Although the two of us have had vastly different paths and trajectories at university, there is one thing we share: a vague sense of disillusionment and a disdain for university management. We’re not unique in this regard. Every student at the University of Sydney (USyd) has some horror story about special considerations, or has taken some course that seems to have taught neither practical skills nor useful theory. Armed with our disaffection, we decided to head to one of the headline events of this year’s Radical Education Week in search of some answers: a discussion with Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell about her book The Good University. Professor Connell is a world-renowned sociologist whose works on class, gender and the Global South have been highly regarded for nearly 40 years. The Good University weaves together many of these themes in Connell’s previous work and connects it with her lived experience as a unionist and University Chair.
The book (and her discussion) gets to the heart of many of the issues that plague universities today: endless corporatisation, undemocratic governance and the reshaping of universities as vehicles of profit maximisation. Connell spoke about this as a global phenomenon and something that has taken hold in both large institutions like Harvard, Cambridge and USyd and small universities in the Global South. Much of the discussion revolved around the ways in which university management has deliberately worsened learning and teaching conditions to maximise profit. In light of the introduction of mandatory OLEs at USyd, Connell argued that the shift towards online learning was a deliberate strategy to keep students off campus and disrupt the historic sense of community that had previously existed between staff and students. At Deakin University, management has taken this one step further, and staff are literally separated from students by hostile physical structures — many academics are no longer guaranteed office spaces and where they are, there are unreasonable conditions attached to their use (for example, restrictions on putting things up on walls). Connell also mentioned the trend of separating academics from students by security walls which require students to undergo security checks before being permitted to consult their teachers in person.
Connell’s perspective is one that is borne out of the union movement — she is a lifetime member of the NTEU and was central to the historic staff strikes that took place in 2013. It’s no coincidence that the NTEU’s latest campaign at USYD was called Unlearn Managerialism. A central theme of the discussion was reconstituting the link between student activism and the union movement, and many in the audience drew on the old adage that “staff working conditions are student learning conditions”. Despite her old-school union credentials, Connell is no antiquarian. In an age where students are increasingly moved online and separated from the physical spaces of education, she noted that it was necessary for unions to make concerted attempts to reach out to students online and build an online presence.
Not only is Connell a product of the union movement, but she is also a child of the 70’s New Left and its radical democratic tendencies. Throughout the discussion, many speakers emphasised the need to democratise learning and make universities accessible to people from working-class backgrounds, marginalised genders and people of colour. That being said, Connell fully recognised the ways in which seemingly democratic and student-centric features of modern universities were actually tools of neoliberal control. For example, while student experience surveys may allow students to voice limited concerns about their courses, they are in no way accurate assessments of teaching quality and often have racist, sexist and anti-intellectual undertones.
Connell additionally argued that the trend to frame education in terms of “employability” is farcical, insofar as the labour market is constantly changing and cannot be reasonably predicted. The culmination and worst representation of these features is the university ranking system, which subjects higher education to the logic of market competition by forcing universities to compete with each other in abstract categories such as “employability” and “student experience”.
Connell’s thinking is particularly relevant to we USyd students who find ourselves in the ‘Ramsay Age’. Aside from its blatant white-supremacist agenda, the Ramsay Centre proposal and the ongoing negotiations regarding its implementation (taking place across Australian universities) are indicative of the encroachment of the private sector into public tertiary institutions. In the era of neoliberalism, many public universities have had to and continue to contend with aggressive cuts to their funding. It is largely due to this that many of these institutions find themselves considering such offers in the first place. Intrusions such as these threaten to compromise the institutional integrity and academic independence of public tertiary institutions. The ANU pulled out of its negotiations with the Ramsay Centre last June for these very reasons.
While the discussion did focus on the erosion of public tertiary education to a large extent, it wasn’t devoid of hope. Connell spoke at length about the potential for alternative tertiary education models. Central to such possibilities, in Connell’s view, is the prefacing of alternative — progressive, and often-times Indigenous — knowledge systems. She pointed to Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University and the Bolivarian University of Venezuela as examples of institutions explicitly aimed at challenging dominant colonial narratives and knowledge-transfer methods (in the case of the former), and providing accessible tertiary education for working-class students (in the case of the latter). Connell also spoke about Australia’s own tradition of ‘free universities’ — something she herself was involved in as a university student in the 60s and 70s. These were centres of learning run by and for university students seeking radically progressive curricula of the sort not offered by the prevailing tertiary education system.
Did we come away with any answers or solutions to the problems of the modern university? To put it simply, yes. For those who argue that a radical change to the university system is merely a utopian musing, Connell concluded with four proposals that could form the basis for a new, equitable and practical system of higher learning. First, she argues that universities must “sell the Mercedes”. That is to say, universities should invest money in education and learning rather than fancy buildings and managerial initiatives. Second, universities must abolish fees and make education universally accessible, although Connell recognised that this may not be immediately feasible without a robust system of social welfare that could ensure that this is well-funded rather than easily removable. Thirdly, universities should become democratic workplaces for staff, rather than bureaucratic quagmires where casual contracts predominate. Finally, universities should become pragmatic and democratic institutions in which students have a genuine say in policy and learning. With these proposals in mind, one can only wait hopefully for the “Good University” to become a reality.