17 May 2014

Conversation Piece

This week, the Australian Federal Government has outlined devastating cuts to the higher education sector. Many of our Vice Chancellors appear to have accepted these cuts as valid. I’m not sure what is worse: the fact that universities won’t be able to do their jobs as well as they should, or the wilful misrepresentation of the role of the sector which underpins the government’s position. Increases in fees have been presented to the Australian people as acceptable because a university-educated individual benefits from higher earnings over his or her lifetime. For many graduates this is true, but it does not justify higher fees.

The purpose of a university is not and never has been to produce flawless worker bees. Our best universities do not exist to graduate students who are perfectly work-ready, nor do we exist to deal with “clients” who purchase from us an experience that changes them into people that industry moguls rush to hire (because they will be the ones most easily slotted into the gaps in the workforce). We ought not to be basing the price of a university education on how well we are able to convince our students that we will make them irresistible in the job market. Individual gain is not the sole purpose of our endeavour.

Universities don’t enrol “clients”. We don't have "customers". University students, either future or current, have a right to excellent, timely customer service when it comes to administrative matters like admissions, notification of results, assistance with disabilities and so on. They do not have a right to expect to graduate as a result of turning up. Our students are buying an opportunity to learn; the best of them make the most of that. Universities have a responsibility to give students the best possible learning experience and the best possible learning environments, face-to-face, online, and in every other of the modes in which we deliver our programs. Graduation is our warrant that they have learnt the expected amount during their time with us. Industry and government are not our “clients” either. Universities don’t have “clients”. We serve our communities and our society in a different way.

Universities exist to ensure that the nation has the knowledge necessary to solve the problems of society.

Universities are umbrella organizations for communities of disciplinary scholars ranging from novices (students) to experts (the best of our professors). Some of these scholars stay within the world of academia for their entire working lives, where they become custodians of the knowledge of their discipline, adding to it through research, disseminating it through publication and outreach (and occasionally commercialization), and inducting new novices to it through teaching. Others leave academia after a period, taking their disciplinary knowledge with them into jobs in industry or government where they use it to solve the problems of society (for which they are paid salaries and fees). University scholars are assisted in achieving these goals by administrative, specialist, and technical staff members, who provide and support systems, tools, technologies, and co-curricular and professional development programs. Their job is to assist all scholars of the institution to play their roles as well as they can, whether they be novices (students) or experts of varying experience and ability (academics). We are all working for a learned, more informed, more reflective world. That's the frame of our working lives.

Research and teaching are not different activities. They are equally important aspects of the same thing: our disciplines. The disciplines – the bodies of knowledge at the core of university activity – are shaped and nurtured by human experience. Communities of disciplinary scholars working in universities spend their lives involved in very pragmatic activity. They haven’t retreated from the world or abdicated their roles in wider society. They aren’t a luxury to be shed in hard times.

University scholars identify valid research questions (for the disciplines, for society) and they use the tools of the disciplines (methods and theories) to solve problems and to answer those questions. Novices (students) entering the community come to us to learn these things. Our graduates take these skills, along with the ability to understand, consume, and make use of disciplinary knowledge, into the workforce, where they are implemented by industry and government. Our academics are funded by the community (through funds administered by governments, for the most part) to continue to expand the knowledge available to humanity and to share that knowledge with the rest of the world.

It’s as simple and as complex – and as valuable – as that.

Our government is doing the country a great disservice by reducing funding for these activities. The value of a university simply cannot be calculated by dividing the amount of funding by the number of work-ready graduates in a given period. The contributions that universities make are far too valuable to be treated so cavalierly.