Features Australia

Conservatives and universities

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

Belatedly, the Left’s capture of our universities is attracting some attention. Not enough, of course, but it’s a start after a thirty year silence. Of the many failings of the Liberal National Coalition in and out of government, there is none that is quite as stark as its impotence in the face of the Left’s capture of our universities since the 1980s.

The typical response of Conservatives to the raising of this issue is to lament the Left’s intellectual supremacy, but not to analyse why Conservatism offered so little resistance to the takeover. In truth, the ‘march through the institutions’ for the post-1968 Left has been a cakewalk. Virtually every person of my generation who was at university in the 1970s was on the Left, and ‘we’ expected more of a fight, not a capitulation. But apart from sporadic shooting – such as the short-lived stand from Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in the 1990s before retiring in despair – it was all over, quickly and relatively peacefully, with only symbolic protest.

Only now, triggered by the populist uprisings of 2016, has political attention returned to the universities as instruments for churning out the personnel who now run most of the flawed institutions that have attracted the populists’ ire. Why was this output of project managers, editors, communications officers and community workers, marketers and designers, schooled so well in the image of the Left? In short, the intellectual supremacy of the Left in humanities departments for three decades was very easily translated into a cultural and political dominance in the media, the arts, the Non-Government Organisation sector, schools, churches, and public and private sector management. The breadth of this hegemony has prompted some, who seemingly hadn’t noticed it until 2016, to scratch their heads and ask ‘how on earth did this happen?’.

There are two factors which shaped the impotence of Conservatives over this period. The first was Thatcherism. To a man, Conservatives in the 1980s were enthralled by Thatcherism and the neo-liberals. Economic ‘rational man’ was all the rage, and the humanities were looked down upon by neo-liberals. The humanities were ‘soft’, to be tolerated at best. So when French post-structuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes) swept through Australian universities in the 1980s, following the collapse in prestige of Marxism at the hands of Pol Pot, Conservatives were looking the other way, admiring the Iron Lady’s bold assertion that ‘there is no such thing as society’.


One by one, humanities departments in the 1980s fell to the deconstructionists. Some of us in that decade issued the alarm, fearing the deconstruction of everything of value in the Western intellectual and cultural tradition. We warned of the dangers of cultural relativism, the collapse of rationality, and the insanity that underpinned the feverish desire to designate popular consumer culture as being of equal aesthetic status to Shakespeare and Goya. Conservatives were nowhere to be seen. It was dissident leftists who took up this fight initially, socialists who were, in those years, moving away from statism, cultural relativism and open borders globalism, towards revival of older and long- forgotten political traditions.

And here’s the crux of the matter. Both the deconstructionist Left and the neo-liberal Right believed ‘there is no such thing as society’. There are only individual identities on the Left, and only individuals on the Right. Together they have given us today’s demolition of the humanities, and with it, an atomised deconstruction of society, with no cultural consensus or sustaining moral tradition, with each person’s values of equal validity to the next.

The second factor which drove the impotence of Conservatives in the face of this Left onslaught was managerialism. It, too, was a product of neo-liberalism. Capture of the state and through it the imposition on society of narrow conceptions of economic value in a market society is the driving purpose of neo-liberalism, and it has had a devastating impact on universities. Again, Left and Right have been unwitting allies. The Dawkins Revolution in tertiary education disrupted traditional notions of intellectual autonomy, and turned universities into ‘cost centres’ for the state. It pointed them towards fee-paying Asian markets, and imported command-and-control managerial cultures from the corporate world. This managerial model was simultaneously celebrated by Thatcherites as a universally applicable model of organisational purpose and form.

The problem for those seeking to sustain the Western intellectual and cultural tradition in the 1990s was that managerialism placed a low value on this endeavour. The ‘outcomes’ of traditional disciplines in the humanities were too difficult to value, and to measure, for both social democratic managers and their neo-liberal counterparts.

From the late 1990s, it was Don Watson, a dissident social democrat and former speech writer to Paul Keating, who led the charge against this triumphalist managerial consensus on both Left and Right. Conservatives, once again, were missing in action in this debate.

Today’s emerging political unease about the Left’s capture of our universities has been a long time coming. Sadly, this has arisen for reasons that are quite marginal to the main issue (concern about ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’, free speech on campuses) rather than the intellectual content of what is taught, learnt, and researched in universities. There is still no public debate about how universities might be reformed to address these issues. We are just beginning this larger, and infinitely more important, discussion.

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