To the axe of regulation federal education minister Christopher Pyne bravely has cried ‘Freedom!’ Under the proposals announced in last week’s budget, the cost of degrees will no longer be determined by some government agency’s arbitrary notion of its value, but according to the level of demand. As the details included in the budget papers amount to little more than copying and pasting proposals from the Kemp-Norton review, at the moment we have little concrete sense of how this might reshape higher education institutions in Australia (though Gavin Moodie writing on the wonkhe website and Simon Marginson on the Conversation have tried their hands at reading the tea-leaves). One thing we do know is that we do not know what will happen. There is no international precedent for this scale of deregulation. It is an enormous gamble with our public system, seeking to secure the trajectory of privatisation which would expose the entire thing into the open market.

In the absence of policy detail, let’s focus on the principles of the matter: the promised ‘freedom’ this will bring. In his speech to the Universities Australia Conference earlier this year, Pyne used the word 24 times and ‘autonomy’ fourteen times. Following from a Labor government that uncapped student places, it was not the easiest message to push through, so Pyne called his ideas the ‘new freedom’. Now we know why. He meant freedom x-treme: ‘The Coalition government,’ he pledged in another speech, will ‘set higher education providers free, provide them with more autonomy, and challenge them to map out their futures according to their strengths’.

Liberalism 101 teaches us the difference between negative and positive freedom; between freedom from constraint and freedom to fulfil one’s capabilities. The Universities Australia speech focused almost entirely on negative freedom, announcing the government’s intention to get rid of burdensome compliance and reporting requirements. This will allow them to boldly pursue their self-appointed destinies – whatever they may be. Pyne has set himself to succeed where so many Australian education ministers have failed and create a truly diverse system of higher education providers. In a recent speech in London, he gave this vision a more concrete form, pointing to the system in the United States, where, he believes, institutional competition has produced a rich institutional tapestry. He particularly admires the colleges which are devoted entirely to undergraduate education. It is as though the US system were somehow the spontaneous result of uninhibited consumer choice, and not itself a contested system of private and public interests.

One would have forgiven his English audience for yawning, or cringing (as the Australian Times suggested) at the colonial latecomer, for it is almost exactly the same rhetoric employed by the UK universities minister, David Willetts, when he restructured their public higher education system three years ago. Freeing universities to respond directly to consumer demand, everyone there was told, would enable the United Kingdom to produce the diversity of choice seen in the US, with competition driving up quality and driving down price. Times Higher Education pointed out that the evidence showed that the private-public system in the United States performed extremely poorly when compared with the public system in the UK, both on quality and cost, but to no avail. The  minister was convinced of his own theory, which is only right for a man nicknamed ‘two brains’.

Does Pyne’s desire for diversity mean that the budget has allocated funds to build and staff the kinds of self-governing colleges that he admires? Of course not. Fee competition among universities is a one trick reform, zombie-walking behind Willetts down the hole of market theory. It follows the Kemp-Norton review, which, in its final chapter, and with the dexterity of an unemployed magician, pulled from its hat the proposal to deregulate fees. This is not ideology disguised with rhetoric about the civic value of education. It strides nakedly forward: ‘Education policy is, in many ways, economic policy,’ Pyne told his London audience.

Australian academics, parents, students and anyone else concerned by this plunge into the unknown, should look closely at what has been going on in England. We have an opportunity to see a similar public system that has recently jumped into pricing university education, and which must certainly be providing Pyne and his staff with models and political lessons. For the move towards pricing is not incremental liberalisation. The intent of both conservative parties is to iron out of universities the last vestiges of unprofitable truth. This is not a demand-side calibration of the price of critical thought – professional thinkers, after all, participate in the broader market for labour and need to be paid. Pyne is attempting to divert the function and aims of knowledge in our society. His policy clinches and fully institutionalises the worldview that understands education entirely as a private good. The public benefits of major scientific discovery, rigorous social diagnosis, and cultural imagination will henceforth be the generous efflorescence of private ambition. This can only have the effect of disinfecting any socially disruptive consequences of autonomous thought, whose raison d’etre will hence rest on a notional and abstracted ‘skill-set’.

We might begin with Coventry University College, a newly established subsidiary to Coventry University. As Andrew McGettigan notes in The Great University Gamble (2013), CUC issued the following assurance to enrolling students in autumn 2011:

We have total confidence in our teaching standards, in fact, we offer a guaranteed pass to you if you follow our recommended route through your study for professional awards – and if you don’t we’ll pay for you to have another go.

