Goodnight and Good Luck: a Letter to My Colleagues. | Memefest's blogpost @ Memefest
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Goodnight and Good Luck: a Letter to My Colleagues.

* a random selection of some Australian university advertisements

We are publishing this letter by Australian scholar, professor Justin O'Connor, written to his Colleagues when he left the University he was part of for several years. The letter is a concise analysis of some of the crucial issues at the core of the Australian university sector. Justin is a friend of Memefest and we share a deep interest in critical reflection of the university. We are also publishing this because we believe that we are at an important moment when public conversations about the nature of our educational institutions are paramount. Our current global crisis will expose many of the ills of the neoliberlisation of our lives and the institutions influencing large parts of our existence.

As in any crisis of such magnitude the outcomes are not really known, but what we do know is that there needs to be a push towards university cultures less hostile to knowledge, less managerial, less bureaucratic, less competitive, less devoid of intellect, less surveillance and audit based and less profit oriented.

As Justin wrote in one our our recent email conversations:" There is no institutional or cultural memory of an oppositional academia in Australia." We would also add that there is increasingly less capacity for critical epistemological reflection. Instead of "lecturers or professors, people are called "level B's" or "level E's", bureaucrats are given academic titles for administrative positions many times with a tap on their shoulder and outside of regular promotional processes, and the universities have seriously institutionalized an army of what they call "line managers." Not only the universities name academics line managers, academics call them selves line managers too.

While any institution can function only via participation of its members, the soft coercion, and explicit punishment do enforce modes of compliance coated in academic achievements. But universities are places of deep contradictions. One thing though is quite unique to the Australian University system- while some type of critique is often manifested in the form of academic outputs in texts or creative "research", seriously engaged, public institutional critique is extremely rare.


by Justin O’Connor

I’ll be leaving formally at Midnight January 6th.

Contrary to popular rumour, I did not decide to leave in order to escape the health and safety training sessions, nor to avoid my turn taking the section meeting minutes. At least, that was only part of it. The decision came from a realisation that my basic understanding of how universities, faculties and schools actually worked no longer applied. My pretty crude working model was one in which growing student numbers fund new members of staff, who then begin to form a research concentration, which then attracts more students, and the growing student numbers allows a certain amount of research funding (conferences, visiting speakers, an RA to help organise things). In my case I thought that a masters’ program, which should have around 120 students next semester, most of whom pay international fees, would provide the basic engine for that kind of growth. This, I have been told in no uncertain terms, is not the case. With no meaningful connection (we simply have no say in it) between the teaching we do and the money this generates, or how this money is spent, any strategic vision a school might have is pretty much dead.

Our school is now caught up (and I must keep repeating that we not alone, just ahead of the curve) in a management system, one of the biggest and most highly centralised in Australia. Schools do not set their own research budget lines anymore, these are allocated by Faculty, line by line, each one demanding fragmented micro-justifications using financial planning models drawn from the corporate world (from where most of our senior administrators now hail). Any sense of disciplinary/ school autonomy has evaporated. Teaching too is now determined in its basic framework by Faculty, on similarly mindless financial metrics. And when I say ‘Faculty’ I don’t mean Faculty; that collegial entity has effectively disappeared (the professoriate met once, never to be heard of again) leaving just a shadowy set of grumblings and rumblings around the edges of the blaring management publicity machine. No, Faculty means the Management of the Faculty. So for me the virtuous circle of student income-new staff-research funds is broken. Teaching and research are disconnected and distributed across different managerial functions with different priorities. Schools no longer have much say in this, spending their time managing the commands from above, supplying the necessary compliance and metrics. Academics simply respond to these in fragmented fashion, each task now embedded in IT systems and compliance metrics. Digital Taylorism.

