Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why universities are failing: 3. Inequality

Stephen Parker, outgoing Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra has just published an insightful two part article in The Conversation. Stephen is impressive in his systemic insights; he took a principled rather than self-seeking stance to proposed Higher Education reforms when Tony Abbot was PM and Christopher Pyne the Minister.  In his own account of his lone stance he has said:

"Christopher Pyne and I were on diametrically opposite sides over the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill and its associated Senate Committee inquiries, so the reader needs to interpret my comments in this light. 

Minister Pyne repeatedly said I was the only one of 41 “vice-chancellors” who did not support his reforms.  In the House of Representatives he was critical of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, implying that its findings were biased because I was in charge of the university in which it was housed.  Even Tony Abbott acknowledged subsequently that NATSEM was one of the best-regarded modelling organisations in the country. So I guess I do have a starting point in this analysis!

I believe Christopher Pyne’s failed attempts at higher education reform is almost a textbook example of how not to get complex and controversial reforms through the Australian parliament. The Coalition did not control the Senate and did not spend time getting to know the people who held the balance of power.

The proposal to cut 20% funding to universities, partly to save money and partly to extend Commonwealth Supported Places to private higher education providers and sub-bachelor places, came out of the blue and flagrantly breached pre-election promises that there would be no cuts to education and no change to university funding arrangements."

In this instance the sites of failure were government policy, the way policy was enacted and pursued  as well as a failure of principled solidarity amongst Australia's VC cadre, or as Stephen Parker described it, loss of moral compass.

Now Parker has mounted the argument that Australian universities exacerbate inequality. His ideas were first presented as a paper at the TJ Ryan Foundation, Brisbane on the 16th February. The mechanism he identifies is this:

"The better your parents are educated, the more likely you are to graduate from university. Simon Marginson, in line with other studies, estimates that a young person in Australia is 4.3 times more likely to participate in tertiary education if one of their parents was tertiary-educated than a young person whose parents had less than upper secondary education.

If the economy increasingly rewards graduates, and only 30% to 40% of young people go to university, then over time they will tend to move ahead of the other 60% to 70%.

Thus, income inequality increases, with the affluent accumulating more property and superannuation, which they pass onto their children, so that wealth inequality increases."

His argument rests on the contention that Universities are failing to help "distribute more evenly the spoils of higher education and disrupt the patterns of inherited advantage, which increasingly divide society."

In his subsequent article he elucidates 10 ways that Universities could redress rising inequality. Together they constitute a systemic response.
  1. Can the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank): "To expect a single index to capture a person’s achievement to date and their potential for a particular course of study is simplistic and reductionist."
  2. Re-cap the undergraduate domestic system [i.e., HECS places] and divert the savings to effective access measures to redress disadvantage and raise aspirations and confidence.
  3. Experiment with alternative routes to material success by loosening 'the tight grip that a bachelor degree has as the route to success and instead encourage alternative kinds of institutions and a fresh focus on new pathways such as higher apprenticeships.'
  4. Reward “learning gain” or “distance travelled” i.e., there is no attempt to reward the value added to the student; no exit assessment that allows comparison with entrance assessment. So to offer universities an incentive to do so, funding should be partly based on “learning gain”.
  5. Have a massive program to encourage mature age (25+) students to go to university; "There is plenty of evidence that it works and changes lives, giving people a second chance at overcoming disadvantage."
  6. Take a holistic approach to the education system; "we need to develop a more integrated sense of the education system, from kindergarten to doctorate"
  7. Urge employers to change their recruiting practices;
  8. Require particular professional degrees to be graduate entry only "we need to consider requiring all elite, high-demand professional degrees to become postgraduate."
  9. Urge professional bodies to justify current educational requirements;
  10. Have a serious chat with philanthropists 
Are there more criteria and actions? I feel sure there are, and fostering inequality is, as my recent Blogs begin to illustrate, only one of the ways universities are failing. I find it particularly pleasing that Parker points to the evidence of the social gains that can be made from policies and arrangements that support life-long learning.  Also that he draws on the German experience of an interconnected, viable and effective yet differentiated HE and VE sector.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why universities are failing: 2. Abandoning critique?

