project of public usefulness is somewhat at odds with the competitive, prestige-driven economy that academics work within. Coaldrake and Stedman explain, quite straightforwardly, the status-driven nature of academic enterprise. As their examination of the history of international higher education rankings clearly shows, this prestige market operates at the level of universities’ competition with each other. It also operates within the research culture of our disciplines, where much of what we trade in is prestige or esteem. Within Australia, universities also compete with each other for students and for funding. Funding is the primary way – alongside other less toothy instruments, such as compacts and accords – that Governments try to direct the institutional behavior of our universities. As Coaldrake and Stedman note, this is a very difficult ship to steer, because of what they describe as ‘the peculiar nature of higher education as a service’. There are, as they note, ‘fundamental uncertainties involved in university core operations’ such as research and teaching. That means that providing them with large amounts of public funding involves a certain leap of faith.

To account for this public money and ensure that it is being spent wisely, governments have developed a range of mechanisms to measure what academics do. As Raising the Stakes shows, some of these things are easier to measure than others – student numbers, for example, or numbers of publications in peer-reviewed academic journals. Other things are not so easy to measure. Unfortunately, it is these hard to quantify things that are central to the usefulness of academic work: the quality of teaching and research, and the impact of research in the community. As the authors put it: ‘Many of the most important activities of universities, from education to community engagement, continue to resist the best attempts to bring them under the discipline of accurate measurement.’

The result of this, at some institutions at least, is that things that cannot be measured come to be seen as less important, because they are not directly linked to academic esteem and – perhaps more importantly – to government funding. Raising the Stakes traces the unwieldy attempts that have been made to address this in relation to teaching quality, but it eludes measurement. I have a strong sense that the students studying English at my institution come out as better citizens and readers, but I don’t think I can prove it. Coaldrake and Stedman argue convincingly that this fundamental uncertainty, combined with the multitude of things individual students hope to get out of a university degree, means that the use of market mechanisms to ensure quality in higher education is doomed to fail. Even though their account seems underpinned by a notion of public good that is defined in economic terms, their analysis of higher education as an industry reveals just how difficult it is to conceive of and run universities as though they were businesses. This is because students are not a market in the same way that consumers of other goods and services constitute a market. The authors note that this has been a difficult concept for higher education policy makers to understand.

The mechanisms that the Australian government uses to determine the usefulness and quality of research can inadvertently mitigate against the provision of public good, especially in relation to ‘community outreach’ or ‘engagement’. For example, the writing of an essay such as this one is an illicit, or at least discouraged, activity for a university academic. This is not because anything I have to say is particularly controversial, but because of its limited ‘usefulness’, being published here, in the public sphere. It does not attract HERDC points – the acronym stands for ‘Higher Education Research Data Collection’ – and thus it does not ‘count’: it does not attract funding for my university, so it does not help my discipline survive within it. Academics who regularly write book reviews and opinion pieces in the press are usually doing so against the express wishes of their managers, in part because it is not seen to advance their careers.

One of the most illuminating and bamboozling aspects of Raising the Stakes is its account of the reasons for the budget squeeze. The argument Coaldrake and Stedman put forward is that it is due to a combination of declining government funding (in per capita terms) and an economic phenomenon called ‘cost disease’. Essentially this means that universities become more and more expensive over time, because their primary cost is the provision of local services by highly skilled labour. It is staffing costs, in their account, that are the problem for university budgets. Thus the intense scrutiny of, and pressure on, academics’ use of time: they are trying to make us more efficient. In effect, this means that we are encouraged to spend our time doing things that attract funding – such as publishing peer-reviewed articles (with an emphasis on quantity over quality) and teaching as many students as we possibly can – in order to keep the ship afloat. In this environment, any public benefit beyond this is a luxury we cannot afford.

Perhaps it would be ok if this were a temporary crisis that could be overcome. Frank Donoghue has argued that the talk of crisis obscures the real situation humanities face in American universities and that ‘a vision of restored stability is a delusion’. Coaldrake and Stedman imply a similar view of university funding in Australia. They acknowledge its decline in real terms, and the inadequacy of this funding to universities’ operations, but do not seem to hold out any expectation of an increase any time soon. Indeed, they do not seem to countenance increases in public funding as a response to the problems they identify, which seems to me to indicate a certain wariness about biting the hand that feeds, as well as a lack of ambition when it comes to considering the kinds of ‘radical changes at the level of policy, and setting of priorities and processes’ that Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale argued for in a recent essay on higher education policy.

From where I sit, the policy settings and funding situation do a pretty good job of mitigating against usefulness in our universities, especially in light of a situation in which we have an expanding student body with little according expansion in the resourcing required to teach them. Raising the Stakes concludes with the argument that it is for universities themselves to take the lead and transform themselves. While I am convinced by the authors’ argument that government attempts to steer universities through grants, compacts and competitive funding have not worked very well, I am also extremely wary of the promise of ‘transformation’. Australian universities are ‘transforming’ all the time – but the kinds of transformations we have seen recently across a range of Australian universities has been of the deckchair-shuffling variety. It is the kind of change noticed by sociologist Gaye Tuchman in Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (2009): change understood as a performance of managerial agency, which in Australian universities has usually involved the cutting of academic disciplines seen to be the least profitable or most unwieldy.

