There’s been a lot of discussion of the bad things that have been happening to universities recently. We’ve seen a stream of books with titles like “The University in Ruins”, “The Fall of the Faculty”, “Selling Students Short”, “The End of the South African University”.
Hundreds of articles have been written in the UK and USA criticising the neoliberal policies that have turned universities into corporations. In Chile a few years ago there were massive protests against privatisation of the higher education system in that country. South African universities have been shaken by movements calling for abolition of fees and decolonization of curriculum. Higher education strikes have multiplied, from Britain to Australia.
There is every reason for this turbulence. The university system has grown globally, and its teaching and research are more important to society than ever before. But this growth has a dark side.
We are seeing more pressure on staff, and a huge growth of insecure employment and outsourcing. We are seeing more distrust and less democracy inside universities, and worse inequalities between them. Social justice in access is still far off.
And things could get worse. Right-wing governments in several countries have recently made open attacks on universities, trying to close down particular areas of study, or cutting funding to the sector as a whole.
It’s understandable that university workers, confronted with toxic changes, should look back to when universities seemed more respected. (One strange result is enthusiasm for Newman’s “The Idea of a University”, an elegantly-written mid-Victorian book that was obsolete when it appeared.) Nostalgia is no solution. There never was a Golden Age for universities, when there was no injustice or exclusion, when struggle was not needed.
We need to look forward, and imagine good universities for the future. That became very clear to me six years ago. We were on strike at the University of Sydney, in a difficult struggle about a wages-and-conditions deal. During quiet periods on the picket line I reflected on how long university workers and their unions had been in a defensive position, and how important it is to have a positive agenda, ideas for our long-term future.
In the years since, I have had conversations with colleagues on six continents, and collected a small mountain of documents and research. The result is yet another book about universities – but, I hope, different from most. The Good University is written from a union point of view. It doesn’t offer a fixed blueprint. Rather, I’ve tried to develop a fresh way of thinking about universities and their future.
The starting-point is the work that universities do, and the workers who actually do it. Research and tertiary teaching are both very complex forms of labour. It’s important to recognize that half the necessary workforce are not academics – they are clerical workers,
tradespeople, librarians, transport workers, ICT specialists, and more. Their work is woven together with academics’ work to make the teaching and research happen. The combined know-how and inventiveness of the whole workforce is what actually makes a university function. The current doctrine that managers know best is quite wrong: tight managerial control constantly makes the problems worse. We need industrial democracy in universities just as much as in other industries.
Universities are worldwide, and the knowledge they produce and teach is organized on a world scale. We have to think of the university workforce too as global. But global does not mean equal. There is a very steep hierarchy, from rolling-in-wealth universities like Harvard and Stanford in the USA, to starkly under-funded agricultural colleges in Asia and Africa.
To think about the future of universities, we need to think about that whole spectrum. Good rural community universities are just as important as good elite research centres.
Universities have long been associated with social privilege, indeed they still are. The idea that universities produce a global elite has become a marketing ploy, to attract fee-paying students.
But there are also demands for democratic access to higher education. There’s a long history of struggles over access for the children of working-class and peasant families, for women, for marginalized castes and ethnic groups, and more. A good university, in my view, is one that serves democratic purposes for its society. Social justice in access is therefore a profoundly important goal.
These are large purposes, not popular with most current power-holders. What resources of hope do we have? Great resources exist in the know-how of the university workforce itself; and in continuing popular support for higher education.
In The Good University I tell the story of another resource: the rich history of experimental and alternative universities and knowledge movements. They range from anti-colonial universities to underground universities, unofficial “Free Universities”, bold reforms in official universities, universities building on indigenous knowledge or Islamic knowledge, popular science movements, and more.
We don’t lack for resources. But there are vested interests in the money-driven, privatised, hierarchical universities dominant today. Both imagination and struggle will be needed.
The Good University is published internationally by Zed Books (in North America, distributed by Chicago University Press), and in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand by Monash University Publishing.