The recently elected Conservative-Liberal coalition’s White Paper on Higher Education had been released a few months earlier. It contained the following clause:

Providers that perform poorly under the new funding arrangements will primarily be those that fail to recruit enough students. Like its predecessors, the government does not guarantee to underwrite universities and colleges. They are independent, and it is not Government’s role to protect an unviable institution.

The moral of privatising higher education in England was clear: students can’t fail, but institutions can. No academic or student there doubts this any longer. Coventry University College removed the guarantee from its website when it threatened to attract negative publicity. It had made the faux pas of expressing the bad faith inherent in the new arrangements. If the poor grammar was not enough to undermine the ‘total confidence’, the retraction shows that shamelessness has not yet snuffed out the illusion of standards.

The terms adopted by the White Paper indicate the ways in which institutional autonomy, enshrined in the UK’s higher education system to preserve universities from instrumentalism and philistine political interference, are being used against them to usurp their public status. State funding and institutional independence were designed to be mutually reinforcing. Notions such as the ‘Haldane principle’ prescribed an absolute separation of funding provision from the decisions about its use precisely in order to preserve the public good education was judged to provide. Now nearly all state subsidy for undergraduate education is funnelled through a loan scheme which renders independence a function of economic survival.

According to this worldview, the notion that marketisation threatens critical thinking and institutional freedom is a nonsense. The best universities, exemplified in Britain by Oxford and Cambridge, existed before there was substantial state support. Their procedures are protected from consumerist distortions by their internal traditions, the strength of their brand, and the financial independence that comes with accumulated assets and endowments. If anything, privatisation and deregulation ought to make them more independent and more accessible, as it will enable them to absorb more demand.

Witness, then, the brazenness of the University of Cambridge, which, in the midst of the acceleration of privatisation in 2010-11, conscripted as its Chancellor Lord David Sainsbury, the former head of his family’s supermarket chain. The next year, the university announced that it was issuing £350 million in public bonds to fund infrastructure for scientific research in the western part of the city. (Sainsbury had been science Minister under Tony Blair.) Rated triple-A by Moody’s – higher than the Bank of England – the bond issue was ultra-low-risk and attracted £1.5 billion in bids. More recently, the University has announced a Stephen Hawking professorship in cosmology to be funded by the Avery family. An endowed chair is not unusual, of course, except in this case, as Times Higher Education reports, the deed is structured so as to ensure its holder gains higher pay than colleagues, amidst a number of stipulations designed to attract, mark out and reward a ‘star’ hire.  This is Willetts’ vision: a mediaeval institution headed by a supermarket capitalist, its expansion funded by private capital, and collegiality framed by the demands of private patrons.

Just as we can expect the bifurcation of Australian universities, the universal system of public higher education in England is being torn in two by privatisation, and both halves are deformed. The deformations are familiar across academia globally as so many ‘-isms’ and ‘-isations’: managerialism, privatisation, corporatism, financialisation, marketisation, neoliberalism. What dissenting academics in England learnt in 2010-11 is the difference between using such critical concepts as badges of broadly left affiliation and an effective understanding of the processes to which such terms refer –  effective in the sense of enabling timely political activities that might, at the very least, impede the progress of these deformations. Only fierce student activism pushed the parliamentary vote to the wire with the Guardian reporting over half the Liberal-Democrat MPs turned against their new government.

It was around this time that a young philosopher, Andrew McGettigan, began to take a serious interest in higher education finance and policy. He had recently completed his doctorate at Middlesex University at the respected Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy. In the academic year during which David Cameron’s government took power, Middlesex announced that it was going to close both the centre and the philosophy department, in spite of their high research ranking, a decision almost certainly arrived at following a dismal international venture in Delhi. Astonishingly, the university has continued to collect the annual research income awarded to Philosophy – £175 000 in 2009-10 – and which runs until 2015. This is the equivalent of the salaries for four lecturers. It has stripped its own intellectual assets.

McGettigan realised that neither he, nor his colleagues, nor the broader guild of demoralised academics, had the measure of the system in which such perversity was possible. Knowledge lay with the management strata pursuing their KPIs and an onlooking policy establishment, for whom higher education is one of so many economic sectors. Over the period of restructuring in 2010-11, McGettigan steeped himself in the intricate details of higher education finance, monitored the details of government policy, and in essays, talks and on his blog, attempted to educate and empower academics across the country. Last year, he collected his ideas and published what has widely been acknowledged as the most important book on the reforms: The Great University Gamble.