In a recent posting I outlined the parameters of my inquiry into how and why universities may be seen to be failing.  I began by addressing social purpose, or more precisely, loss of clarity about social purpose. In this Blog I reproduce an article by Henry Giroux because of its relevance to the issues I wish to explore in this series of posts. Professor Giroux is at McMaster University where he holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest.

Exile as a Space of Disruption in the Academy
by Henry Giroux

How can one not be in exile working in academia, especially if one refuses the cliques, mediocrity, hysterical forms of resentment, backbiting, and endless production of irrelevant, if not sometimes unethical, research that increasingly has come to characterize the corporate university? The spaces of retreat from public life now occupy too many institutions of higher education and have transformed them into dead zones of the imagination mixed with a kind of brutalizing defense of their own decaying postures and search for status and profits. Leadership in too many academic departments is empty, disempowering, and insular, lacking any outward vision or sense of social responsibility. Mimicking the instrumental logic of a business culture, too many administrators lack the vision, totality of knowledge, or will to address what role the university should play in a democracy. Too many individuals are tied to endless committees, overwhelmed by the mediocrity they or others endorse, and fearful of anyone who steps outside of the boundaries of bureaucratic conformity and civility. Excellence has become part of an empty recruiting slogan that has little do with the actual work or scholarship of faculty who are often punished or resented for such work.

One thing is clear: The retreat from the ethical and political imagination in higher education in too many countries has become legion. Little is being done to address the army of subaltern labor that has become the new poor in higher education and elsewhere. Moreover, faculty are increasingly told that the most important register of scholarship is grant writing over and against activities of teaching, community engagement, or other forms of public scholarship. In addition, students are constantly being told that they should feel good instead of working hard and focusing while being burdened, at the same time, with an insufferable amount of financial debt. Too many academics no longer ask students what they think but how they feel. Everyone wants to be a happy consumer. When students are told that all that matters is feeling good, and that feeling uncomfortable is alien to learning itself, the critical nature of teaching and learning is compromised.

This is an academic version of the Dr. Phil show where infantilized pedagogies prove to be as demeaning to students as they are to professors. Professors are now increasingly expected to take on the role of therapists speaking in terms of comfort zones but are rarely offered support for the purpose of empowering students to confront difficult problems, examine hard truths, or their own prejudices. This is not to suggest that students should feel lousy while learning or that educators shouldn’t care about their students. To the contrary, caring in the most productive sense means providing students with the knowledge, skills, and theoretical rigor that offers them the kinds of intellectual challenges to engage and take risks in order to make critical connections and develop a sense of agency where they learn to think for themselves and become critical and responsible citizens. Students should feel good through their capacity to grow intellectually, emotionally, and ethically with others rather than being encouraged to retreat from difficult educational engagements. Caring also means that faculty share an important responsibility to protect students from conditions that sanction hate speech, racism, humiliation, sexism, and an individual and institutional attack on their dignity.

For a range of theorists extending from Theodor Adorno to the post colonialist theorist Edward Said, exile was a central metaphor for defining the role of academics. As oppositional public intellectuals, academics played an indispensible role in Adorno’s notion of critical theory and Said’s work in defending the university as a crucial public sphere. They also played a crucial role in engaging culture as a site informed by mechanisms of power, and taking seriously the idea of human interdependence while living on the border — one foot in and one foot out, an exile and an insider, for whom home was always a form of homelessness. In Representations of the Intellectual, Said argued that exile referenced a space of engagement and critique, serving as both a theoretical and political reminder that educators often occupy a similar role and space where they work to “publicly raise embarrassing questions, confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), and refuse to be easily co-opted by governments or corporations” while offering models of social engagement that redefined the role of academics as civically engaged public intellectuals. This politically charged notion of the oppositional intellectual as homeless—in exile and living on the border, occupying a shifting and fractured pedagogical space in which critique, difference, and a utopian potentiality can endure—has provided the conceptual framework for generations of educators fighting against the deadly instrumentalism and reactionary ideologies that have shaped contemporary educational models in public schools and universities.

