Australia’s Corporate University Problem And The Ideology Behind It

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

Last week local university politics came into the spotlight after a photograph of Murdoch students standing with a banner reading ”Let Them Stay” was requested for removal off social media by Murdoch’s marketing staff, despite the fact it was published to a lecturer’s personal twitter account.

Murdoch’s academic chair of Public Relations was named in an article published by the Fremantle Herald after her comments to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) went public . We reached out to her for an interview but were respectfully declined, citing current difficulties following the publicity.  If you want more information, it’s not hard to find.

And then, just before this weekend, UWA students stormed the Vice Chancellor’s office during a protest against 300 potential job losses at UWA across a wide range of departments from Geography to Arts.

These incidents are part of many recent ones to choose from. In 2014, NSW’s Macquarie University took its own students to court over contested funds being allegedly retained by an independent postgraduate student association, MUPRA.   Depending on where you looked, there were multiple angles on the issue – redflag.org.au had their fairly unimpressed say, Crikey took a look at the case. Then in 2015 it was reported again, as Macquarie University took those same students to the Supreme court of NSW.

The thing that troubled many people was the fact Macquarie University had shut down an earlier edition of the association, MUSRA, in 2012. To be fair: we’re talking retained funds totalling $600,000, and it’s only reasonable to acknowledge that any administrative agency ought to have a chance at getting dishonestly kept funds back. But it is the continuous hostility and outright refusal to acknowledge student’s claims and opinions coming from the University and their legal team that has kept eyebrows raised.

And then, of course, there’s the currently-dormant University Deregulation discussion, which is waiting under the ocean of parliament like Ct’huhlu, neither dead nor awake, but sure to rise again one day and bring horror unto the world.

Contained within these incidents are the symptoms of a larger global ideological issue with very tangible consequences. That larger ideological issue is Neoliberalism, and if you’re a student, it influences your daily life more than you may be aware.

So what is Neoliberalism? Broadly, it is an economic theory surrounding contemporary 21st century capitalism. But the neoliberalism we’re talking about is academic neoliberalism – still related – which basically refers to the current trend of Universities being viewed as cash generators by State and Federal governments. Obviously this is a biased comment and not reflective of every side to the argument.

However, the removal of politically sensitive images, the suing of students and the desire to save money by cutting hundreds of teaching jobs (on a campus where the VC makes a million dollars a year) are all great examples of neoliberal management. In short, Universities have become dependent on state funding and private  investment, making them indistinguishable from any other corporation. What that means is that bureaucrats need to be kept happy, and the way to keep bureaucrats happy is to measure performances, ideally graduating as many students as possible no matter what and taking absolutely no public relations risks at all.

Of course, political activism, speaking out or leaking information is one of the biggest risks there are for any organisation directly involved in political oversight. But political activism and reporting is also one of the most inherent rights defended by students everywhere. So, there’s a clash between worlds.

As Murdoch’s PR chair relayed to Fremantle Herald reporters and union spokespeople, the image removal request is indicative of a company hoping to preserve its good public relations standing in the face of potential opinion and funding backlash, and not that of a University;  institutions historically defined by a tolerance towards humanitarian ideas, and basically having independent thoughts in the first place – a little something known as ‘academic freedom.’ What academic neoliberalism refers to is a turn towards market rationality in organising tertiary institutions. However, while not necessarily opposed to one another, academia has long had its gripes with capitalism (and vice versa), largely because the need to maintain a positive media representation clashes with the egalitarian values of knowledge acquisition, critique of established information and generally just asking questions for the sake of it. If a predominately left wing university is expected to remain silent on the issue of mandatory detention for individuals fleeing war, rape and disease, one can only guess what else is being stifled at UWA (although it’s only fair to point out that there are a lot of engaged u-dub students fighting against that status quo).

This issue goes incredibly deep, and I am doing it no justice by wrapping up now such a short explainer on the situation.

As University academics continue to align themselves with the public good, as academics ought to, and as University administration and management structures continue to align themselves with neoliberalism, as administration and management structures arguably ought to do, this problem sees no immediate resolution in the future. Also not to be ignored are the impacts of neoliberal structure and design on the quality of education being received by students across Australia.

Also not to be ignored is the effect of neoliberalism on Primary education, which is maybe where we should be more worried about its outcomes. I do not want to paint a scene of dystopia, but here we see the infant hallmarks of a society that vaguely resembles the world depicted in Idiocracy.