Robert Manne and academic freedom

As a fan of Robert Manne, I’ve been a bit disappointed in his output of late.  But he’s usually invigorated by a newly worthy cause and in this case it’s academic freedom from the excesses of the culture wars.

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James Farrell
14 years ago

That’s seven posts in two days, Nicholas. You’re writing faster than I can read, let alone comment on them. But I’ll try.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

But isn’t this standard Manne hyperbole? There is no mention of the fact that Bishop dropped Nelson’s idea and no grant has been vetoed for 3 years. Or that one research centre that even if it does not match the academic freedom ideal is still only one research centre?

The central vulnerability of universities is price control on student fees. This is why they say yes to any request from Canberra, because they cannot control their own income to a sufficent extent. And name me just one Arts academic who has ever called for price control on student fees to be lifted.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

I think Manne is right when he says academic freedom is not something many insiders are willing to fight for and that it is constantly being encroached by the money givers. The states, the students, the ‘corporate partners’, and their own bureaucracies all want the uni academics to tow particular lines and its hard to resist. Having said that, I’m not convinced it has ever been otherwise or that things are worse now. Was there ever a time in which academics were just blindly given money to do whatever pleased them and where they could say absolutely anything? Or are we talking about an ideal situation that has never completely existed and that always needs to be faught for in order to be attained to some moderate degree? Its a judgment call, but I’d say we’re living in average times on that score. Its more within disciplines that competition has lead to a reduction of real debate IMO.

Crispin Bennett
Crispin Bennett
14 years ago

Andrew Norton identifies ‘universities’ with their Management, which shows, I suppose, where he stands.

I doubt if there are many university academics outside of the Business Schools who believe that their ‘central vulnerability’ has anything to do with their ability to fleece students. They are vulnerable primarily to their Management, with whom in general they share few values. What makes them vulnerable is their own lack of solidarity (with each other, with their students, with the values they claim as theirs but rarely risk much to protect).

A case in point is Coaldrake’s likely decision to scrap Humanities at QUT. The plain fact is that QUT academics could stop this happening, with an appropriately muscular campaign. But having subjected themselves to fear and exhaustion, it’s unlikely they’ll do this, choosing instead to further weaken themselves over a righteous whine or two over coffee about their deans and administrators.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Crispin – There is no workplace anywhere in the country where management takes less interest in the day-to-day activities of their staff than universities.

I’m certainly not going to defend everything university management does. But the reality is that they have dealt with a decade of real cuts to their income for Commonwealth-supported students fairly well, generally avoiding the mass sackings that would have flowed from a passive approach.

Academics tend to think that what they do is very important and that any refusal to fund it is a philistine capitulation to the bogeyman of the day (business, government, whatever). But obviously when everyone thinks this not everyone will be happy, given very limited resources.

Guise
Guise
14 years ago

Andrew, one research centre is, indeed, one research centre. But I don’t think Robert Manne is being hyperbolical.

The centrepiece of last week’s Budget was one which, on current indications, could mean the establishment of a lot more major research centres and facilities via the same less than transparent process behind the new American Studies centre. We will have a board appointed by the Minister, acting on directions from the Minister, and ultimately advising the Minister (who may or may not take their advice) on the disposition of – conservatively – $300 million a year. Recent experience suggests the Government will call for expressions of interest to establish a centre or facility relating to a particular area of national interest. Matching funds will be a core requirement, and if these come from the private sector we now have a strong precedent for the contributors to specify all sorts of conditions to the funding. Certainly more than is currently the case.

And there was a stick to the HEEF carrot. Minister Bishop has not suggested that the implementation of the Government’s new-found interest in higher education is contingent upon yet more governance and regulatory ‘reform’, but there is precedent here, too. Precedent for saying that much-needed funding is being stymied by the States, or education unions, or the Oppostion. But if we assume that the Government gets its way, and the nation’s universities come entirely under Commonwealth legislative and regulatory control, where then are the limits to possible intervention? We have already seen the Government willing to make funding contingent on changes to university governance: they could easily do the same for access to the HEEF.

With this in mind, I would expect to see governance arrangements for individual centres set up via HEEF to include only token academic representation, if any – the focus instead will be on business, industry and community representation, with little or no room for the long tradition of academic freedom. The independence of new research centres may well be compromised from the start.

Crispin Bennett
Crispin Bennett
14 years ago

Andrew — I’ve only ever worked in the private sector, never a university, but still it strikes me that “There is no workplace anywhere in the country ” is a pretty big claim. There are nuances in these things that aren’t seen from the gross facts.

I’ve worked in companies where employees would appear to be carefully managed on a daily basis, but where the style of scrutiny was a kind of nod-wink to approved styles de jour, with little regard for actual practises or achievement (actually this is common in the private sector). Indeed I’ve been promoted over people far more competent at the actual job content than myself because of my ability to read such nuances.