Under the regime of neoliberalism, too many institutions of higher education have transformed the culture of education into the culture of business and are now characterized by a withdrawal into the private and the irrelevant. In this view, education is driven largely by market forces that undermine any viable vision of education as a public good connected to wider social problems. Solidarity, rigor, public scholarship, and integrity are in short supply in many departments and are largely ignored by the new and expanding managerial class of administrators. In this context, exile is less a choice than a condition that is forced through policies of containment and procedure where contingent faculty are given short term contracts, struggle with course over loads, and bear the burden of time as a deprivation rather than a space of reflection and ownership over the conditions of their labor. Under such circumstances, exile is a state that can just as easily be manipulated to produce a key element of the neoliberal university which, as Noam Chomsky points out, is “designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.”[1]

Exile in this context speaks to new forms of faculty servitude that restrict and shut down spaces for dialogue, scholarship, dissent, and quality teaching. This is a form of forced exile, one wedded to expanding faculty powerlessness and undermining any sense of autonomy. It is against this notion of oppressive exile wedded to the market driven prescription of undermining faculty power while intensifying their labor that the concept of exile has to be rethought. Instead, exile must be seen and theorized as part of a larger political and empowering discourse connected to an affective and ideological space of struggle and resistance. Less an oppressive space of containment and deskilling, exile can become the grounds for a revitalized kind of public space and activism where a new language, a new understanding of politics, and new forms of solidarity can be nurtured among the displaced — that is, among those who refuse the neoliberal machinery of social and political violence that defines education solely as a source of profit, mode of commerce, and “feel good” pedagogy. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s comments on his notion of welcoming exile under certain circumstances should not therefore surprise us, especially in light of his own experience of marginality as a Jewish public intellectual and as a courageous exemplar of civic courage. What must be understood and emphasized here is that Bauman’s position, along with that of Adorno and Said’s, does not constitute a celebration of marginality. Rather, for all of these scholars, exile is an affirmation to keep going in the midst of what sometimes appears to be a deadening form of academic madness and insularity driven by forces which constantly seek to undermine the university as a democratic public sphere. Bauman writes:

I need to admit, however, that my view of the sociologists’ vocation does not necessarily overlap with the consensus of the profession. Dennis Smith has described me as an “outsider through and through.” It would be dishonest of me to deny that denomination. Indeed, throughout my academic life I did not truly “belong” to any school, monastic order, intellectual camaraderie, political caucus, or interest clique. I did not apply for admission to any of them, let alone did much to deserve an invitation; nor would I be listed by any of them—at least unqualifiedly—as “one of us.” I guess my claustrophobia—feeling as I do ill at ease in closed rooms, tempted to find out what is on the other side of the door—is incurable; I am doomed to remain an outsider to the end, lacking as I [do] the indispensable qualities of an academic insider: school loyalty, conformity to the procedure, and readiness to abide by the school-endorsed criteria of cohesion and consistency. And, frankly, I don’t mind

While I don’t want to romanticize positions of marginality and exile, they may represent some of the few spaces left in the university where one can develop a comprehensive vision of politics and social change, challenge the often deadening silos of disciplinarity, while making connections with wider social movements outside of the university. The fight for the university as a public good is essential to the development of a vibrant formative culture and democracy itself. Exile may be one of the few spaces left in neoliberal societies as democracy is pushed ever farther to the margins where individuals must learn to work together to cultivate a sense of meaningful connection, solidarity, and engaged citizenship that moves beyond an allegiance to narrow interest groups and fragmented, single issue politics. Exile might be the space where a kind of double consciousness can be cultivated that points beyond the structures of domination and repression to what the poet Claudia Rankine calls a new understanding of community, politics, and citizenship in which the social contract is revived as a kind of truce in which we allow ourselves to be flawed together. She writes:

You want to belong, you want to be here. In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together.The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen. As an equal. As just another person. As another first person. There’s a letting go that comes with it. I don’t know about forgiving, but it’s an “I’m still here.” And it’s not just because I have nowhere else to go. It’s because I believe in the possibility. I believe in the possibility of another way of being. Let’s make other kinds of mistakes; let’s be flawed differently.[3]

To be “flawed differently” works against a selfish desire for power and a sense of belonging to the often suffocating circles of certainty that define fundamentalisms of all ideological stripes. Being “flawed differently” also suggests the need to provide room for the emergence of new democratic public spheres, noisy conversations, and a kind of alternative third space informed by compassion and respect for the other. Under such circumstances, critical exchange and education matters not as a self-indulgent performance in which individuals simply interview themselves but as public acts of reaching out, a willingness to experience the other within the space of exile that heralds and precipitates a democracy to come. This would be a democracy where intellectual thought informs critique, embodies a sense of integrity, and reclaims education in the service of justice and equality.

