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Book Review: “Whackademia” Reveals Parlous State of Australia 's Censored,
Under-funded & Dumbing-down Universities

By Dr Gideon Polya

14 December, 2012

Richard Hil's “Whackademia. An insider's account of the troubled university” is a passionate description of the sorry state of Australian universities by a UK-born Australian academic. The book cover puts the problem succinctly: “Despite the shiny rhetoric of excellence, quality,  innovation and creativity, universities face criticism over declining standards, decreased funding, compromised assessment, overburdened academics and never-ending reviews and restructures.”  Importantly, these problems  not confined to Australia . Richard Hil ‘s book is replete with variously amusing and horrifying stories of the absurdities of present-day corporatized Australian universities  that are dominated by aggressive, bean-counting line-managers. He urges a path forward of “engagement and dialogue” by Australia 's fearful, overworked and downtrodden academics to rescue Australia 's universities.

Before dealing with “Whackademia” in detail it is useful to make some general points about academia in general and to sketch a brief history of Australian universities. Scholarly conglomerations go back thousands of years but the first European universities date back to the 11th century. The prime functions of universities are to (1) research, (2) teach and (3) inform the public. and indeed if these functions were reduced to just research, communication of the resultant scholarship would necessarily involve teaching and informing the public. However universities have now become crucial for educating an increasingly sophisticated workforce and for supplying expertise for societal problem-solving and rational risk management crucial for societal safety. Critical to all 3 functions is honesty, free inquiry, and free expression.

Scientific research advances through the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses and free expression of findings so that others can critically test advanced hypotheses. While there is zero tolerance by scholars for dishonesty in science, teaching and ethical advice to society, the neoliberalism   that dominates the West is a laissez-faire approach that is profoundly ethically compromised. Neoliberalism simply demands maximal freedom for the smart and advantaged to exploit the world and in particular the less smart and the disadvantaged. Neoliberalism rejects dishonesty if it damages the “corporate brand” or the “shareholders” but accepts “marketing” based on anti-science spin involving  the selective use of  asserted facts to support a partisan position i.e. the anti-thesis of science.

A good example of the neoliberal disease is provided by John Perkins in his book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” in which he describes how he spent most of his corporate life deceiving Developing Country governments in the interests of US corporate clients. Eventually his conscience outweighed  the generous rewards from his employers and clients but he sadly observes at the end of the book that while he knew what he would be doing was wrong when he was recruited out of university in the early 1970s, today business studies students in our universities are taught that their prime moral obligation is to the shareholders and not to truth.  The finance-driven managerial spin, censorship,  intimidation and bullying in corporatized universities is at the heart of Richard Hil's passionate complaints in “Whackademia” - the managerial lack of respect for academics and the academic  commitment to  truth.

What has happened to Australian universities and indeed to Australian society  is mirrored in universities in other democratic societies and in particular in Western democracies that have become Murdochracies, Lobbyocracies and Corporatocracies in which Big Money  buys politicians, parties, policies, public perception of the truth and hence votes. Because the corporations fund the 2 major parties in Australia (the Liberal-National Party Coalition that is in Opposition and the Australian Labor Party that is Government Federally, aka the Lib-Labs or the Liberal-Laborals)  the Libs and Labs now have very similar policies. Indeed the pro-war, pro-greed, anti-equity and anti-environment policies are very similar for the US Republicans and Democrats and for the UK Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labor Parties. In Australia and in the West in general, the corporatizing of universities has mirrored the corporatizing of society as a whole.

For all that it was involved in an horrendous genocide of the Indigenous Australians (the Aboriginal Genocide), late 19th century-early 20th century  Australia led the world in having compulsory, free elections with full female suffrage, free trade unions, and free, compulsory, secular school education. The Australian university system commenced in the mid-19th century but the poor were largely excluded by expensive fees. The reformist, pro-equity and pro-education Whitlam Labor Governments (1972-1975) abolished university fees  and expanded the non-university tertiary education sector (that would include what became vocational training-related Colleges of Advanced Education, CAEs,  and Tertiary and Further Education, TAFE, colleges). Unfortunately  the Whitlam Government was thrown out in a US-backed Coup  and the neoliberal rot set in with the Labor Party shifting to the Right with the realization that it could never regain power Federally without going “all the way with the USA ”.