So, why did Coventry University establish Coventry University College? We in Australian higher education might imagine that it is a bridging or feeder college, like the ones that have been springing up around our universities. Like these, CUC’s staff have diminished qualification requirements, are on weaker contracts, and are compelled to teach many more face-to-face hours. In fact, CUC represents an even greater acceleration of the commodity principle: it offers maximum consumer flexibility, but a meaner product – a ‘Ryanair model of provision’. Students can enrol for up to six six-week terms each year at £1200 per term. Classes are available from 10am to 10pm weekdays, and also on weekends. The minimum fee for full-time study is £4800. CUC students can browse but not borrow from CU library and do not have access to its IT and sports facilities. Nor do they have access to what CU’s Pro-Vice Chancellor calls ‘the social side of the university’.

Just this week, McGettigan has published an investigation with the Guardian into unscrupulous enterprises that make Coventry College look virtuous. The London School of Science and Technology has been dubbed ‘the ATM’ due its cynical practice of enrolling entirely unqualified students who are able thereby to access government maintenance loans which they never expect to repay. The Guardian undercover film shows empty classrooms and former lecturers professing to the corruption of the college. Such ‘Cashpoint Colleges’ are now to be investigated by the National Audit Office. Pyne maintains that new HE providers will need to answer to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), yet has halved its funding over the next three years. Its capacity for oversight will surely be overwhelmed by new tin-pot operators ‘champing at the bit’ to enrol students with HELP loans. We too can expect expensive and retrospective investigations.

CUC is an example of what we can expect when pricing signals enter Australian higher education. It offers a sub-prime product for fees that are a third above those previously charged to students attending any public university, but almost half those which most universities now charge. The simplicity of the political act which created this scenario belies the degree of change. There was no new legislation. Rather, existing acts were used to raise the cap for tuition fees from £3000 to £9000. At the same time, and at one stroke, the direct grant to universities for teaching was removed, excepting a select few areas of ‘national interest’. (Gearing the system to student choice as the rational calculation of future earning potential, while nevertheless protecting areas deemed essential to economic growth, is one of the multitude of perversities.) England moved from a system of co-payment, introduced by the Blair government and partly based on the HECS model, to full fees with state-backed student loans. Stefan Collini pithily captures the new value-function of a degree: ‘the income it enables you to earn minus the cost of acquiring that education’.

The average overall loan for a three-year degree including maintenance is estimated to be around £50 000 – over twice the median salary. Even though repayments are income contingent, they differ in a number of respects to Australia’s current system, not least because the surreptitious insertion of clauses into the Education Act has made possible the future introduction of real interest rates (something which Pyne is also proposing). The new terms and conditions state that repayments must be ‘in line with the regulations that apply at the time the repayments are due and as they are amended. The regulations may be replaced by later regulations.’

Needless to say, the political justification employed the rhetoric of austerity, of ‘living within our means’ following the Global Financial Crisis. In actual fact – and McGettigan’s book exposes the mendacity of the narrative spun here – spending on higher education through the new loan system has greatly increased in the short to mid-term. In the first year of the new arrangement, there was an outlay of £4.3 billion on loans as well as a £0.6 billion maintenance grants sweetener. This was set against the £3 billion cut to the teaching grant.

The only thing preventing accusations of outright lying is the Treasury practice of listing loans as assets when calculating the national deficit. To fund the loans the debt is increased, but the deficit technically is reduced. It is projected that outlay on loans will only be matched by annual repayments from former students in the 2030s, meaning additional borrowing will be required for at least the next twenty years. As the loans are an illiquid asset, and any unpaid loans will be written off after 30 years, there is no way it can be called in by the government in the way that the accounting would suggest. Initial forecasting anticipated that around a third of loans would never be repaid. The Guardian reports that this has now risen to 45%, approaching the threshold of 48.5% at which point the government will lose more money than under the previous system. In future budget crises, there will inevitably be pressure to ‘sweat’ the loan book by selling off tranches and/or inviting private capital to take over. No wonder one financier dubbed the student loan market ‘treasure island’.

One of the ironies of the sudden introduction of pricing signals into education is that few institutions will want to be perceived as offering an inferior product. English universities did not, on the whole, make a realistic calculation of the prestige and the value of their degree products, but sought to position themselves at the top, or at least as upwardly mobile. Consequently, the average fee level set by universities in 2012 was well above that forecast by the ministry, which crudely countered by creating a special pool of 20,000 places that were exempt from capping, but which only institutions charging less than £7500 could bid for.