What might it mean, then, to imagine the university as containing spaces in which the metaphor of exile provides a theoretical resource to engage in political and pedagogical work that is disruptive, transformative, and emancipatory? Such work would both challenge the mainstream notion of higher education as a kind of neoliberal factory, as well as the ideological fundamentalism that has emerged among many conservatives and some alleged progressive voices. What might it mean to address the work that we do in the university, especially with regards to teaching as a form of classroom grace– a place to think critically, ask troubling questions, and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures?[4]

 Exile is not a prescription or rationale for cynicism, nor is it a retreat from one’s role as an informed and engaged faculty member. On the contrary, it is a space of possibility where the reality of the university as defined by the culture of business and a reductive instrumental rationality can be challenged by a view of the university as a public good, one that expands and deepens relations of power among faculty, administrators, and students while redefining the mission of the university. In an age of overwhelming violence, war, and oppression, universities must create formative cultures that allow students to assume the role of critically engaged citizens, informed about the ideologies, values, social relations, and institutions that bear down on their lives so that they can be challenged, changed, and held accountable. Exile in this sense is a space of critical dialogue, a posture of engaged dissent, a place filled with visions that refuse to normalize the present while imagining a more just future. It is a deeply political and moral space, one that makes education central to any viable notion of agency and politics, and works hard to create the public spaces and formative cultures that make democracy possible.
Henry Giroux received his Doctorate from Carnegie-Mellon in 1977. He then became professor of education at Boston University from 1977 to 1983. In 1983 he became professor of education and renowned scholar in residence at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he also served as Director at the Center for Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to Penn State University where he took up the Waterbury Chair Professorship at Penn State University from 1992 to May 2004. He also served as the Director of the Waterbury Forum in Education and Cultural Studies. He moved to McMaster University in May 2004, where he currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest. He is a frequent contributor to Tikkun Magazine and the Tikkun Daily Blog.
_ _
[1] Noam Chomsky, “The Death of American Universities,” Reader Supported News, (March 30, 2015). Online at:
[2] Efrain Kristal and Arne De Boever, “Disconnecting Acts: An Interview with Zygmunt Bauman Part II,” Los Angeles Review of Books (November 12, 2014). Online:
[3] Meara Sharma interviews Claudia Rankine, “Blackness as the Second Person,”Guernica (November 17, 2014). Online:
[4] Kristen Case, “The Other Public Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education(January 13, 2014). Online:

Why universities are failing: 1. Social purpose

Stefan Collini in his book 'What are unversities for?' observes that 'asking what something is for all too often turns out to be asking for trouble' (p.ix).  On the other hand those adept at systems thinking appreciate that questions of purpose are central to generating systemic understanding in all human action.  I would claim that it is the failure to attend to questions of purpose that cultivates the disillusionment experienced so frequently in contemporary organisations and in our responses to the adequacies, or not, of historical institutional arrangements.

This is the first of a series of postings in which  I will explore some of the failings of the contemporary university as I and others have come to understand them.  In particular I will explore some of the emergent properties of modern universities as a particular organisational form, and as sites of enactment of particular, often perverse, institutional arrangements.   As in this paragraph I will distinguish between institutions (norms, rules of the game, which we humans invent like policies and codified practices such as 'key performance indicators' or KPIs) and organisations (configurations of institutions, structures and practices which may, or may not, be related to a discernable organisational purpose).

What experiences do I have to make these claims?  I have never been a VC or PVC for example. On the other hand I have worked in, and contributed to, the social purpose of a University for over 40 years (if one counts undergraduate and postgraduate years).  My own academic trajectory has been influenced by powerful early experiences of ‘development failure’ (in Indonesia, Tanzania, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) as well as systemic organisational failure (e.g. the inappropriate strategies of  a government department where I was first employed).  These experiences led me to realise that ‘failure’ was usually a product of the thinking and worldview of the ‘would be developers’ and the historicity of particular organisational policies and practices built on assumptions or circumstances that were no longer valid or distorted by the exesses of 'command and control' management practices.  My research has subsequently spanned the biophysical and the social (including organisations/institutions) and has evolved as my own understandings have changed. 