One  unfortunate aspect of the Whitlam Government was that it was forced to support State Aid for private schools as a condition of getting elected – the Catholic Church-backed Democratic Labor Party had kept Labor out of  power in Australia 's compulsory preferential voting system for over 20 years. The private school system now accommodates the schooling of 1/3 of Australian secondary school (high school) students.  The top private schools  now disproportionately provide the students for the top Australian universities (the Big Eight) located in the state capital cities and with prestigious medical and law schools. The 2/3  of Australian children attending Government schools are disproportionately excluded from university, top universities and from top courses such as law and medicine (see “Educational Apartheid”: https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/ ).

Australia now has 39 Government-funded universities including the Big Eight, and 4 private universities (the Australian Catholic University, Notre Dame, Carnegie Mellon, and Bond), as well as a number of other specialist tertiary institutions (see “List of universities in Australia”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_universities_in_Australia ). In the late 1980's Federal Minister for Employment, Education and Training,  John Dawkins, forced various non-research, teaching only, vocational institutions (CAEs) to fuse with research-plus-teaching universities, this dumbing down both student intake, staff and courses (the so-called “Dawkinization” of Australian universities). In 1989 fees were re-introduced under a Labor Government, albeit on the basis of payment as a small percentage of subsequent  earnings ( the so-called Higher Education Contributions Scheme or HECS ). At roughly this point Federal funding of universities started to diminish and universities became increasingly dependent on full fee-paying students from overseas, this leading to an Education Industry eventually worth $18 billion per year. It is the downgrading Dawkinization and  Federal Government parsimony that underlies the new bean-counting, bullying, censoring, corporatist  culture in Australian universities.

In recent years university finding was highly constrained under the Rudd (2007-2010) and thence Gillard (2010-)  Labor Governments (PM Kevin Rudd having been removed in a US-approved, mining corporation-backed and pro-Zionist-led Coup on 23-24 June 20101). Large numbers of overseas students were attracted to study in Australia , lured by the promise of permanent residence. This promise was unethically withdrawn several years ago but was reintroduced in a more restricted form (post-graduate work for several years). The Gillard Labor Government has been a disaster for universities, slashing universities funding by $1.3 billion in 2011 and 2012, and most recently slashing $0.5 billion in research funding.

Labor paid lip-service to scientists on climate change, setting up a an expert Climate Commission, introducing a (fraudulent) Carbon Tax-ETS system, and  indulging in a huge amount of dishonest spin about “tackling  climate change for a clean energy future” – yet both the Libs and the Labs have essentially the same policies of a derisory “5% off 2000 greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by 2020 and unlimited coal, gas and iron ore exports that mean that Australia used up its “fair share” of the world's  terminal GHG pollution budget in 2011 and is committed to exceeding the whole world's terminal GHG pollution budget by a factor of 3.  Similarly, Labor set up a Murray-Darling Commission to advise on saving this key Australian river system – but then rejected scientific advice on the minimum return of water needed to save the system . Australian academics are highly intimidated by institutional Codes of Conduct and scientists in particular are overwhelmingly silenced by fear of losing vital research grants and are effectively ignored when they do speak out.  The universities-backed web magazine The Conversation – backed and/or funded by about 18 universities - has an appalling record of censoring and blocking academic opinion (see “Academic censorship: why you should NOT study at the University of Melbourne”, Bellaciao, 5 November 2012: http://bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article22283 ).

In “Introduction: grounds for complaint”  Richard Hil sets out his concerns about the transition of traditional universities to corporatizing, money-driven, neoliberal universities,  of “market-place academics” dominated by “line managers” that are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the needs of society. He concludes Most importantly, we might have a long-awaited discussion about the values that underpin higher education and the sorts of qualities required of our graduates if they are to become active, fully informed, and yes, “rounded” citizens” (p25).

In Chapter 1, “A tertiary odyssey” Richard Hil gives an account  of his school education in the UK where “ pupils were caned (“whacked”) on a regular basis” (p28). He then amusingly describes his university undergraduate and postgraduate education in the UK  and thence his successive employment at various non-Big Eight Australian universities in a climate of increasing corporatization of Australian universities. Hil concludes “As “drive-through” classroom attendants, academics might well feel that their work has been reduced to the menial task of serving up what the consumer wants, irrespective of the ultimate effects on all concerned. The main objective is to keep the student-shoppers rolling through the doors” (p46).

Chapter 2, “Sexing up Whackademia”, describes the “selling” of universities, making universities “pay”, image-building spin, the sloganeering slogfest, webspeak and “defending the brand”. He quotes education journalist Erica Cervini: “At a time when universities are crying poor they're spending millions on lame and silly advertising”. Hil concludes: “But that's what the commercialization of higher education is all about. It forces institutions into cut-throat competition where brand distinctiveness is pivotal to institutional survival. Without the lurid vacuity of mottos, slogans, tag-lines and web-speak, universities may have to rely on their academic reputations” (p70).  