At the same time, a ‘free’ market was introduced at the top of the system, with open competition for the 85 000 students expected to receive two As and a B+ or better in their final-year ‘A Level’ results. Those selective universities that could attract and were willing to absorb more of these students than in previous years would increase their overall quota; those that attracted less would see it decrease. The established elite and cost-cutting bottom were encouraged to expand, compelling those in the middle to adopt corporate strategies that moved them in one or the other direction.

In the first year of the new arrangement, enrolments were down by 50 000 – a dramatic contraction. This forced many institutions to draw on their cash reserves, retrench, restructure or borrow. As McGettigan explains, the likely reasons for this are complex and multiple, with poor forecasting and the consequences of introducing pricing signals the more obvious factors. As these were ‘market’ conditions, Willets could avoid the blame for the resulting industrial misery. When numbers bounced back the following year (and then some), it was largely due to the rapid swelling of private providers. As the Guardian reported, this prompted a budget crisis, forcing the minister to slash funding for research and maintenance grants – the latter the sop that clinched Liberal Democrat support in the first place. Again, it was not the minister’s ‘fault’ that unregulated private providers had swarmed to the gold rush of state-secured loans. With the college course subsidy out of control he did, however, politely request that they refrain from overindulging themselves.

In Australia, we already know all about the pretend markets introduced into the public system to enforce fiscal discipline. We know about Vice Chancellors as CEOs, who head governing boards weighted to business and political interests that oversee an ever-burgeoning executive and management strata. We know about the erosion of self-governance by line-management. We know about the redistribution of resources for teaching, research and libraries to marketing, IT and the ‘student experience’. We know all about international rankings, and onshore and offshore ventures in international recruitment. We know about research auditing and the futile cycle of doing research to write grant applications to do research.

But if we think we already know the worst, we need to look at the bigger picture of privatisation in England to appreciate that Pyne’s proposal is not a further neoliberal calibration of public funding provision. McGettigan helpfully distinguishes between internal and external privatisation. Though we are familiar with the internal managerial and auditing aspects, and the external aspects that are related to internationalisation, Australia’s ‘Unified National System’ has created a stable cohort of public universities which are used to the turbulence of a regulated national marketplace fuelled by commonwealth funding through a quasi-graduate tax. This is very different to encountering policies that aim explicitly to break-up public education monopolies and open up the sector to for-profit providers backed by multinational private equity. The road ahead is the nightmare of cowboy operators in the United States, where billions of dollars of federal student loans are directed into companies that spend up to twice as much on marketing as on teaching, where the drop-out rates are as high as 80%, and where recruiters follow scripts that target the economic vulnerabilities of potential applicants. If you admire the fairness and efficiency of US health insurance, then you have nothing to worry about.

There are a number of ways in which for-profit models and practices are being smuggled into existing English universities. Firstly, there are strategies that work within existing legislative parameters to blend for-profit and non-profit organisations. The most familiar and pervasive practice is outsourcing. The University of Sussex has recently outsourced all catering and facility management. McGettigan explains how such arrangements are now being formalised into profit-making group structures. An existing public university, which is listed as a charity, transfers physical and administrative assets to a for-profit parent company, which then charges them for rent and services. Without changing status, the fixed capital is used to strip profits from the revenue driven by state-backed loans. From here the institution is in easy reach of full privatisation as the legislative environment evolves.

Under sudden pressure to position and consolidate themselves in the manufactured marketplace, many universities require upfront credit for investment. Cambridge issuing £350 million in bonds is low risk and will only make it more dominant. More typical, and much more risky, will be the capital-raising undertaken by universities in the squeezed middle. De Montfort University in Leicester has recently issued £110 million in bonds at 5.375% in order to fund capital works – 70% of its annual income. The university will have to find around £5.9 million a year to pay its coupons, and the governors in 2042 will have to carve the principal out of its future reserves (£35 million in today’s money). De Montfort is a former ‘polytechnic’ which gained university status with the 1992 Higher Education Act – comparable to Dawkins-era universities like QUT or UniSA. Bonds are not secured, so holders will naturally take a keen interest in the university’s income streams, and move to ensure the liquidity of their asset. In the United States, there is now a mature market in university bonds, and these typically rely on the lever of tuition fees. This has pushed the extraordinary rises at state universities. Fees at the University of California, for example, have tripled in the last decade, matching the enforced hike in England.

