The wrong sort of knowledge

Richard Hil


The other day I was chatting to a seasoned academic at one of Australia’s more established regional universities. He referred to current higher education policy as a ‘huge failure of imagination’.

When I asked what he meant by this, he remarked: ‘the whole enterprise, higher education, has been reduced to the competitive market, income generation and preparing students for entry into employment so that they can became productive consumers’.

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ I asked, to which he responded: ‘There’s surely more to life than being a cog in the machine of economic growth, productivity and career’.

‘Like what?’ I inquired. ‘Well,’ he asserted, with more than a hint of irritation, ‘peace, love, beauty, living sustainably, being an active citizen, getting along with your neighbours, building respectful relationships, becoming ethically and spiritually reflective, mindful, truly globally attuned with an altruistic rather than individualistic bent’.

Phew! Despite the aggrieved tone and sense of impenetrable virtue, my respondent had touched on some of the tensions that swirl around the higher education sector. For starters, most government policy pronouncements on universities these days tend to emphasise their role in producing graduates as part of the ‘knowledge economy’ that is necessary to maintain high economic growth and prosperity. This view is shared by many key policy advisers such as Denise Bradley, who seems to believe that universities are indispensable feeders for the economy and without them we would experience a calamitous downturn in the nation’s fortunes.

Similarly, senior academic commentators like Louise Williams, writing in the May issue of Campus Review maintains that current higher education policy should be predicated on the central question: will the proposed expansion of student intake ‘deliver economic prosperity into the future?’ She also quotes Professor Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist, who states: ‘You can never have too much knowledge or argue against a better educated citizenry’.

Actually, it is possible to have too much knowledge of the wrong sort and an educated citizenry can mean just about anything, depending on which era and country you reside in. Perhaps more important is the question of what universities are for and what sorts of graduates we are seeking to produce.

A similar question has been posed by Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor at the Australian Catholic University, and in a different way by Professor Steven Schwartz, former Vice-Chancellor at Macquarie University who took it upon himself to teach a unit to graduating students on matters of practical wisdom. Professor Schwartz was deeply concerned about the sector’s over-emphasis on job readiness and other vocational imperatives. He also seemed to be saying: there must be more to the university experience than career guidance.

You’d certainly hope so but, as Louise Williams points out, the undergraduate experience can often be characterised by a lack of friendship, isolation and alienation from one’s institution. It can also mean regarding the university campus as a drive-through facility on the way to the afternoon shift. As consumers, students tend to view universities as service centres and academics as dutiful, techno-savvy facilitators.

And despite all the talk about excellence, innovation, choice, opportunity and flexibility, it seems that many students graduating in business, journalism and other courses are less than job-ready and certainly ill-prepared to be active citizens in a thriving democracy. And on the other side of the ledger is the academic experience: general disillusionment, over-regulation, stress, casualisation and a drift away from the profession.

Equally worrying is the demise of non-compliant academic eccentrics who have been largely displaced by acquiescent operatives, many of whom think that the corporate university is part of the real world – a world that increasingly excludes liberal arts education and allows only for demand-driven and vocationally relevant courses. Perhaps what characterises today’s university is not so much a failure of imagination as an uncritical homage to a certain world view. 

Richard Hil is the author of Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university, published by NewSouth.