Chapter 3, “Taking care of busyness” Hil describes management-gone-mad-imposed “make-work”: “ Some academics refer colloquially to such frenetic busyness as “headless chicken syndrome” or “HCS” whereby constant regulated motion leads to various psychological problems including anxiety disorders, hypertension and depression... HCS is rampant throughout Whackademia. Its emergence goes back to the Dawkins reforms and the creation of a mass-market system” (pp72-73). Hil bemoans the huge amount of “reporting” required of academics: “Whether or not such regulatory exercises improve the quality of teaching and learning remains very much open to question.  The fact remains that academics and universities in general are now scrutinized more than ever before, and universities seem to fall over themselves in an effort to introduce new and more sophisticated  surveillance technologies aimed at teaching and other eras of work” (pp99-100).

Chapter 4, “Production-line teaching” deals with the dumbing down of  teaching and learning, the negative impact of “busyness” on teaching, institutional “straight-jacketing” of teaching, inaccurate student evaluation, greatly lowering assessment standards to assure student throughput, the use of poorly paid sessional staff to now do most undergraduate teaching, and failing students by being too narrowly vocationally oriented: “A system that is reliant on market-driven and career-focussed education, with its roots in the productivist  demands  of the globalised capitalist economy, generates content more suited to job-readiness than anything approaching intelligent civic engagement” (p127).

Chapter 5, Research,  metrics and money”, details  with research, time for research, grant acquisition  and absurd and intimidating attempts to measure “Excellence in Research” (ERA) e.g. by what Hil describes as “Quantifying quality: the journal ranking fiasco”.  A problem not discussed  properly in this chapter is the major consequence of Dawkinization  of universities – formerly teaching-only, vocationally-oriented academics being  expected to do research while formerly proper research and teaching academics being prevented from doing research by lack of funds and time.

Chapter 6, “Governing Whackademia” describes soul-destroying perversions of academic life involving massive over-work coupled with ostensible quantification of workload; a huge increase in non-academic administrators coupled with a greatly increased academic participation in administration; increasing bureaucratization (Hil provides a long selection of application forms academics need to compete in order to do their jobs properly); the absurdities of school staff meetings; and the rise of para-academics devoted to academic administrative tasks and non-academic administrators operating at the academic coal-face. Hil quotes a despairing academic: “Not so long ago I felt as if academics ran the show but now I think we're just administrative clones but with reduced status. Administrators  now run the show.”

Chapter 7, “Enough complaint, now what?”, deals with things that academics could do by way of some resistance to the cancer of corporatism. In a section called “over-the-wallism” Hil quotes a Cambridge biologist who quit in 1997: “I am too old for this anti-education , anti-intellectual nonsense .. I can hardly wait to get back to those days when going to work did not bring another avalanche of illiterate drivel from quality controllers, bossy demands from administrators to describe the business skills inherent in teaching.” Hil comments; “But 1997 is very different to the advanced systems of oppression witnessed by academics in the tertiary system circa 2012, when the reins of managerial control have been further tightened and universities are ever more determined to protect their patch.”  This statement encapsulates the problem  by alluding to “universities” as being identified with administrators – in traditional universities the essence of the  “university” was constituted  by the past, present and future academic staff and students and their scholarly accomplishments. Hil concludes this chapter with a long and amusing list of things academics can do to cope with the ongoing perversion of our universities and retain some semblance of professionalism and personal dignity.  

The final chapter is entitled “Conclusion: Seeing through Whackademia” . Hil quotes suggestions offered by over 100 academics in an open letter to newly-elected PM Kevin Rudd in 2007, specifically, fully fund teaching-related operations including postgraduate and honours education;   greatly reduce academic bureaucracy; reduce universities'  dependence on overseas full-fee students (currently about 250,000 and worth $16 billion annually to Australia) and consequent dumbing-down, “cash-crop education”; and revive Australian international research standing  by increasing funding for competitive research projects in all areas. Hil comments; “Unfortunately, these eminently sensible proposals from s cross-section of academic heavyweights have been roundly ignored by the federal government.” Hil concludes that “The first steps to survival mode are engagement and dialogue, practices that should include those who are happy as things are. The alternative is simply to retreat behind closed doors and carry on moaning and groaning , proceed regardless, pretend that it really doesn't matter, or quietly retire,  It's not much of a choice when you come to think about it. But at the heart of our thoughts and actions should be the question: what kind of university culture would we like to be part of, and what role should universities play in the general order of things? These are the big questions with no easy answers, but they are nevertheless worth a decent public airing.”

