Features Australia

Academies or madrassas

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Whether our universities have ever lived up to their lofty ideals is difficult to say. What is clear is that the gap between aspiration and reality has rarely been as great as it is today. Of course, in making judgements such as these, there is always the risk of falling into the trap of ‘declinism,’ which elevates a distant and rosily remembered past over the jarring reality of the present. But even bearing those risks in mind, it is striking how rare it is to meet an Australian student who has experienced that sharpened sense of challenge, the impression of being caught up in the sweep of momentous ideas, that at least some of us felt decades ago when sitting in the lecture hall.

As for university life, it seems to have withered. With vast numbers of students working part-time, faculty routinely address empty classrooms, eliminating the questioning and interaction which are central to teaching and learning and crucial in the formation of enduring social networks. The ever-growing number of foreign students, who often struggle with English and so tend to associate primarily with colingual peers, only compounds the process of social fragmentation.

Nor do the universities seem at all interested in creating an atmosphere of intellectual excitement. Governed by a depthless pragmatism, their goals are as rigidly determined by the struggle to secure a niche in global rankings as the caricatural hedge fund manager is by the drive for a larger bonus. Teaching gets relatively little weight in the factors that affect those rankings, with the result that it is palmed off to a burgeoning army of temporary and part-time staff, often foreign graduate students who are scarcely capable of the high-quality teaching undergraduates need and should expect.

But perhaps the most depressing components of this desolate scene are the academics. There is much to criticise in higher education in North America and continental Europe; but anyone familiar with those countries’ great universities would agree that faculty members take their responsibilities extraordinarily seriously. Whatever those institutions’ failings, teaching and research remain, first and foremost, a calling, which confers dignity on those who engage in it, commands public respect, and imposes demanding and well-understood obligations.

In contrast, Australian academics, while often hardworking and productive, seem gripped by an uneasy combination of complacency and resentment, smugness and exasperation. Faced with an ever-expanding university bureaucracy which pays itself salaries far higher than those of its counterparts at far more prestigious universities overseas, for many academics, what was once a vocation has degenerated into a mere job.


The result is not even the ‘fair average quality’ that W. K. Hancock famously lambasted. Nowhere is that clearer than at the postgraduate level. Apparently, some forty Australian universities award doctorates; but in most disciplines, the best students are invariably encouraged to go overseas, and for good reasons. At the same time, Australian doctoral programs rarely attract foreign students who have the option of studying at leading universities in Europe or the United States.

No doubt, to those familiar with the history of higher education, all this may seem par for the course. It is, after all, hardly unprecedented for universities to experience crisis, stagnation or decline.

Indeed, already in 1346, barely a century after a great wave of university foundations, Pope Clement VI (himself a considerable scholar) suggested that their faculties, consumed by arrogance, were wasting their time in never-ending staff meetings devoted to bickering over ranks, titles and emoluments. As for what they claimed was scholarship, instead of furthering the sciences, it consisted of confused suppositions, philosophical hair-splitting and incomprehensible prose destined to vanish like the fog it evoked.

Clement’s complaints, which decried the unwillingness of universities to meet the needs of ‘this miserable time’ that cried out for salvation and instruction, proved merely the first in a sequence that has repeated itself, with varying degrees of irritation and accuracy, ever since.

That could be seen as the price of academic freedom. It is, in that context, worth remembering that the university was not a Western invention. On the contrary, there is compelling evidence that it was pioneered in the Islamic world and transferred into Christendom in the great process of cultural transmission that underpinned the emergence of Scholasticism. It is no coincidence that when the twelfth-century philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, set out the requisites of teaching and learning— ‘a humble mind, a zeal for learning, a quiet life, silent investigation, poverty, a foreign land’ —he repeated, almost word for word, the formulation the eminent scholar Imam al-Haramain al-Juwaini had given a century before.

But if the Islamic academies never developed into enduring centres of intellectual excellence, it was at least partly because they lacked the institutional autonomy their Western equivalents secured and, despite many trials and tribulations, largely retained.

However, that institutional autonomy has also made them exceptionally vulnerable to the pathologies that economists refer to as ‘principal-agent problems,’ particularly when they have enjoyed secure funding and a degree of insulation from competition.

Successive Australian governments have, of course, been aware of the issues that creates, and have adopted a patchwork quilt of measures aimed at addressing them without ever having the courage to tackle the root causes—notably the lack of competition and of differentiation—head on. As a result, the purported remedies, which typically involved greater reporting requirements, have worsened the ailments, especially by strengthening central administrations and converting universities into institutions which only differ from government departments in being so remarkably poorly run.

Somewhere Marx remarks that the bourgeoisie in its declining phase reproduces all the evils and irrationalities against which it once fought. And the universities, he might have added, become the vehicle by which the rot is legitimated, spread and entrenched—not least by those who proclaim themselves Marxists. Reversing that process will take a revolution and a half.

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