The Modern University

“If the Australian public knew how few people actually turned up to arts lectures at the modern Australian university, they would move to drastically cut the current levels of public funding for universities”. So said one of my former professors, casting a glowering eye over the turnout at a lecture midway through the semester – of a class of one hundred there were perhaps twenty or thirty in attendance. Of those thirty, seven or eight were on Facebook or a news site. If you’re skeptical of anecdotal evidence, try this: lecture attendance across CASS averaged 30% last semester. In other words, these students don’t want to be at university for its actual purpose, to critically engage with courses. The question then arises; how does a research intensive university administration respond to dwindling participation and rising budget cuts?

The answer seems obvious: cut overheads, in this case by fusing departments and announcing that tutorials will be replaced by interactive seminars. Unsurprisingly, these decisions have been greeted with general opprobrium; staff resignations and student protests. On a sidenote, you do have to admire the chutzpah of the ANU administrators, who have not only tried to argue that tutorials in CASS should be cut, but that this development would be better for student learning. While these changes are disturbing, they should act as a catalyst for a long overdue discussion of what role the university should play and what its purpose should be.

There is a tension between two aims of the modern Australian university. On the one hand, to equip students for a role as productive workers in society, on the other, to pursue knowledge as its own end and in doing so, getting students to engage in critical reflection on society. Currently, the former aim seems to be taking grip at the ANU where we privilege the hard sciences that generate research, and the schools of commerce and economics that generate money. The modern Australian university is a broad church where students studying finance and marketing are lumped together with those that are wrestling with the ideas of Plato’s Republic. To address an earlier point, the reason why people aren’t going to lectures isn’t because the material isn’t engaging; it’s just not engaging to those (the majority) who are only at university because society says they have to be.

In response, we need to initiate an amicable divorce at university, realizing that the matrimony of commerce and the arts wasn’t meant to be and letting them go their separate ways. The schools of commerce should become more TAFE-like in nature with an emphasis on work placement. Universities should go back to their original mandate: pursuing knowledge as its own end and giving students a liberal-arts education whereby they can engage in critical reflection on defining issues. This change would simultaneously make vocational degrees more relevant to the job-market and make a liberal arts education a site where we cultivate the next generation of philosopher kings.

What would this university look like? Firstly, it would be a smaller, more Spartan university than the current bloated system we have. This would manifest itself physically as a smaller university with buildings of permanence, not a club-med replete with every student amenity imaginable. This model would entail a commitment from students to come to class, work hard and think deeply. Excitement would be generated by debating big issues, not by the new sushi offering on campus. This system by definition could not cater for everyone. It does not fit the misplaced utopian Labor ideal of universal university education. It would be a model that is unashamedly elitist in its demand for students to work hard and professors to be inspiring. A corollary of this is that entrance scores would have to be raised and the degree itself extended from three years to five. It would also readjust staff-student power relations, recognizing that teachers shouldn’t have to try and ‘sell’ their courses to increasingly disengaged student ‘consumers’ who want to have their way with everything from assessment format to whether lectures will be recorded. There is little more demoralizing than seeing a highly qualified academic having to tell the class how she will overhaul her pedagogy on the basis of a hastily completed SELT review from a disgruntled student.

A new system would give a much-needed clarity to the goal of the university and would give lecturers the chance to challenge students rather than pander to them. I’m sure many people who have read this will vehemently disagree with my observations; they will point out that many students miss lectures for work and still engage with the content of classes, that SELT reviews encourage a dialogue between teachers and students instead of a paternalistic approach, and that a vast array of disciplines encourages a cross-pollination of ideas. They may scoff at the pompous rhetoric of a ‘Spartan academy’ and argue that entrance criteria would favour private school kids who have been spoon-fed to achieve higher ATARs. In short, you may dismiss this model as an unwarranted radical overhaul. The sad irony is that a radical overhaul of a different nature is already well underway.