Research strategy does not involve academic staff in schools or sections trying to find and develop synergies and shared ambitions, building a common narrative or group of narratives around intellectual purpose and broader academic profile. Research is about metrics, and metrics are about money. Teaching income is always the biggest source of income. But whilst we have three very successful masters, bringing in many millions a year ($20 million?) in a way that puts all research income into the shade: well, that’s nothing to do with research but teaching and so we’ll take that thank you very much. School research strategy then becomes about how best to facilitate the accumulation of metrics that can speak to the requirements of senior management, following the priorities du jour. It’s like an ant hill. Thousands of tiny little outputs and impacts, all sourced and carried by tiny little ant-metrics, carefully put together into a narrative shape that bears very little relation to what you actually do. If you look closely you can see fragments of your work – a nose, a toe, a scrap of text - but they are broken up and glued back together by the narrative secretions of whoever is charged to do this. So, input your outputs onto the [insert name of research capture machine here] and let the ants do their work with them. You can rest content that your KPI/ Professional Review metrics have been satisfied.

But, you’re only as good as your last metric. And every day, over the loud hailer, we hear of massive pig-iron Cat. 2/3 targets being met and overshot, unheard of millions coming in from sources nobody ever thought possible. Are you doing your bit? Why are you stood there whilst somebody else has just landed a contract with Sewers Victoria?

Meanwhile there is teaching (and learning). It must be clear to everyone now that the business of universities is to sell courses to students who (think they) need a qualification to get a job. It’s clear to the students, who have been told this by everyone, including universities. It is clear to the policy makers, who can’t see why they should pay for it if it results in students getting a higher paid job. And it’s clear to the teaching and learning people, who are relentlessly vocational. If only it was as clear to the academics.

This is what the student-consumer wants, but as the neo-classical economists have it, theirs is imperfect or asymmetrical information. The perfect consumer knows the value of what they are purchasing and has access to the information about all the other goods on offer. Not so here. Many students (or more often their parents) simply do not know what a job in a creative (or not so creative) industry sector looks like, let alone what skills it requires, or which program offers these in the most effective way. But that the main purpose is to get a job is never in doubt, because that is what is sold to them. At point of sale the focus is not just on the superficial aspects that marketing likes – the bright young things with cameras, the investigative journalist, the digital entrepreneur, the TV Newsroom presenter – but the practical, the experiential, the hands-on. It sells to ignorant consumers.

I’ve been teaching masters programmes almost continually since 1995. In my experience, the only practical outcome that matters - getting a job - comes from a set of understandings and skills that involve creativity, deep knowledge of the field, critical thinking, ability to work across different areas. Getting a job demands a sense of purpose (even if not quite focused on a specific job) and a resilience that comes from a sense of self-worth. These are not acquired via ‘practical’ or ‘vocational’ elements alone. The conflation of the ‘practical’ learning outcomes with the practical outcome of getting a job is a huge category mistake with long lasting consequences for Higher Education. It is a disastrous mistake that is not confined to glossy websites and Twitter feeds of the marketing departments – of course they sell practical outcomes with promises of practical skills, as asked – but it has permeated deep into the rationale of universities.

In the contemporary Australian university it is an undisputed truth that academic knowledge is of little value other than to other academics (echoed by the current government but also in large parts of the Labor Party). If universities are to make people ‘work ready’ then it is a zero-sum game between the practical and the academic. This has resulted in the collapse of the very sense of self-worth of universities. I might even go so far as say they basically engage in self-hate. ‘Academic’ is a cipher for the redundant and self-indulgent, especially amongst those who have left their peer-reviewed paper days behind and now travel on Platinum Cards and are welcomed in the First-Class Lounge. Well yes, we need to do that stuff for the research metrics and the promotions and the prestige but please, keep it well away from the students. A very senior faculty manager suggested that universities are not about ‘pushing content’ in lectures – they can get all that on Google – but rather about ‘experience’. Not only is this a complete misunderstanding of what Google is actually about (which of the 10,379 answers are actually the content we need?) but of education itself. Students are not perfect consumers, they don’t know things and we are there to help them do this. This is a moment of trust, and one that has historic roots, whether Socratic or Confucian. To guide students from a state of relative ignorance to something like knowledge, which is also self-knowledge, is our job. It is not our job to give them second hand practical skills, all tied to identifiable learning outcomes, each of which is part of the commercial contract with the student (though basically unenforceable, the University will always win), and which will be redundant in a few years.