Outsourcing, joint ventures and bond issuing mostly pertain to ‘internal’ privatisation: private capital enters the bloodstream of public institutions, which must then ensure that their management, governance and teaching do not interfere with its profit imperative. Such conditions directly constrain academic freedom and institutional self-criticism as universities seeks to insulate themselves from, for example, brand damage. It is external privatisation, however, which is at the centre of Willetts’ vision. In a speech to Universities UK in February 2011, he declared that new providers are to be the reform drivers, working on the assumption that this will create ‘the rising tide that lifts all boats’. With state subsidy and infrastructure accumulated over decades, in some cases centuries, the sector had been more or less impenetrable to private start-ups.

At its essence, this becomes a struggle over the nature of the bodies that are legally entitled to award degrees. Presently such powers are held by autonomous universities, which legislation defines as a ‘well-founded, cohesive and self-critical academic community that demonstrates firm guardianship of its standards’. Staff must be both competent in teaching and ‘active and recognised participants in research and-or advanced scholarship’. Before June 2012, institutions seeking university status were also required to have at least 4000 full-time students. This has been amended to 1000 ‘full-time equivalent’ students, which immediately enabled some private colleges to acquire university status. Similar moves have recently been made in Australia. The UK government’s White Paper recommends that the time required for an institution to qualify for degree awarding powers be reduced to two years, for which overseas activities will be considered relevant. Polytechnics typically took twenty years under previous arrangements.

More radical is Willetts’ desire to enable institutions that do not hire permanent teaching staff to acquire degree awarding powers. Companies such as Pearson PLC, which has a $10 billion capitalisation, could extend their existing assessment and examination programs for diplomas and certificates to full degrees, rolling them out online or through contract tutors housed in existing infrastructure. In a global environment of expanding mass online provision, the ‘efficiencies’ will be extraordinary, and would no doubt overwhelm the business model of the universities at the lower end of the system, whose publicly funded physical assets would be swallowed up by the rising tide. Middlesex University has recently sold off five of its six North London campuses. There is no longer a university campus in the borough of Haringey, home to over 200 000 mostly poor Londoners and the sparking-point of the 2011 riots.

McGettigan’s message to his fellow scholars is that they are being displaced from the centre of the system, and so is their professional practice. No longer will a degree equal a university education, and no longer will university education be even close to universally available. Those surfing the wave of equity will not be able to emulate the universities at the top, because the institutional conditions which make critical thinking possible will have been dissolved.

The full realities of the new system have not yet arrived in England, but McGettigan’s decoding of the policy environment shows us that it is imminent. In the meantime, we might look at the high farce of the New College of Humanities, established in 2011 by the philosopher A.C. Grayling, to see how embarrassing it is when well-meaning scholars attempt to finesse the environment of commodification. Grayling got out his little black book, ringing in fellow intellectual celebrities like Niall Ferguson, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Ricks and Howard Jacobson to headline what Stefan Collini has described as ‘an upmarket crammer, a sleek private tutoring organisation for the age of the global elite’. They drop in for a small number of lectures, while the teaching is carried by early career academics with eye-catching elite qualifications.

They are not paid to do research. In a period of unemployment following a post-doctorate, a friend of mine was invited to apply to the college. He described being ushered through a lobby in leafy Bloomsbury in central London – half doctor’s surgery, half hedge fund – to meet two attractive young lecturers, who related stories of their own hardships in the job market before recommending the college with smiles and forced eye-contact. It was a step he would not take, but I know others who have, hoping that in the longer run of privatisation the stigmas of a back-room appointment process and crossing the picket of public education won’t stick.

Charging £54 000 to tutor a three-year degree examined by the adjacent University of London is not the greatest absurdity, though. It is that an enterprise which has presented itself as a solution for bona fide scholarship is actually at the forefront of the duplicitous group structure outlined earlier, in which a not-for-profit has its operating surplus stripped for profits by a parent company – in this case, Tertiary Education Services, using capital stemming from a Swiss venture capital firm. Here is Grayling’s posteriori justification as reported in the Guardian:

The downside of being educated at someone else’s expense is that you may not value it. You may regard it as an entitlement. Unless you are acutely aware of the opportunity that is being offered to you, you may be rather cavalier about it. [You] might not be quite so keen to suck the marrow from it.

He is also the author of The Future of Moral Values (1997).

The image of young, privately educated men and women paying £18 000 a year to suck wisdom from the bones of Dawkins and Ferguson is a cartoon allegory of the fate of the university ideal in England. Grayling’s initiative hardly deserves attention or sustained critique, but the very public tragi-comedy of his capture by the logic of privatisation helps us to see how a defence of a humanistic education easily turns into its opposite when it is separated from a defence of its autonomy from political authority and economic power.

