Will our universities survive?

The three core academic values

I have been an academic for over 30 years, initially in the UK but then in Denmark and since 1993 in Australia. I have also held visiting positions in universities in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and South Africa. I have had a wonderful, privileged, academic career. I believe in academia and in it core values: academic freedom, scholarship and serving the community.

In my view all three are currently at risk in Australia. The purpose of this piece is however not to try to persuade readers to agree with me. Rather, in the best tradition of the academy, it is to stimulate debate on what I see as an important question: what is the future of our universities? Do these institutions have a future in the form and with the values we have known in the past?

Academic freedom

I am most fortunate that at my own university our Vice Chancellor, Lance Twomey, is a stout defender of academic freedom. I have first hand experience of this. The Western Australian AMA issued a statement calling for my university to silence me regarding various public criticisms I made of some of their members and their tactics:

The Curtin academic [GM] making these statements appears to have no understanding of the health system in WA and seems more interested in economics than patient care…The University must publicly apologise to hospital management doing its best in difficult circumstances. The AMA also calls on Curtin to stop ill-informed comment and destructive statements by academics and put patients in WA first.  (See link)

No action has been taken against me. I have to wonder however if all universities would have been as supportive of academic freedom. I also wonder if I would have made my initial criticisms or continued with them had I been younger, had not been a professor and had still been climbing the academic ladder. I don't know. It is of note however that some of my younger colleagues did (kindly) express some concerns for my academic wellbeing!

In a country like Australia one important role of academics is to serve the community by exercising our academic freedom and speaking out. The issue here is not about the rights and wrongs of the criticisms I or any other academic makes. Here in the West at least, health service staff members and many other public service staff are not allowed without permission to speak to the media. It is often difficult for individuals working in the private sector to speak out in public. Indeed academics in my view not only have a duty to speak out; they are one of the few groups who can. But I begin to wonder whether that statement should be phrased in the past tense?

I have also heard of ministers pressuring universities to have academics silenced on issues. That is scary stuff for our democracy that a minister would try such a thing. How common are such 'leanings' by government and do they sometimes 'work'? 

Also I served on a government advisory committee at which on separate occasions two academic colleagues suggested that we should not make recommendations that might be unacceptable to government. My view is that if academics are to sit on such committees, we must be free and feel free to exercise our academic freedom. Second guessing what our political masters might or might not like is something else. Given that view, I resigned in protest. Academics on government committees must be free to give free and frank advice, to exercise our academic freedom. But are we?

With respect to the future of the academy most worrying for me is the fallout in the wake of the under-funding by government of the university sector. Three things threaten academic standards, autonomy and independence. First, we are taking in more and more overseas students; second, more academic researchers are becoming entrepreneurs and setting up their own or being involved in private businesses; and third, we are going cap in hand to corporations for financial support.

Now none of these in its own right need be a problem but with the sword of lack of government funding hanging over the universities these issues start to dominate thinking and standards. Can we fail students who have paid big fees? Mind you we do not need to go to overseas students on that one. When I was at Sydney University, in one examiners' meeting, a member of staff raised whether the low grade allocated to a particular student should be revisited because he was a full fee paying student. The idea was howled down. The fact that the issue was raised however clearly demonstrates that the pressures are there.

Several universities are currently struggling financially as a result of the fall in demand for places. Some have become heavily — perhaps too heavily – dependent financially on overseas students' fees. Many are now cutting their general entry requirements — the demand is lowered, a new equilibrium is sought, so the 'price' of entry (the tertiary entrance score) falls. It is thus not standards but 'the market' that determines entrance eligibility. Demand falls and with it standards.

This year applicant A with a score of 60 gets in; her pal B with the same score last year did not. Where is the justice in that? Where are the standards in that? Of course if the standards beyond entry were the same, it might not matter (except perhaps that the fail rate would go up). But are the standards the same? And if the number of fails goes up, is that fair on those who fail who might well believe that they were allowed in 'falsely'? Or is there a 'dumbing down'? Can lecturers teach and students learn as well when there is a greater mix of abilities in the class?