That moment of trust – where the student-consumer is in the dark and where they must rely on the seller (caveat emptor) to lead them – is something to which most academics adhere and they take it very seriously. Because we were all there once. We do it in our spare time, and off workload, and out of a sense of commitment. But that bond of trust, and the spaces in which it is fostered, is utterly anathema to university management and has been rooted out with a vengeance. The everyday administration and organisation of teaching, which used to be based around a school, has now become a management prerogative. Not just the enrolment systems, where instead of a pastoral advisor the academic is now like one of those powerless check-out support people at Coles: “oh, credits not come through and you can’t enrol? Have you tried taking the bag off the scales and putting it back on? Well, I’ve got a swipe card but I’ll just call the supervisor”. Not just timetabling, which continues to be a nightmare of its own making, simply to save money (KPMG see empty rooms as a wasted asset) with not the slightest thought about student/ staff experience. IT systems have efficiencies but administratively this means we now spend time doing the inputting and learning how to input. Our lost time is their efficiency saving, as digital machines extract all previously untapped slack time, like fracking technologies on previously useless gas fields.

Our actual carbon-based school administrators, who have been absolutely brilliant and who have saved (or cleaned up after) a million messes and disasters, and who sit in hot offices talking to confused academics with politeness and grace: they have gone. Sorry people, we apologise for any inconvenience caused. This loss of people who know how things work and can really help you solve problems is the clearest indicator I know of how little the management care about academics.

Not just those systems but the framework of every unit, the nature and spread of the assessments, the content – yes, it is now down to that – of each unit, is thoroughly gone over by T&L enforcers. Though that is increasingly about self-censorship I suspect – we avoid anything that smacks of ‘pure learning’. Look at us, we do video essays! As one V-C made clear a few years ago – academics don’t own units, the university does. You are interchangeable. We are Borg. Lectures are systematically undermined not just by live-streaming (you can watch it in the bath!) but by students being told BY THE UNIVERSITY that they are redundant. Without any evidence – indeed ignoring the evidence to the contrary. And with thousands and thousands of overseas students thinking – why I am actually here then? It’s not about lectures vs. flipped classrooms, Moodle content and so on. Lectures are good, bad or indifferent; same with ‘task based’ assessment and video essays. You chose the form that suits you/ the content/ the class. It is not about this or that form or technique: the symbolic assault on lectures speaks to a deep sense that academic knowledge is worthless. We should tend the T&L check-outs.

One question I’m always asked is why would the university want to do this, to make its academics feel worthless and tell its students that only in the vocational/ experiential can practical advantage, and any real worth, be found? Senior management declared war on academics (‘content-pushers’ to the last) a couple of decades ago. Simply put, the idea of a profession cuts against the logic of the corporation. If the university business is to sell things to students, it needs people who can deliver but they must do so on the terms set out by management. Academic autonomy, teacher-student trust, the commitment to knowledge for its own sake: these are values which have no place in the modern university.

This is all well known, a hundred papers, books, newspaper articles tell us this. They tell us we are de-professionalised, that Higher Education is a commodity only, and that students are beginning to cotton on to grade inflation (see the recent reports coming from the UK), rip-off fees, craven marketing and a life of debt. Any ‘industry’ which, like universities, has put their own profit margins (or salary pay-rises) above the interests of those it is supposed to serve is in big trouble. A ‘banking royal commission’ for universities is long overdue. I spoke to somebody who was about to leave this university who said something that cheered me up: “someday somebody is going to have to put this whole mess right”. I left feeling happy that somebody thinks they actually can and will be put it all back together. Maybe they will, but only external political forces will be able to do this. Management is so deep in they are lost; academics are utterly defeated.

I’m saying nothing new. What I learned here (again, we are not alone) was how people work and live in totally alienated environments. Alienated not: ‘lack of well-being? Please sign up for school mindfulness classes’. Alienated: to see the products and process of your labour– not just the teaching environment or the research metrics, but the whole life investment we all have made in what we know and try to pass on – utterly taken out of your control and used against you. These are psychological damaging places. I am sure that behind closed doors there are groups of scholars and teachers who know and respect each other, and can feel open and engaged in what they do together. I do see that all the time. But what I also see is that outside these small circles, intimate academic protective bubbles (in the Sloterdijk sense) this is an alienated workplace, perhaps the most alienated I have encountered.