This brings us to the question of the idea of the university and the systemic conditions in which it can pursue its purpose. At one point, McGettigan stops to ask: ‘does a system amounting to the aggregation of 100 private companies add up to a higher education system?’ This is the pressing question thrown up by the crisis in England. Few can doubt that a good number of those companies will continue to resemble the university ideal. There will be a mix of mostly traditional disciplines, and at least a semblance of self-governance will continue. Students may leave them with a more-than-instrumental conception of the attributes cultivated in full-time intensive study. The rub is that these companies will be the ones that are strategic or fortunate enough to be in a position to adopt the university as their ‘business model’. Their essence is to be companies, but their corporate strategy is to be universities, mirroring the characteristic inversion of use and exchange value in commodities. Except the Willetts University is to be an even more fertile breeding ground for capital, as it retains the right to public subsidy. It is a commodity proofed against risk on the now false grounds that it serves the public good.

It may well be hard for Australian academics to find the motivation to read a primer on the policy details of a foreign higher education system, especially when Stefan Collini has published a wry summary in the London Review of Books. While wry summaries are hardly to be discouraged, academics are prone to misconstrue the register of intellectual mastery for effective action. McGettigan’s book is better seen as a manual for practice, and it is this kind of detail that we will require to fight Pyne’s reform. This is not to suggest there is some natural division of labour between policy wonk and public intellectual. McGettigan was galvanised by his frustrations as an apprentice philosopher, and both he and Collini participated in the working group that wrote an alternative White Paper in defence of public higher education.

The collaboration on this document was one of the few notable achievements by English academics in the year of discontent, 2010-11. Although it bears the coffee stains of all-nighters and has a beleaguered air, it starts to resemble positive praxis. It is the kind of positive proposal that Australian academics should get to preparing now so that they give the public an alternative vision to the neoliberal consensus before the policy comes to parliament for debate. The importance of such efforts to redescribe the policy arena was made clear in an imaginative lecture delivered by one of its architects, Simon Szreter, a historian of public policy. Szreter critiques the three conceptual pillars of the government’s privatisation program – ‘competition’, ‘choice’ and ‘access’ – and proposes publicly minded alternatives: ‘rivalry’, ‘diversity’ and ‘equality of opportunity’. Instead of a gladiatorial contest for survival, rivalry suggests a collaborative framework in which new knowledge is absorbed and built on by rivals in the pursuit of distinction. Instead of ‘choice’ as the wish-fulfilment of adolescents faced with impending debt obligations, diversity calls for an ecosystem of academic inquiry into which students are absorbed. Instead of access as the exceptional inclusion of the gifted poor, equality of opportunity mandates that all pupils be equally prepared to enter into this ecosystem.

The notoriety now attaching to the name Willetts might resonate with those feelings long associated in Australia with John Dawkins, who will perhaps be hoping that the pantomime villain image of the smug, privately educated Pyne will erase the memories of his betrayal of universal state-funded higher education. (In fact, Pyne confirms that Dawkins is the great villain in the history of Australian public universities: deregulating fees are the direct legacy of Dawkins placing the sector on a corporate and competitive footing.) It is useful to consider recent reflections on Dawkins in the light of the structural upheavals in England. It will help us to gauge the mood in the sector that Pyne’s reforms will again shake up.

Many of the protagonists of Australian higher education policy, including Dawkins and several current and former Vice Chancellors, congregated at the University of Melbourne in late 2012 to reflect on the legacy of his reforms. The event yielded an informative volume The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years On (2013), which will be particularly helpful for younger academics and students whose understanding of the Dawkins upheaval has been shaped by the prejudices and wounded pride of the academics who endured it. Stuart Macintyre’s history of the politics of the reforms is a compelling narrative, showing how effectively Dawkins outmanoeuvred the bodies which had presided over the previous system of universities and colleges. Throughout, there are remarkable statistics that reveal just how radically the provision of higher education has expanded, as well as the dramatic changes in revenue sources and participation. Everyone should read John O’Brien’s account of the merging of the Federated Australian University Staff Association and the Union of Australian College Academics to form the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which allows us to understand the NTEU’s strengths (salaries) and weaknesses (conditions and scholarly principles) in current enterprise bargaining. Gavin Moodie’s chapter on quality and auditing should not be read before going to bed. Andrew Norton, not surprisingly, provides a most useful account of Liberal party thinking on higher education over this period. Greg Craven’s wry closing discussion of universities and the public sphere, while not quite plausible, is at least entertaining.