Conversely, academics appear to be left well alone, but they are often so enmeshed in ludicrous administration, that the latter becomes a kind of proxy for micro-management. You don’t need a boss looking over your shoulder if your time (at work and home) is in practise vastly over-allocated by “the rules”.

As you say, academics generally are committed to what they do, but I’d describe their complaints about philistine capitulation as less the adolescent naivety I think you’re implying (sorry if I mischaracterise), than a kind of distraction from the distressing reality that they’re not going to do anything about it.

If academics collectively decide that something is or isn’t going to happen in a university, in the end they could defeat their management because the latter are a fungible resource, whereas by and large academics are not. The latter have all the power, but like so many other sectors of the population, they are too frightened to use it.

Mark Bahnisch
14 years ago

A case in point is Coaldrakes likely decision to scrap Humanities at QUT. The plain fact is that QUT academics could stop this happening, with an appropriately muscular campaign. But having subjected themselves to fear and exhaustion, its unlikely theyll do this, choosing instead to further weaken themselves over a righteous whine or two over coffee about their deans and administrators.

That’s unfair, Crispin.

I worked in Humanities and Social Science at QUT from 00 to 04 so I’m pretty close to what’s going on.

There is a big campaign being mounted:

http://www.nteu.org.au/bd/qut/humanities/campaign

http://larvatusprodeo.net/index.php?s=qut

Alistair Carr
Alistair Carr
14 years ago

Unfortunately I have to agree that Robert Manne does tend towards hyperbole occasionally. And in this case too.

Universities house many strange bedfellows. Not all decisions there are made “by management”: many key decisions are made by senior academics, Deans, academic boards, selection committees, internal grant-funding committees etc. I think it’s inaccurate to paint all “management” (boo) as bastards, and all lecturers/tutors (hoorah) as heroes.

It’s more complex, of course.
And what about the library staff, cleaners, school secretaries, printers, maintenance guys, etc who keep the whole show going? Oh dear, are some academics so high above the world that they aren’t aware of these nuts and bolts? (But all too ready to go nuts over Bolt.)

In my experience, a cry of “they’re attacking ny academic freedom!” is sadly quite often based not on intellectual freedom or fearless iconoclasm, but on (a) I didn’t get a grant,
(b) someone else did,
(c) I’m losing my job,
(d) the Department’s closing down,
(e) someone disagreees with my views,
(f) a senior person is sick and tired of my harangues, etc.

(a) and (b) are flimsy: was it Woodrow Wilson who said, “Disputes in Universities are more bitter, because the stakes are so low.”? It is unbelievable sometimes how very trivial matters, which in non-academic settings would be ignored or easily sorted out, become “sites” of hysterical flouncing and verbose folderol.

Or thuggish threat, should a Union become involved.

(c) often has little to do with freedom; sometimes the loser of job seems to have expected a sinecure; in his mind the “freedom” is the liberty to receive a regular pay cheque, forever.

(d), well Federal funding is tied to student enrolments… Yes, cross-subsidising transfers are made internally, but if the money’s drying up, what to do? Not every Departmental cutback or closure is a manifestation of anti-intellectual decison making.

(e) – tough, eh? Well, that’s life, cobber.

(f) it amazes me how some senior folk keep turning the other cheek, sometimes…. not that harangues are grounds for sackings, but…..

So my advice to those who care, is to examine with pitiless gaze and digging around, any claim that “academic freedom” is being undermined, curtailed, or even threatened. It’s a claim easily uttered. It may happen here and there, but……

**********************

“Public intellectual” – now there’s a pompous title !!
Piffle, I say.

********************

Finally, a question:
can someone please recall the source of my favourite comment on the Canberra Press Gallery (circa early 1980’s?):
“the Press Gallery suffers from delusions of adequacy.”
??

Cruel, delicious, and apt.

Crispin Bennett
Crispin Bennett
14 years ago

Mark, I’m exasperated by academics, perhaps to the point where I’m unfairly sweeping in my remarks. But I do in all honesty doubt their collective courage and solidarity (just look at the state they have allowed universities to be reduced to).

I’ve no doubt the Humanities staff are protesting loud and hard. But how much support will they really get from their inter-faculty colleagues? There was a protest on Friday at Gardens Point which I hear garnered a pitiful handful, mostly of revolting students. It’s early days yet, admittedly.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
14 years ago

Nick – I don’t think there is substance to this. It is a few isolated incidents. There have been thousands and thousands of ARC grants approved in the time of the Howard government, with no more attention than that required to write a press release focused on a few that may bring benefits to the public. One Minister, who is no longer there, was spooked by criticism of how silly some of the grants were, and declined to approve 3.

I don’t know the detail of the American Studies Centre, but I don’t see how one centre affects anyone else’s academic freedom.