Coaldrake and Steadman assert that ‘public universities will continue to find ways of operating more efficiently. This will force university decision-makers to make ever-harder choices about what they can afford to do, and this, in turn, will require further exercise of management control over academic preferences.’ They argue that the university system, as it has developed in Australia, is too generalist – all our institutions try to do too many things – and that further specialisation and differentiation is necessary. But if university executives are going to drive this process, it needs to be with a much clearer and more principled understanding of the public good universities provide – to their students, to the nation, and to their local communities. ‘Driving economic prosperity’ and ‘solving global challenges’ will not be enough.

Perhaps we are, as Tuchman describes academia, an industry that is undergoing a transformation – a deprofessionalisation – much later than other institutions such as medicine and the law. She writes:

Higher education is one of the last revered Western institutions to be ‘de-churched’; that is, one of the last to have its ideological justification recast in terms of corporatization and commodification and to become subject to serious state surveillance. Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train.

The authors of Raising the Stakes are actively impatient with accounts such as Tuchman’s. ‘Forests have been levelled to produce books and articles about the corruption of the ideals of liberal education and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the incursion of managerialist methods and terminology, the fracturing of academic work and the use of non-permanent staff,’ they write. But I think they might have benefited from a further engagement with this body of literature. Coaldrake is writing from his own institutional position as a vice-chancellor, and as such his dismissal of this literature might be seen as an illustration of one of the serious problems faced by our universities at the moment – that is, the way in which university executives and faculty across the country are, as Bode and Dale argue, locked in opposition with one another. In many parts of many universities in this country, academics feel angry, frustrated, overworked. There is a culture of complaint or disgruntlement, directed both at government policy and at university executives.

This is not the first time I have encountered this kind of anger at work. When I was involved with an activist organisation, volunteers often felt that the extent and the value of the work they were doing was not appreciated by the people in charge. They were there because they believed that what they were doing was important and good. But they felt that this work was disdained, seen as less important, not as effective, as the higher-level policy work undertaken by the staff. Academics may work a lot at night and on weekends, but we are not volunteers. Most of what we do – research, teaching, supervision, editing and reviewing, outreach – we see, in the abstract, as part of the same project of public good; it is combined with the passion, ambition, curiosity and interest that drew us to academia in the first place. One effect of universities’ responses to policy and funding settings has been to split these activities from one another and distort the nature of our enterprise: some count, and some do not. As a result, there is a sense that those other parts of the academic job (the parts we often push into our own time at night and on weekends) are seen as unimportant, because their value seems excluded from the ways in which the university’s purpose is defined.

Research, teaching, grant applications and some forms of administration are discussed and rewarded, not in terms of the public benefit they provide, but in terms of how they advance the individual (via promotion) and the institution (via funding). There has always been no small amount of ego involved in academia, driven as it is, in part, by prestige and esteem. The alignment of individual ambition and competitive research funding has brought out the worst in us. The effect of the corporatisation or ‘de-churching’ of academia has been to inflate a kind of egotistic ambition – that was already in the job description – until it has become an end in itself. I fear that academics are at risk of devolving into some combination of naked ambition and chronic disgruntlement.

Leigh Dale, in her history of the discipline of English in Australian universities, The Enchantment of English (2013), puts it this way:

Educational institutions and the political cultures by which they are shaped are characterized by a contempt for kindness (derided as weakness or sentimentality), a horror of criticism (belittled as obstructionism or ignorance), and contempt for expertise (sneered at as ‘preciousness’). The values which inform current work practices – in the case of academics, teaching and research – not only militate against compassion and enquiry, they are actively hostile to them.

In the face of this, she continues: ‘Making time … reading … remembering … asking questions about why things are as they are, or could be … these are now radical acts.’ Our challenge as academics in the humanities is to take the risks involved in making time for these radical acts, because these are the acts that make us useful. If we are to extricate ourselves from the various battles we have found ourselves engaged in – across the divide between academia and the public sphere, and between academics and their managers – we may need to push back against the cultures of ambition and disgruntlement. Dale has listed the tools we might use to do so: kindness, collegiality, consideration, critique, expertise.

One of the things that drove me out of working in politics was its instrumentalism – the party does whatever it takes to get elected and then, when it is elected, it has to try to weasel out of the appalling things it promised the electorate it would do. Universities – especially beleaguered areas like the humanities – are becoming instrumental, in the sense that academics are doing whatever needs doing in order to survive. That is not what we are here for.

I am not entirely convinced that my job will exist in its current form in the future. I think it will be a pity if it doesn’t. As a literary academic, I am part of a community – a fractious community that doesn’t always get along very well – of readers, scholars, students, publishers, reviewers and writers, whose work impacts on each other in very many ways. Humanities academics like me have plenty of excuses for not speaking and writing about our work in public – we’re not invited, we’re overworked, our bosses tell us not to, it doesn’t count. I think we need to be more forthright about what counts, and why.

References

Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale, ‘“Bullshit”? An Australian Perspective; or, What can an Organisational Change Impact Statement tell us about Higher Education in Australia?’ Australian Humanities Review, No.53 (November 2012).
Patrick Buckridge, ‘The age of appreciation: reading and teaching classic literature in Australia in the early twentieth century,’ Australian Literary Studies, vol.22, no.3 (May 2006).
Leigh Dale, The Enchantment of English: Professing English Literatures in Australian Universities (Sydney University Press, 2013).
Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (Fordham University Press, 2008).
Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010).
Gaye Tuchman, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press, 2009).