For The Dawkins Revolution is not entertaining, and following this budget will now quickly wither in the remainder piles and CVs of its contributors. Most associate Dawkins with scenes of upheaval and contest, but the contributions are polite and most are steadfastly analytic (even if one senses here and there criticism smuggled in the vehicle of euphemism). The chapter addressing changes to governance – perhaps the most contentious aspect of the redesign – is particularly spiritless. Its authors see fit to place scare quotes around the notion of a university ‘community’, but find it is natural and proper to describe university governance as ‘oriented around a stakeholder model’. It seems most commentators at this level are so accustomed to thinking of higher education as a kind of empty volume, a sector, within which organisations called ‘universities’ operate, that any guiding conception of these organisations would be presumptuous. Such an effort, moreover, would challenge the basis of the disproportionate wealth acquisition achieved by most of the contributors under the system they purport to appraise. Almost entirely absent is any critical or qualitative comment. An exception is Dawkins himself, who tells us in his preface that his Green Paper is actually ‘quite a good read’.

Reading between the lines, the volume is a reminder of the paradox etched into the architecture of the Unified National System: access to university education was to be expanded so as to be made available to all who merited entrance on condition that existing universities stop being universities and new ones be prevented from becoming them. As the philosopher Raymond Gaita recently put it in an essay in Meanjin: ‘the upshot of the expansion of the university sector is not that many more people enjoy university education: it is that no-one does’.

This can only be read between the lines because putting it this way would be to introduce normative ideals. For critical reflections, we can look instead to a discussion on the idea of the university in Australia, instigated by Gaita, which has arisen in parallel. Though his audience is Australian,   Gaita has conducted much of his career at King’s College, London, and one perceives everywhere the scars of the recent English experience. For Gaita, the institutions of the life of the mind have a long history. He need not appeal to an overly idealised notion of the university because there is sufficient historical depth in the tradition of practice to secure its concept against any particular social and political circumstance. For Gaita, a university is an institution whose members’ practice attempts to measure up to its concept. The features of this practice can only be captured in general terms: the life of the mind, the pursuit of understanding for its own sake, truth as a need of the soul. These are necessarily vague because the practices they embody have no predetermined content. Possession of what these phrases mean can only be won in the long pursuit of them within a community of ‘fine exemplars’.

It is not surprising that the response to Gaita’s argument has been impatient with this generality, and the historical circumstances from which his confidence in them is drawn. In Meanjin, where Gaita’s essay appeared, the current Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, finds an easy trump in pointing out that the tradition of practice that Gaita appeals to never really existed in Australia in the first place. The incarnation of the university in the colony began principally as a servant of colonial social and economic needs, and, for a number of reasons, has continued along this groove. The frightening implication is that scholarship for its own sake has always been marginal in Australian universities. It is a trump, though, that fails to grasp the basic nature of Gaita’s argument, which is not concerned with what the university is, but with the concept that guides its members’ practice and towards which they aspire. It is revealing that the word ‘idea’ in Davis’s essay constantly slips to become ‘model’, ‘role’, even ‘template’. His idea of the university is empty of ideal content, and so conforms to that satirised by Gaita: ‘a high-flying institution, three stages past kindergarten, that excels at research’.

Robert Manne writing on ‘The University Experience – then and now’, by contrast, believes that the university ideal did find an incarnation in Australia, and that it was at its strongest when he was a student in the 1960s. He believes, however, that the social and economic conditions in which this was possible were historically contingent, and remarks that any expectation that universities could expand their provision, remain public and continue to incarnate the ideal was highly ‘unrealistic’. In this view, the Dawkins elevation of Colleges of Advanced Education (and the instrumentalism they supposedly represent) to university status simply clinched the already unstoppable trajectory of universities away from being autonomous institutions whose members practised critical thought. The only way that these practices might be retained inside the ‘higher education sector’ is to face up to the reality that they are no longer at the core of any university’s mission. Admitting this will allow real scholarship to adopt practices of survival, such as identifying those students instinctively drawn to the life of the mind by creating selective courses in which they might congregate. This would constitute a true yet virtual university within a fake yet actual shell.

In Inside Story, Dean Ashendon mounts a defence of Dawkins on the grounds that universities were stagnant and boneheadedly elitist before the reforms and much more inclusive and diverse after them. The explanation for blinkered appeals like Gaita’s to a non-existent golden age is attributed to a ‘loss of caste’. Ashendon’s case is made effective by dismissing the university ideal altogether. He can only disdain these unemployed priests who cry in the shopping mall on Sunday. This is the path of total disenchantment, of the kind analysed in a wonderful essay by Katherine Bode and Leigh Dale in the Australian Humanities Review. In it, they take apart the Organisational Change Impact Statement issued by Latrobe University in 2012 when sacking 41 academic staff in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. They show that when a university’s function becomes no more than the provision of whatever training students demand of it, the practice central to constituting the university mission becomes assessing and responding to this demand. The university’s core members become ‘senior management’ and its students ‘the market’. The university (senior management) is charged with divining what the student (market) wants, and then uses staff as implements to respond to this. And there is only one answer to the question of what students want: they want to be marketable; that is, to make themselves into attractive labour commodities.