And we should not lose sight of the vital distinction between not funding an academic (which happens to the vast majority of ARC grant applicants) and denying them academic freedom to say what they want.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Crispin,

Mark, Im exasperated by academics, perhaps to the point where Im unfairly sweeping in my remarks. But I do in all honesty doubt their collective courage and solidarity (just look at the state they have allowed universities to be reduced to).”
I have to agree on this point. It IS amazing what we academics have let happen the last 10 years or so. However, collective action has never been the strong suite of academics. Free riding problems stand in our way and our collective societies are very weak. All I can say in our defense is that
a) The legal position of academics versus the university hierarchy is unusually weak in Australia. Basically the VC can do almost anything. This is not true of established universities in Europe, especially not in the areas of academic appointments and curriculum quality.
b) The university sector is now so large that its inevitable that the states and the government interfere more via ethical committees, foced private-public partnerships, tuition fee caps, etc. There’s no way you can have the same status and position when you educate 40% of society compared to just the elite. Universities are now to a large extent just schools for adults. You have to quality stream students and staff if you want to ‘regain’ the elite institutes you had before, but that is something not yet on anyone’s agenda.

I wouldnt classify the potential closure of Humanities at QUT as an attack on academic freedom. hat potential closure is examplary of the immense power of the executive within the Australian university governance system though. To scrap a whole faculty without any serious consultation would be impossible in many other countries.

Crispin Bennett
Crispin Bennett
14 years ago

Paul: “Universities are now to a large extent just schools for adults.” Appallingly true. My exasperation results in part from being a mature-aged undergraduate at a university where mass education means classes of up to 700, multiple-choice exams, little contact with lecturers, and assignments often marked by tutors without a basic grasp of English (I recently had one mark me down for using the apparently non-existent word “vitiate”). The quality of education available at a supposedly first-rate 2007 uni (UQ) is markedly lower than at the very third-rate UK university where I did my first undergraduate degree 20 years ago.

I also agree that the potential closure doesn’t have much to do with academic freedom. I meant to raise it as an illustration of a point parallel to yours about the power of university executives. If you view universities as essentially agents operating within a liberal market economy (which I thought I read into Andrew Norton’s comment), you probably conclude that the executive defines what are the organisation’s values (and thus what threatens those values). I counter that many academics would differ with the VC on what constitute threats/challenges, and that their views have an equally strong claim to be considered those of ‘the university’.

I don’t see much in Manne’s article that would lead one to be fearful for the freedom of academics to speak their mind within their own disciplines. I am however concerned about their freedom to speak on the future of their own institutions.

Mark Bahnisch
14 years ago

Ive no doubt the Humanities staff are protesting loud and hard. But how much support will they really get from their inter-faculty colleagues?

I don’t know, Crispin. There is certainly support from colleagues at Griffith, based on a union meeting held on Thursday last week.

But protest rallies aren’t really central to the campaign – more important is the submissions being made to academic board and also the change management provisions in the enterprise agreement. I don’t want to go into it too much here, because it’s a side issue and because some of the information I have isn’t in the public domain, but the process has been utterly appalling.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
14 years ago

The National Health and Medical Research Council often insert this

It is required that individuals, research groups or research institutions associated with this award shall not accept any research grant funds, consultancies or sponsorship from the tobacco industry or person connected with the tobacco industry.

into their grant conditions. I have yet to see anyone of Manne’s stature, or any other academic, criticise them (in print) for violating ‘academic freedom’.

Guise
Guise
14 years ago

Sinclair, pretty well every university in this country has a formal policy against accepting funding from tobacco companies. In some cases, a number of other global nasties are also ruled out. The NHMRC grant conditions, like the universities’ own policies, are the result of extensive consultation with researchers, and reflect the views of a large section of the research community. I doubt any of them feel their work is restricted by these policies.

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

Robert Manne does not exactly fill me with horror at the withholding of funding to three, or twenty-seven projects in a year, on grounds of failing the Minister’s laugh test.

A senior psychology researcher told me of his embarrassment when four out of four proposals were accepted, because he was counting on one or two and didn’t have resources for all four. I don’t doubt the good work he and most of the departments are doing. If a research project cannot be put in a credible proposal it probably doesn’t deserve Government funding by comparison with other deserving projects – also the subject of academic freedom.

Manne’s response to the disclosure of faked history is telling of his trustworthiness in other areas. He can be utterly trusted – trusted to fight his side of the ‘culture wars’.

Sinclair Davidson
Sinclair Davidson
14 years ago

Guise, that may well be true. But the point is that academics seem to have no problem with donors not funding activities/research they don’t approve of (and that the researchers themselves don’t approve of). The government, on behalf of taxpayers, makes that same distinction. I’m happy for Manne et al. to argue the government shouldn’t make that distinction, but I cannot see the difference between the two positions. I don’t accept that it is enough that universities have consulted widely on one and not the other. Science is not a democratic process.