It’s tough to say this, but stepping out of the confines (de facto if not de jure) as I have in the last few months, I think we have all been frogs in the water. Do the frogs not notice, or do they think, hang on, it’s just a passing phase, the temperature will drop? Or do they just not know how to scream? I witnessed the collapse of any democracy in the school, that strange hierarchical democracy of academia that is so often dysfunctional but, you know, it’s our dysfunction, not that of a senior management far away on a distant planet. That gave way to the efficiencies of a corporate hierarchy based on willingness to do the bidding of management. Of course, like many professional attributes, the academic based hierarchy was not so much abolished as co-opted. The academic hierarchy was an odd mix of respect and fear, but it was kind of rule-bound because ultimately it was based on a collegial group who were committed to it. Hierarchy is still hard-baked into the system, but it is no longer governed by the school, by collegiality. It is metric based, performative, disciplinary and divisive. It has left academics fearful and without respect, though it does have better conditions than working for UberEats.

In conditions of fear and alienation it is hard to cope. I have seen how little micro-grains of administrative (no longer ‘service’ but ‘leadership’) authority lead to a hyper-identification with power. I am finally in control of something and so am aligned with all the heads and deans and pro-vice deputy associate chancellors all the way up the chain of power, to the Big Other herself. It is a good feeling, one we have all shared, being aligned, head-patted, off the hook. But takes a lot of vigilance for that not to become a path to doing onto others that which has been done to yourself, a pattern familiar in authoritarian states. And universities, in case you need telling, are essentially authoritarian institutions. I came to understand more the endless performance of public congratulations – grants, awards, SETU scores. Yes, it is pig iron production figures and employee of the month notices. It is also a craving for real collegiality and solidarity and for some shared sense of purpose and recognition. Yet one does not need to read Adorno to see how distorted a form of collegial respect this has now become. Such public congratulations reminds me of Shostakovich talking about the Second World War: finally we were allowed to cry openly in public.

What is happening in Universities of course reflects the wider world. The possibilities opened up by mass participation in higher education; the cultural shifts that have made the fearful hierarchies of the past less acceptable; the breakup of the cannon into multiple cannons and the proliferation of voices blossoming in the realm of formal knowledge; the promise of the digital, liberating knowledge and teaching from older forms founded on scarcity and analogue. And the existential challenges we face as a country and a species. What brilliant, committed fun we could all have, if we were just allowed to get on with it, set our goals, with the technology and the facilities, the freedom, and the culture of multiple proliferating students from all over the world. Where we could all feel happy about going in to work on a Monday, a spring in our step, really enjoying the challenges ahead. Not the slow dread of Sunday email-checking, the deadening meetings, the affectless communication, the sense of never-ending tasks over which you have no control. We could be lighting up the world. Instead we are pissing away the institutional memory and ethos of learning and teaching in the service of a corporate machine which – we all know don’t we? – will hit the buffers sooner rather than later. Instead of introducing students to all the possibilities that they might become, and the world with them, we are cheating them of that profoundly vital space between childhood and work which, at least since the 1960s, have been the most fecund and creative moment in our lives. Now we go from school to work, via that simulation (simulacra) of work called the vocational university.

You may say that I am leaving, jumping on the last stage out of Dodge/ helicopter out of Saigon. Maybe it is less cowardly to stay, and try and salvage respect and meaning, for yourselves and for the project of university education. There are many in the school and faculty doing this, and doing it well. What is being done to universities drives me to anger; maybe I should learn the self-control displayed by people like Gillian Triggs, Christine Blasey Ford or (God help me) Hilary Clinton who, under relentless pressure keep their cool. There are people fighting the good fight, better than I could. So in this sense I leave feeling like a failure. Whatever the case, I do think you all deserve better, because you are the ones who pull everything out of the fire, who actually deliver what the university is selling. You make up the gap between the marketing hype, whose job is done when the dotted line is signed, and the reality of learning about the world, yourself and how the two fit together. You are the value-creators and every management strategy sets out to remove control of this value and to make you forget that it is you who create it.

You deserve better. And I do think there are changes with positive, green shoots afoot. But I’m not going to be around to see these, and so, with all due respect I wish you good luck.


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