Off Course: From Public Place to Marketplace at Melbourne University by John Cain and John Hewett, which I was alerted to by a couple of critical reviews from people close to recently-departed VC Alan Gilbert, the book’s main target. Andrew Norton’s was the better of the two, but still consisted largely of quibbles. As Norton says, the book doesn’t contain much that is new, but it certainly provides convincing evidence for several of the main propositions put up by critics of the university reforms of the past fifteen years or so.
First, the idea of ‘the enterprising university’ has been a failure. All of Gilbert’s big commercial visions – Melbourne University Private, the University Square development, Universitas 21 and so on – have come to nothing, or almost nothing, after chewing up tens of millions of dollars of public money. The same is true of the grandiose plans for international expansion that led to Monash claiming to be the world’s first “global university” and to the establishment of money-losing overseas offshoots by many others. As far as I can tell, the only successes have been those that have operated as low-cost feeders for fee-paying students to the parent campus.
Second, the managerialist thrust of the last fifteen years, while inevitable in some respects, has failed to deliver the goods. A really striking instance of this is the gradual re-emergence of discipline-based departments and the increasing reliance on (largely unpaid and sometimes unofficial) department heads to run the actual business of the university, while a proliferation of deans, deputy vice-chancellors and so on pass paper between themselves and the government
Third, increased exposure to market forces has not produced diversity among universities, a renaissance of liberal arts, or freedom from centralised government control. In fact, we have seen a proliferation of low-cost, high margin business courses, and increased homogeneity in organisation, teaching style, research orientation and almost everything else. Meanwhile, a shrinking public contribution is still sufficiently critical to be levered into absolute control that can be exercised at any level the Minister chooses (witness the recent fuss over ‘capuccino courses’, most of which were created in response to the very market forces that are still a central theme of policy).
The good news, in my view, is that, in important respects, the worst is over. Its generally recognised that universities are a lot worse off now than when the reforms began, and some of the worst cuts have been restored. Moreover, while the managerial class has not improved much in competence, it has gained in humility. Of course, given the record of the past decade or so, university managers have a lot to be humble about.
I also went to see Dogville, about a fugitive woman (Our Nic!) taken in by a town which then turns on her. I went despite bad reviews, which turned out to be justified. Adding to my difficulties with the film was a narrator who sounded identical to the one in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy