The renowned historian and activist Howard Zinn called his memoir You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Explaining the title, he said: “I don't believe it's possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions, and to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that, is to collaborate with whatever is going on.”
I was reminded of this recently, when on the Melbourne JD Face- book page, the idea was put forward that Melbourne Law School (MLS) students engage in civil disobedience in protest against the government’s treatment of refugees. One of the responses to this suggestion was that students oughtn’t do this under the banner of MLS, since not all MLS students may agree with such actions and wouldn’t want to be represented as such. This is a fair point. What struck me, however, was the further argument that MLS is “meant to be apolitical”; that it is “not a political institution”, and “nor should there be any perceptions that it is”.
This is quite wrong. The very institutional structure of MLS reflects a certain politics. What we are taught and how we are taught it is a political decision, with different ways of doing so benefitting particular segments of the community rather than others. It therefore has impressive political implications. In this sense MLS is by no means apolitical—and denying that fact merely hides the underlying politics.
It is important that this be recognised, so that we can make conscious decisions about what kind of politics we want it to have. Otherwise, somebody else will.
Decisions about what we are taught and how it is taught have, since the late 1980s, been increasingly handed over to “market forces”, with the main beneficiaries being the business class. Research is increasingly being directed by business, at the expense of the community, and students are increasingly being pushed to take on the mentality of consumers—the “right” way of thinking according to the business class.
This dynamic was noted by George Orwell in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He wrote that, for the fictional police-state of Oceania, “Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist... But in matters of vital importance— meaning, in effect, war and police espionage—the empirical approach is still encouraged, or at least tolerated.” In other words, science was allowed, but only where it suited those in power. Oceania is an extreme example, but the underlying dynamic exposed by Orwell exists in all societies. What is occurring in Australian Universities involves the same dynamic.
This process was originated by the Hawke/Keating Labor government. They began a process of privatising public goods (consistently against the will of the Australian population) which included Australia’s Universities. It has been an incremental process with the Universities, which has involved the increasing application to them of business practices as if they were for-profit corporations. In other words, they are being “corporatised”.
This did not happen naturally – rather, it has been imposed by government. The idea behind Labor’s reforms was that with the introduction of fees, universities would be exposed to competition for students and so to free market principles, with the influence of the government decreasing in tandem. The course in fact taken, however, was the very opposite. An apparent paradox was noted by Melbourne economist Max Corden in 2005 in his paper “Australian Universities: Moscow on the Molonglo”. The application of market principles to Universities, he found, did not involve less government regulation. Rather, along with Orwellian free-market rhetoric, there occurred increasingly intense bureaucratic control. What’ s more, despite the rising “contributions” from students, government expenditure on tertiary education only increased.
This has continued under the current Liberal government. By deregulating fees entirely, and privatising student debt, it hopes to see the market take full control of the tertiary education sector. This continues to involve the same paradox which Max Corden encountered, however. One of the main cat-calls of the current government is “debt and deficit!”, and having University fees deregulated is supposed to help reduce this debt and deficit. Unfortunately, again, the very opposite would be the case. A recent report by one of the nation’s top economic modelers, NATSEM, found that the proposed plan to deregulate would drain billions of dollars from the budget over the long term, with any savings overwhelmed by the cost of bad loans and a jump in inflation.
What this suggests, as noted by Professor Stephen Parker, vice- chancellor of the University of Canberra, is “ideology in search of a problem.” And this ideology is not simply erratic dogma; it exists because it benefits certain segments of the population.
The main function of deregulation is to force researchers and students to be reliant on certain sectors of the community for funding, and so more likely to be complicit with those sectors politically. Government money acts as a safety net for those sectors.
With regard to researchers, a recent Group of Eight discussion paper sets the matter out clearly: “In seeking financial support from a broader range of sources, universities are coming under pressure to produce short-term practical outcomes, to commercialise, and to chase funding, no matter what the implications of winning it”. In the University of Melbourne’s recent policy paper, “Growing Esteem 2014”, three sources of funding were highlighted: the philanthropy of alumni, partnerships with industry , and teaching revenue. I will highlight the effects of the latter two.
Partnerships with industry, according to “Growing Esteem 2014”, will “require some difficult choices for the academy — surrendering some control to be part of something wider”. It recognises that the idea of “goal-directed research” will be “challenging to many”. The implication is that academics will need to learn to put free inquiry aside in order to attract funding.
Teaching revenue will increase with deregulation; and indeed the University of Melbourne is already taking advantage of possibilities for deregulation. Five years ago, 72% of students were undergraduates; by 2015 the ratio will be 50:50 (largely due to the transition of MLS to a postgraduate institution). Since graduate fees are deregulated, the University can get more revenue per student. Further, international students are strongly encouraged: by 2004 the proportion of full fee-paying international students had increased from four per cent (pre- the Hawke-Keating reforms) to 24 per cent of all university students in Australia.
And as Universities have come to rely more heavily on teaching revenue, so marketing departments have become more powerful. I’m sure everyone at MLS has been made aware that the University is, quoting a marketing slogan, “Australia’s no. 1 university now ranked in the world’s top 50”; and that, quoting the Law School Dean, MLS has “been ranked in the top ten Law Schools in the world and the best law school in Australia.” Whilst rankings are good for marketing, reliance on rankings is unwise for prospective students.
“University rankings would have to be the worst consumer ratings in the retail market”, says Warren Bebbington of Adelaide University. Indeed, Simon Marginson, a former Melbourne professor, now a Times Higher Education (THE) board member, has said the world would be a better place if rankings didn’t exist.
Rankings generally measure research output, and not student satisfaction. The University will increase research output, according to “Growing Esteem 2014”, by “identifying a number of disciplines within each Faculty with the potential to be ranked in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings top 20 and/or the ARWU top 40.” Ominously, “faculties unable to attain a top 20 or top 40 ranking” will have to be prepared to “make decisions around focus”, with academics given “clear guidelines on acceptable performance”.
This attack on free inquiry arising out of a focus on rankings goes alongside the cutting of student services. Last year, as part of the “Business Improvement Plan” (BIP), the University cut welfare services for law students by making services more “efficient”, thereby freeing up funds which are redirected to research. Kate Van Hooft, the wellbeing support officer for MLS, was only saved due to the last-minute outcry of law students and an intervention by the Dean of the law school, Carolyn Evans.
It is in this way that researchers and students are disciplined by business. Researchers must rely on funding from business, and so must research according to the goals they set. Otherwise, they are disciplined by research requirements to publish frequently in particular journals, the space for free inquiry thereby curtailed. Further, students, disciplined by increasing fees, must increasingly pursue a course which will satisfy employers, thus circumscribing possibilities for students to engage in social critique and radicalism.
Indeed, even the LSS welcome back barbecue this year is sponsored by a “global business consulting firm”, Bain & Company. Like in George Orwell’s Oceania, to quote the former Supreme Court judge Richard McGarvie,
“We are at peril of producing as potential leaders within the legal system highly efficient technocrats who have learnt nothing from the past and have little notion of the risks to be averted in the future.”
This would be the political outcome of a political decision, which we need to be conscious of and engage with. MLS is a political institution whether we like it or not; the question is only what politics it will have.
Duncan Wallace is a second-year JD student at Melbourne Law School.