A distinctive feature of my career in Higher Education has been my experience of, and contributions to, four contrasting University settings and forms:
  • the first was a five year experience in co-developing a radical, student-centred curriculum based on experiential learning, systems thinking and effective communication and in which the academic role was the facilitation of student learning; 
  • the second was eight years in a traditional, research intensive university in Australia
  • the third was my ongoing experience (22 years now) of one of the largest and most significant Open and distance teaching universities – the Open University (UK);
  • the fourth was nine years within (partially) globalising, metric-led, research intensive Australian Universities
My motivation for developing these reflective pieces arises from a number of powerful experiences during 2015 in addition to a longstanding concern about the trajectory of HE in general and the University in particular. One of these experiences was in Beijing last September during a lunch with a group of very bright students and staff from one of China's leading universities.  Much to my amazement the focus of the conversation was  'gaming' the modern 'academic system': the difficulties of writing in English, journal impact factors, citation metrics and the like and how best to improve performance.  I was asked for my advice, as if I was one who had mastered this practice!   My reply instead was to ask them how, through their work, they felt they would be able to address some of the many issues that confronted contemporary China, not to mention the world, given global climate change and the like. Unfortunately I did not find their responses very convincing.

In systems terms the metrics that concerned my young Chinese aquaintances are measures of performance.  But what is the system for which these metrics are measures?  This question goes largely unexplored and unanswered in the contemporary university.

In his 2012 book Collini, building on Keynes' question 'what is economics for?' responds to his own title question 'What are universities for? by arguing that:

'..any discussion of the place of universities in contemporary society will inevitably be driven to articulate, in however rudimentary terms, some sense of human purposes beyond that of accumulating wealth. Or so one might think.  Yet it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the greater part of public discourse about universities at present reduces to the following dispiriting proposition: universities need to justify getting more money and the way to do this is to show that they help to make more money.'

In his THES review, Fred Inglis argues that:

'[Collini] has plenty of allies, for sure: the Campaign for the Public University and its recent manifesto; Jonathan Bate's 2011 edited collection (The Public Value of the Humanities) compiled in vindication of the discipline recently brought to bankruptcy by the Browne Review; along with vehement criticism by and in the pages of Times Higher Education, naturally, as well as in the pages of the London Review of Books, where much of it was written by Collini himself (in this connection, among many instances, do not miss Gary Rolfe and his address to the International Networking for Education in Healthcare Conference last year).'

However, my aspiration with these posts is not to fall into the trap articulated in a cutting review of Collini's book by Peter Conrad:

"What universities are emphatically not for is to subsidise the self-pity of those they employ."

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Floods in Scotland - experiencing the effects

A colleague of mine has written to describe what he encountered on a visit to the River Dee in Scotland, following the recent floods.

Dear Ray,...

Morag and I visited a village in the next valley (the river Dee) that had been hit by floods it has never before exprienced and took some photos - and this is after a good deal of clearing up. Devastation considerable. It was impressive to see even very solid, thick, granite walls had been completely threatened. Near the river they had a caravan site that was locally owned and produced profit of £40k/year put into the local community. 60 permanent caravans and 40 seasonal. Well, the 60 permanent that were on site were devastated. I attach two photos of what we saw and will send two more. 

I have a bit of worry that the slides may have come out a bit  dark - but maybe that is just how they appear on screen of my computer. I took quite a few and, if anyone - say Kevin - is interested in some for teaching purposes, I can put them on a disc and send them.

Attached are four pictures:-

(i) - Site cleared largely of caravans by flood going through. None of them could get insurance and they will not come back to that site if they buy a new one. IE that whole business is gone.

(ii) - One of the piles of waste materials gathered up to date - many more around. Peoples' lives in a pile for landfill.

 (iii) - Bridge immediately downstream of the caravan site with a caravan, or its smashed remains wrapped around one of the pillars. Some of the bridges on this river had to be closed due to damage by the flood.

(iv) - Suspension bridge some miles downwstream from Ballater and which is normally three metres above the river, bent through collision with stuff coming downstreaM - probably one  or more caravans at speed. There is a fine deep pool tucked away close to this bridge and, when we were lads, we used to go "skinny dukin" (nude bathing) when we were there and coming off the hill or a climb  on a hot day. Memories!

The harbour authority at Aberdeen, about 40 miles downstream had to take out heaven knows how many caravans, fishermens' huts, cars etc that arrive uninvited.