Is scholarship still a core value?

We need to consider what a university education is about. Is scholarship still a core value?

On the funding by the corporations to make up for the loss of monies from government, this seldom comes without strings. What is acceptable? At my own university, after pressure from staff and students, a working party was set up last year to establish ethical and operational guidelines to be applied when working or thinking of working with a corporate. That is potentially a step forward.

Even if individual universities do attempt to operate with stringent ethical guidelines in working with corporates, however, the pressure from under funding by government makes it tempting to lower ethical standards. Individual universities ought not to be competing with each other to reduce these standards to win the corporate dollar — 'well if we say no, they will just go to university X down the road'. This is a national issue. We need national ethical guidelines.

Further, funding from the corporates is only possible in selected areas. In WA it is easier to get funding for research in mining than in say philosophy. Also to attract money from the corporates, a university will often pitch in some money as well, thus further distorting its own funding priorities. So philosophy misses out again.

Increasingly in the wake of involvement with the corporates and falling university salaries, relative to other sectors, academics are privatising their research in private companies. Fiona Wood of burns fame was co-founder of Clinical Cell Culture 'a private company recognised in medical circles for its world-leading research and breakthroughs in the treatment of burns'. She has recently resigned her position on that board but, for academics, where does and where should the line be drawn on ownership of research? We need a debate on this issue.  (See link)

Again we read that the recent Nobel laureate, Professor Barry Marshall, 'is claiming up to $US8 million ($10.5 million) in unpaid royalties from a detection device produced by a US company'. He also claims 'the company has infringed his patent'. The report by Amanda Banks (2005) continues; 'The Australian understands the invention [involved] stemmed from the discovery with fellow Nobel laureate Robin Warren' for which he won the Nobel Prize, and 'is sold under the product name of CLOtest'.

So, who owns what? How much of the money earned by this invention is going to the university and how much to the private company?

This push to earn money outside of the standard university salary is exacerbated by the government's IR legislation. The government is more into micro-managing the universities than ever before. While difficult to ascertain the seriousness of it, there is a risk of a loss of competitiveness which will lead to increased problems in recruiting internationally and retaining staff who are now more likely to wonder off to pastures overseas.

On the influence of the corporates on university research, Hugh Stretton (2005) has written how his university, the University of Adelaide, 'has accepted more than $1 million from Colgate for its Colgate Australian Clinical Dental Research Centre, whose director reports two conditions of the partnership and a decisive end to the ideal of research without fear or favour:' According to Stretton the director of this Colgate Centre stated: 'We exclusively use Colgate products and we do not undertake any research that competes against their products.' The director's view of this unsavoury arrangement was that it was 'extremely fair' (p171).

This assessment of this interference with academic freedom has the merit at least of being explicit. Against that background the following scenario is potentially worrying. Alcoa the aluminium corporate giant has a plant to the south of Perth. It is close to the small community of Yarloop, some of whose residents allege that their health has been adversely affected as a result of emissions from the plant.

Alcoa wants to extend its plant. The WA government must make a decision. Local residents are concerned. Together with other medical practitioners, Dr Andrew Harper, a Perth based expert in occupational and public health, is concerned. An Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) report recently recommended an expansion of the plant but only with 'stringent conditions'. (see link) This is challenged in some detail by Dr Harper. His view is that 'the EPA's recommendations fail to protect community health and the environment'.

Where do public health academics at the WA universities stand on this matter? In this context it is not so much the reality that matters. Wherever they might be, the fact that at least some of the universities receive funding from Alcoa can lead to community perceptions of a loss of academic freedom and integrity. Perception matters.

Serving the community

How can we as academics serve the community well if the community perceive our universities to be captured by the corporates? How can we maintain scholarship if we lower our entrance standards? Where does the line get drawn between universities and private companies involving academics? Where lies the future of academic freedom if we are leant on by the likes of the AMA, if there is perception of government leaning on us to provide 'government friendly' advice and of being in the pockets of the corporates?

As we have known and loved them, is there a future for Australian universities?

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