I don’t believe Gaita’s polemic is ineffective for being too idealistic, but for not being idealistic enough. His argument is founded on the understanding that there is a difference between any given institutional arrangement and the notions that guide practice within them, but these cannot be entirely divorced. This allows him to make an ideal argument without removing universities or academic practice from history. But he forgets his own conceptual sophistication when it comes to new institutions, as in the following passage:

The idea of a university had life when there were few universities. When their number increased dramatically, institutions that could lay no claim to it were granted the title university. When I say they could lay no serious claim to the title, I am not commenting on the quality of the work that was done in them. I mean that they were not institutions that had ever thought of themselves as answerable to the conceptual truths that defined the idea of a university, truths of the kind I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. It therefore became impossible for any of the universities to define themselves in terms of an ever-deepening exploration of those truths. That will not change. On this matter there is no going back. (My emphasis.)

This is the block. In the midst of a laudable defence of the university concept, we find the abdication of responsibility for its further incarnation. This is not elitism or snobbery but a failure of will. There is a point later in the essay in which Gaita suggests that only ‘radical political and social change’ could enable us again feasibly to live the family of concepts used to characterise intellectual practice. It seems that this radical change is to be pursued away from the institutions that have displaced the university idea. And so, despite his caveats, his argument finds itself backing into the conservative position of defending a lost status quo. One in which universities worthy of the name never pretended to be available to the entire polity, and so were inevitably the instrument of the received division of labour. If society says ‘drive a truck’, then learn to drive a truck. If society says ‘defend a truck driver’s OHS case’, then learn the pursuit of truth.

He fails to apply the Socratic maxim he holds up in his essay – of rather suffering evil than doing it – to his own argument: for there have always been scholars who, on the basis of their scholarly values, would rather pursue truth outside universities if this entailed resigning themselves to have their scholarship serve sectional class interests. The university ideal has always called for institutional activism to elude capture by external instrumentality, whether by church, state or corporation. We should not forget that the expansion of public higher education was actively pursued by many scholars who were seeking to fulfil what Raymond Williams calls the ‘long revolution’, or Christopher Newfield calls ‘majoritarian society’: the universalisation of the active process of learning, with all the unsettling social consequences this entails.

Now is the moment to recall this project, for Pyne’s proposal is an overt and target-driven counterrevolution that sets out to erase the social instinct for democratic knowledge distribution. As we draw breath and summon the energy to fight this absurd gamble with our universities and the financial lives of future students, we cannot be distracted by those commentators whose perspective is limited by a personal loss of the comfort they attained during a brief period of social democracy when the conditions of their tenure appeared to match ideals of the public good. This is why a voice like McGettigan’s is so important. In an essay in Arena Magazine he urges scholars to master the policy and institutional terrain, to face the contemporary challenge to incarnate the University, and thereby to set about redressing the democratic deficit within their institutions and in the political and public spheres. This is not to substitute a set of skills separate from day-to-day intellectual inquiry, but to pursue the implications of that inquiry beyond the satisfactions of individual insight. As the great English poet J. H. Prynne wrote in an open letter to activists in 2011:

it is profoundly true that the procedures of knowledge are orderly, even if the best insights which they can support are not; and this hankering for order can so easily mute the precise and determined drive to revolutionary expression, to action not just against a recognisable enemy function ideologically speaking, but towards a goal that would shift the working basis of knowledge inside social culture and social action. To attempt these tasks would be a truly historic enterprise, to seek to alter the history of pan-European servile complacency in which intellectual freedom (‘enlightenment’) has been diverted into middle-class professional careerism, hedged in by caution and hesitation and loneliness.

This article was updated on 27 May 2014 to incorporate some additional material and references.

Works Cited

Gwilym Croucher, Simon Marginson, Andrew Norton and Julie Wells, The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years On (Melbourne University Press, 2013).

Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble (Pluto Books, 2013).

Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The 40-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2008).

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Chatto and Windus, 1961).

Julie Hare, ‘Quality agency cuts “look nuts” to CQ University’s Hilary Winchester,’ The Australian (21 May 2014).