Richard Hil's well-written and passionate ”Whackademia” is an important book that will hopefully generate  requisite public indignation and public discussion, even in look-the-other-way Australia, and especially among downtrodden academics living  this Kafaesque, corporatist nightmare. Some of my suggestions are summarized below.

1. Universities are about research, teaching and informing the public. Activities that detract from achievement of these core tasks – censorship, intimidation, bullying, busyness, bureaucratizatiion,  time-wasting, lavish funding  of university administrators – are a perverted and unconscionable  waste of public funds as well as an abuse of academic rights, dignity and self-respect, and  should be exposed and stopped.  (see Gideon Polya, “Crisis  in our universities”, ABC Radio National “Ockham's Razor”, 19 August 2001: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/crisis-in-our-universities/3490214  ).

2. Censorship is antithetical to scholarship, research, science and science-based rational risk management crucial for societal safety -  but censorship and intimidation is entrenched in Australian universities. Such censorship  must be exposed and stopped (e.g, the censorship applied by the universities-backed and universities-funded web magazine “The Conversation”; see “Censorship by The Conversation”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by ) . Universities that censor are unfit for our children  ( see Gideon Polya “Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Public University Journal, volume 1, Conference Supplement, “Transforming the Australia University”, Melbourne, 9-10 December 2001: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/57092/20080218-1150/www.publicuni.org/jrnl/volume/1/jpu_1_s_polya.pdf   ; Gideon Polya,  “Academic censorship: why you should NOT study at the University of Melbourne”, Bellaciao, 5 November 2012: http://http.bellaciao.org/en/spip.php?article22283 ; Gideon Polya, “Censorship in Australian universities”, MWC News, 29 October 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/22488-gideonpolya-censorship.html ). Things got even worse  for Australian universities in 2012 with the passage of the Australia-United States  Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty-related Defence Trade Controls  Bill that make it an offence punishable by 10 years in prison for an academic without a permit to inform non-Australians  (in conversation, tutorials, lectures, conference papers, scientific papers etc) about numerous  technologies and thousands of chemicals and organisms  listed in a presently 353-page Defence and Strategic Goods List (see “Impact of the Defence Trade Controls Bill on academic freedom”, NTEU: 10 October 2012: http://www.nteu.org.au/article/Impact-of-the-Defence-Trade-Controls-Bill-on-academic-freedom-13461 ).

3. Lying (of which censorship is a sub-set) is antithetical to scholarship, research, science and science-based rational risk management crucial for societal safety – but lying by omission and lying commission are entrenched in the universities, political life and media of  the Western democracies that have become  what have been described as Murdochracies (Big Money buys public perception of reality and hence votes; see “Mainstream Media Lying”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammedialying/ and “Boycott Murdoch Media”: https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/ ),  Lobbyocracies (Big Money buys people, politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality and votes) and Corporatocracies  (by University  of Melbourne and La Trobe University philosopher Professor Brian Ellis in his important new book “Social Humanism. A new metaphysics”; see Gideon Polya, “Review: “Social Humanism. A new metaphysics” by Brian Ellis”, MWC News, 18 August 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/20947-social-humanism.html  ).

4. Education can and should be free at the primary, secondary, tertiary and post-graduate “learning for life” levels. Most university students can be absent from lectures after the first week of semester because they have to work  to pay fees and because detailed lecture notes and other teaching materials are placed on the web i.e. on-campus university students are mostly in effect off-campus students these days. Indeed it is possible to provide off-campus teaching and learning that can be at least as good as conventional  on-campus teaching and learning. It is utterly wrong that poor undergraduate students should have to financially support the research and research-based scholarly complement of Australia . The majority of Australian university students who are taught by sessional, casual  academics earning 10 times less than full-time academics are paying about 10 times too much for their undergraduate tuition.  At one extreme, noting that university teaching should be research-informed, Harvard and MIT (75 and 77 Nobel Laureates, respectively) now make all their teaching materials available on-line free of charge and any government could give every potential student in the world high standard, minimum cost access to the equivalent of a Harvard or MIT degree simply by providing a pool of expert examiners  (plus a pool of sessional graduate tutors as required) (see “Accredited Remote Learning. ARL for all and all for ARL”: http://accreditedremotelearning.blogspot.com.au/ ).

5. Dumbing-down in relation to admissions, teaching and assessment standards  is an egregious  falsehood that compromises  Australian universities, especially in relation to non-Big Eight universities and full fee-paying overseas students (presently about 250,000 and worth about $16 billion annually to Australia ). This must be urgently and ethically addressed.

