Cuts to Higher Education - Let's be Realistic

What does one do, after finishing university? Get a job. Take out a mortgage. Grow up, they say. Start living in the real world.

The most amazing success of the world’s most rich and powerful people in recent decades has been aligning their own agenda with the idea of the real, or of being realistic. This is how the real world works, they say, and anyone who has any other ideas is an idealist or a dreamer. What is usually overlooked is that our social and economic system actually underpins and produces a certain kind of ‘reality’. It manufactures dense urban environments centred around white-collar workplaces and a hyper-complex chain of resource extraction, production and consumption that cannot slow or shrink without triggering ‘crisis’ – and through the same process, brings us up to be people who want to live in this way, who often derive a sense of self-worth from career success or salary size, and struggle vainly, at Christmas, to think up gifts that our relatives might kind of like (‘want’, and certainly ‘need’, are far too much to hope for).

This system produces humans who behave in a certain way, and then naturalises this behavior. What does naturalisation look like? A good friend once chided me for wondering why shopping malls, rather than any other cultural sites or public spaces, are invariably found at the centres of our cities and, for many of us, our lives. “People just want to have things,” he said. “It’s human nature. Cavemen, when they were running around hunting mammoths, were just waiting for shops to pop up so that they could buy more stuff.” Yet no one in Australia today has ever known another kind society than the present one. As any scientist or sociologist could tell you, this means that there is no evidence at all to suggest what humans are ‘naturally’ like, or how the world ‘really works’, or how it really could.

On the other hand, there is an insurmountable quantity of evidence (produced by natural scientists, many working in universities) of the challenges that really face humanity in this century: most obviously, the ecological crisis, of which agricultural and food crises, mass species extinctions and climate change are all symptoms. How have we come to the point where our national discourse insists that capitalism is natural and inevitable – that we genuinely need to spend the most part of our waking lives working or thinking about work, to produce (or trade for) an absolute orgy of goods and services that we really need, that really make us happier and more well off than ever before – when all the while, warnings of lethal threats to the ecological systems which produce our food, clean our air, and supply our water are dismissed as unrealistic, inflated, uninteresting or false? We’re expected to work day in and day out for numbers on a screen, while not lifting a finger for the soil and the climate, much less the communities, on which our ongoing existence depends. Where is the reality in this picture; who is being realistic?

As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek once put it: they are the dreamers. Those who delude themselves that the reproduction and growth of capital through hyper-production of goods and needs – a linear system in which limited resources are converted irreversibly into pollution and waste – can continue indefinitely on a finite planet. We wouldn’t let a teenager get away with believing something so illogical, but when the most powerful people in the world espouse this idealistic nonsense, it’s more difficult to hold them to account.

Back to growing up. What does this process of going into the real world, at the end of a university degree, actually look like? We leave an environment (traditionally) filled with open discussion, critical thinkers and, crucially time, to reflect on society as a whole and its direction. We enter one in which most of us will work at least forty hours a week in jobs that often fail to inspire or motivate us, an environment which leaves many adults with little energy even to cook for themselves, let alone to act upon their concerns for social or environmental justice. This process, in which one becomes simply too busy and too worn out to do much other than work, is called ‘growing up’ and ‘becoming more realistic’, but this reality is one that current economic relations themselves produce. My parents were pretty radical at university, and their values have never truly changed – but they never act upon them because they’re busy working, recovering from work, or taking brief, intense and extremely luxurious holidays to help them take their minds off work.

The present targeted cuts to the higher education system are designed to introduce this ‘real world’ sooner than ever before, colonising the previously independent space of the university with the reality into which we’re supposed to grow up. In the 1960s and 70s, free higher education provided unprecedented access to new life opportunities, especially for Australians from working-class families. It also provided a space for critical reflection on society as a whole – the feminist and anti-Vietnam movements, for example. These two movements, notably, began with a very small minority of students and but are today considered to have been of stupendous moral value for Australian society.

What has changed in the last few decades? University fees and HECS debt. Increased cost of student accommodation, both in colleges and in rental markets generally. Decreased access to Youth Allowance. Students often work many hours and study on the side or in the evening, meaning less time on campus, less campus life overall, and more time listening to lecture recordings, alone. Academics today spend more of their time performing administrative tasks than teaching or researching. Increasingly frequent and arbitrary deadlines are forcing researchers to publish articles that are incomplete, compromised or simply bad – creating headaches and wasting time for their peers and students.

Today, the resources at the disposal of the Australian people are greater than they have ever been. Yet governments (particularly our current) have succeeded in making us scared, enough to believe that we can no longer afford social services, environmental protections, or quality education. Most tellingly, cuts to higher education are being directed against departments that have tended historically to produce research that challenges the economic and social structure that conservatives call the ‘real world’ – such as humanities faculties. Other departments, such as geology and engineering, have faced reductions in recent decades that have made them increasingly dependent on doing research that attracts funding from private industry and furthers their interests. The ANU, for example, will have difficulty facing up to its moral and financial responsibility to divest itself from fossil fuels (as demanded by the Fossil Free ANU campaign and the global divestment movement) for fear of a backlash from the fossil fuel companies who are increasingly involved in funding everything from phD scholarships to research grants.

Cutting higher education is not just about saving money, it directly serves the interests of a government which, more than any other government in our history, is tied to the perpetuation of the status quo. Why? Governments cater predominantly to the wishes of the owners and managers of large corporations, who lobby and make donations to both major parties. In April 2013, at a fundraising dinner for the Institute of Public Affairs, a right wing think-tank, Abbott spoke before a crowd including Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart, promising a “big Yes” to many items from a list of demands from the institute for Australia’s future, including destroying the ABC, abolishing the department of Climate Change, repealing the carbon tax, privatising Medibank Private, and so on. Do these policies sound familiar? As university courses increasingly resemble preparation for the modern workplace, this world that conservatives have posited as the ‘real’, and as the only world possible, is penetrating further and further into institutions that have been, historically, breeding grounds for research and subversive ideas, and the exploration of alternative disciplines such as environmental science, human ecology and sociology.

We have a responsibility, graver than any in history, to reject the social order handed down to us, to expose its delusions and to consider together how we might live otherwise. Or, put more ‘realistically’: how we might survive what is to come, while preserving some sense of human dignity and an idea of justice. This will involve being a lot more serious, and also staying a lot more silly, than the ‘grown-ups’ who wear their suits around and try to keep busy enough that they don’t have to think about anything.

We’re not ratbags or idealists: we’re just being realistic. And to the mining and media magnates, bosses and politicians – quit living in your little dream world. It’s time to grow up.