We need to talk about our universities in a new way – because our current public discussions suck. I say this as someone who has mostly worked in the private sector but has 2 degrees and has been a sessional lecturer at an Australian university for a decade and also a reviewer for a major international academic journal in my field. I sit on the edge of academia – which suits me just fine.

The public debate about universities in Australia splays out over several axes – most of them unhelpful. In this piece I want to tackle the contrasting political and economic views of Australian universities.

There is a political debate about universities in anglophone societies – largely driven by the conservatives. Here in Australian, there is a wide-spread belief among conservatives (including the Liberal Party, the IPA, and writers in the Murdoch press) that universities have been taken over by radical “Post-Modern Neo-Marxists”. This latter phrase has been popularized by Canadian psychology professor, self-help guru, and prodigious beef consumer, Jordan Peterson. According to this view, academics in the social sciences and humanities seek to promulgate communism, relativism, and identity politics at the expensive of science, truth, openness, liberal values, etc. Our universities are nothing more than Maoist re-education camps – with their trigger warnings and safe spaces.

This view does not accord with my experience.

The modern university is really two very different institutions uncomfortably wedged together under one roof. The first is the world of academics. It would be unfair to say that these are people who have never left the education system but not wholly untrue. Yes, some academics have had careers outside academia but many have not. School then undergrad then postgrad then postdoc then a full-time position (if you are lucky). This is a world that is intensely status-driven and hierarchical. Supervisors exert immense, if forgetful, power over their doctoral students. Everybody competes to get their articles in the “best” journals. Everyone complains about the strictures of the academic world and then do their level best to reinforce by winning. Everyone bitches about each other. The fights are bitter even if the stakes are low. The rigours of peer-review can sometimes amount to sanctioned sadism. A socialist commune it is not. Perhaps it more resembles the intrigues of cardinals in Vatican City.

The other institution in the modern university is industrial factory that churns out credentialed students. Until comparatively recently, very few people in Western societies went to university – single percentage figures. The profound hunger for an educated workforce that rumbles in the bellies of our service economies led to a massive increase in funding for higher education. Now a little less than half of young Australians will go to university. The million plus students that attend Australian universities need to taught and assessed. And they pay (or borrow) good money to do so.

For students, a group that universities view as some mix of customers, employees and vagrants, the university is vast, clumsy bureaucracy that is simultaneously sycophantic and humiliating – willing to pander to their desires and ignore their needs. Failing a student is remarkably difficult. But educating a student is also hard, sometimes too hard. But there are bills to pay. This credentialing factory continues to churn – fueled by tax payer grants, student debt and the money of overseas students and their parents. The latter now funds over 20% of Australian universities. And a third of overseas students in Australia come from a single country, China.

Who does the work in this machine? Many academics do not like teaching students, so much of this work gets pushed down to their PhD students or postdocs or assorted casuals. Many academics aren’t that good at teaching so this is not necessarily a bad thing for the students. And the bait and switch is common in other industries. The classic move in professional services is to get your Rockstar consultant/lawyer/accountant to do the sales pitch and then send in a bunch of 22 year old grads to do the actual work. So academia’s business model is not that unusual.

If this mix of monastery and factory seems like an unlikely place for a communist dictatorship then it is. Yes, academics tend to be left-of-centre in their political beliefs. And yet their graduates still go on to work in the temples of capitalism (banks, consulting firms, advertising agencies). All this alleged Marxist indoctrination doesn’t seem to be stemming the tide of inequality in the Western world. Rather a degree is seen as an entry ticket into the world of the haves.

There are hotspots of student and academic radicalism. And the ungainly, mass-market bureaucracy of universities is a poor place to have nuanced discussions of identity. But mostly I think the conservatives mourn a time when universities were their safe space. When bow-tied younger scions of wealthy families would carve out respectable roles for themselves in polite society and learned societies. When universities were unashamedly finishing schools for powerful. Many still are such finishing schools – but they lampshade this in the language of guilt, tokenism and opportunism. The wokeness of universities is a merely mask for their ambition.

It is amusing that some people take this mask seriously. But for some, even the mask is too much.

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