6. All the Western Lobbyocracies have entrenched systems of Educational Apartheid in which wealth buys education-based opportunity. In Australia this means that the majority 2/3 of Australian students who attend Government schools are disproportionately excluded from university, top universities and top course such as  medicine and law. This can and must be addressed by opening up the Big Eight universities and  top courses to disadvantaged students. Indeed a major benefit of Accredited Remote Learning (ARL)  is that ALL people would have access to ALL courses on-line if they want to spend a very small amount of money on accrediting examination (and teaching aids and aides as needed) (see “Educational Apartheid”: https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/ ).

7. Research and scholarship is fundamental to universities but the finance-driven and obscene downsizing and elimination of scholarly  areas (notably but not exclusively in the Humanities)  is intellectual  vandalism that should be exposed as such and stopped. A related perversion is the funding of university centres and think-tanks by foreign governments and corporations to the detriment of increasingly impoverished and threatened traditional scholarship. The next step has been adumbrated in a recent report advocating even closer links of universities to corporations. A related perversion is removal of university research funds in addition to constraints on highly competitive Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants. There is a huge personal and societal investment in any researcher but this is ignored by the bean-counters in the process of  downsizing scholars for lack of research funds.

8. The university is the past, present and future staff and students and their scholarly accomplishments. Every step should be taken to retain working associations of retired academics as teachers and/or researchers with universities. Indeed top scientists, engineers, medical experts,  scholars,  artists, writers  etc   outside universities (in the so-called “real world”) should be invited to give courses and otherwise contribute  to university life. Conversely, most administrators should be disposed of as expensive burdens on an already poorly-funded system.  Given this ideal of minimum  cost or voluntary non-academic intellectual contributions to universities one could reasonably suggest that Vice Chancellors should do their jobs for free as honorable duties rather  than as million-dollar sinecures for “refugees from scholarship” heavily involved in the bullying, depriving and downsizing of “real” academics (an eminent academic more generously suggested a professorial salary plus a 20% top-up). The argument that we don't have enough money to fund universities properly is belied by the $125 billion accrual  cost to Australia of the US War on Terror that is, of course,  backed by well-funded terrorism studies, American studies and strategic studies academics (see Gideon Polya, “Endless War on Terror. Huge cost to Australia & America ”,  MWC News, 14 October 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/22149-endless-war-on-terror.html ).

9. Engagement and dialogue involving scholars, students and society are vital for the return of our universities to traditional scholarly values. Engagement would be greatly enhanced by consideration of the immense nuclear, poverty and global warming threats to our world as outlined in my last point.

10. The World is badly running out of time to deal with man-made climate change and our university academics can no longer be safely sidelined. In addition, there are ongoing nuclear threats and poverty is responsible for 18 million avoidable deaths annually in the Developing World (minus China) (see my book “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, now available for free perusal on the Web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/body-count-global-avoidable-mortality_05.html ) . The failure of our overwhelmingly neoliberal societies to deal with climate change is testament to academic censorship, academic self-censorship and greed-based ignoring  of expert academic advice in our neoliberal Corporatocracies. The acute seriousness of the situation is revealed by the 2009  estimate by the WGBGU (that advises the German Government  on climate change) that for a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise the World must emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of CO2 between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050. Australia's Domestic plus Export greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution is so great that it exceeded its “fair share” of this terminal GHG pollution budget in 2011 and its resources are so huge and its politicians so ignorant, blind and corrupt that it is committed to exceeding the whole world's terminal GHG pollution budget by a factor  of three (3). Indeed it is estimated that at present rates of pollution the World will exceed 600 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent (CO2-e)  pollution in about five (5) years relative to December 2012  (see Gideon Polya, “2011 Climate Change Course”: https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/2011-climate-change-course  and Gideon Polya,  “Doha climate change inaction. Only 5 years left to act”, MWC News, 9 December 2012: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23373-gideonpolya-climate-change.html ).

These problems are not confined to Australian universities.  Please tell everyone you can – engage and talk. We are running out of time and need well-supported, unfettered universities and academics to have any reasonable chance.

Dr Gideon Polya currently teaches science students at a major Australian university. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has recently published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com/ ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007): http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s1445960.htm ) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/4047-the-plight-of-the-palestinians.html ). He has just published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com/ ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/social-economic-history/listen-the-bengal-famine ). When words fail one can say it in pictures - for images of Gideon Polya's huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: http://sites.google.com/site/artforpeaceplanetmotherchild/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/gideonpolya/ .





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