In this week’s faces of ANU David Tuckwell speaks candidly with Margaret Thornton, Professor of Law here at the ANU. They cover the corporatization of Australian Universities, the homogenization of Australian Law Schools and the serious implications of deregulation. Thornton’s most recent book, Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law, was published by Routledge in 2012.

David Tuckwell (DT): In your recent book Privatising the Public University you argue that since the 1990s, successive governments have forced universities to act more and more like businesses. What has this meant for law schools?

Margaret Thornton (MT): Because law students pay at the highest rate, law ends up subsidising other parts of universities; it is often 30%, sometimes 50% which is taken. Law schools are forced to sell their product (education) and bring in more full fee-paying students. And this is how the JD developed: as a full fee-paying course. That’s why the JD was differentiated from the LLB, because it was classified originally as a Masters degree that wasn’t subject to the fees cap.

DT: Whereas many people think academics play a large role in influencing the legal profession, you claim it tends to work the other way round. That is, the legal profession determines what is taught at universities.

MT: That’s absolutely the case. In order to practise law, an individual has to be certified. There is uniformity in the subject matter specified by the “Priestley 11”, named after a committee chaired by Justice Priestley. Every institution in Australia teaches these eleven subjects and in order to become certified students have to pass them.

Students then think in order to get a job they should do more and more of these basic courses: advanced torts and advanced contracts, etc. So it has a very significant effect. There isn’t much diversity in legal education. You have this homogenising impact of the Priestley 11 on the law curriculum.

DT: What do you make of Joe Hockey’s budget, especially with regards to deregulating fees? 

MT: I think it’s quite frightening. If one looks at the US experience, some students there are paying over US$50,000 a year. There is this myth there that the more that is charged the better is the quality of the product. This false notion creeps in to legal education. There was some suggestion by Christopher Pyne that fees might go down as a result of deregulation. Well, there is no evidence of that anywhere in the world I have looked at.

DT: As well as students, you believe that corporatising universities has affected academics too. 

MT: It is accepted that this is the way things are. The younger academics coming in have never known another system. The values have changed; self-promotion we now see all the time. Many academics lecture to very large classes and accept this even though they know it is not the best form of pedagogy. Then there is more and more pressure to be productive so that teaching and research are perpetually in tension.

DT: You also say the increasing role the market plays in the contemporary university has undercut collegiality among academics, and faculties which used to be quite democratic are now more hierarchical. How were things different in the 1970s and 1980s?

MT: I think it is completely different, with a shift away from collegiality towards top-down managerialism. So now we have many more managers – in fact just about every week a new manager appears to look after some aspect of marketing or whatever. There are more managers now than academics; this is the case everywhere.

The way things worked in the 1970s and 80s – and I do not want to be interpreted as suggesting these were the halcyon days of yore, or anything like that – but I think there was a strong notion of social liberalism. The Whitlam government engendered huge optimism for using law as a means of social change. But in terms of governance structures I think democracy and collective action were important: people got together and made decisions. Well I rarely see that today. Instead we have this top-down management.

So VCs are paid huge salaries, which wasn’t the case in the past; they weren’t compared to CEOs of business like they are today. Not only that, but VCs are now surrounded by a bevy of Pro-Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors; the numbers become greater and greater. So a huge amount of money moves to the top and where decisions are made. The notion of line management makes it hard for those at the pyramidal base to play a role in decision-making. Corporatisation encourages self-promotion and benefits for individuals at the expense of the common good.

DT: You also argue that a lot of the auditable university metrics – such as output, league tables and citation counts – are not a fair or accurate way of assessing academic work. 

MT: I think this is an extraordinary change that has occurred, this movement towards league tables. And it has occurred only in the last decade or so in Australia – the idea that you’re going to be able to compare universities all over the world. So you see things like a VC might say, “We were number 49 last year and we aim to reach Harvard and Yale”. But what sort of things do these league tables compare? They only look at certain characteristics. They don’t look at things like diversity, or how women might be treated within the institution. So if a university has been good at something like community outreach that can be discounted.

DT: You talk about the idea that academics have plenty of free time as being a bit of misconception. Can you talk about the work hours?

MT: Academia, a bit like the legal profession, has become a job that is pretty much 24/7; the monkey is always on one’s back. You can’t really relax because there is so much to do.  And you have to perform – this notion of performativity I think is very important. And to show that you’re productive you have to prove that you are doing things all the time. A lot of things academics do there is no evidence to show for it, such as the pastoral care of students or promoting discussion.

The notion that prevails is that you’ve got to always have an output. So you’ve always got to be producing things, writing papers, producing Ph.D completions to be able to count them.

DT: George Orwell quipped that “the instinct to perpetuate useless work” was driven by the fear that it would be “dangerous if [people] had leisure”. Do you think keeping academics busy is partly strategy for keeping them under control? 

MT: It probably is. It means that one doesn’t have time to be reflexive about the situation in which one is working and to be able to make judgments about things and be able to resist. There has been little resistance to what has happened, which I think is disappointing.

DT: David Graeber once said: “[academics] have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.”

MT: I think that’s probably right – where is the tickable box for thinking? Scholars of the past like Aristotle spent a few years thinking about things before writing about it. Now you have to show you’re accountable for what you’ve done throughout the year. The system encourages superficiality and short-termism as opposed to thinking more deeply about the nature of knowledge and the big questions. So I agree with that comment.

Illustration: ‘Ceci n’est pas Margaret Thornton’ by ABIGAIL WIDIJANTO

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