15 April 2013

Why do we need universities?

Last weekend, the federal government announced plans to slash $2.3 billion from its spending on higher education in order to fund the Gonski school reforms, the biggest cut to the sector since John Howard's 1996 budget. The short-sightedness of this decision leaves me in despair.

I've taken advantage of my democratic right to express my opinion and have written to the Prime Minister and to the Federal Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research.

This is the text of my letter:   "I am writing to you to express my anger and dismay at your decision to cut $2.3 billion from higher education announced last Saturday 13 April 2013. Whilst I support increased levels of public investment in our schools, one sector of education should not be cut to finance initiatives in another.   It is my great concern that in making this decision, you have demonstrated a heartbreaking lack of understanding about the purpose and the real value of universities.   Universities exist to:
  • extend the boundaries of the known, to create knowledge new to humanity using the tools and techniques of the disciplines,
  • make discipline-specific bodies of knowledge (including newly discovered knowledge) available to all humanity, through scholarly publications and other media,
  • provide discipline-specific programs of education, and thereby to induct novices into the role of custodian-expert-researcher of the knowledge of the discipline, and
  • educate and graduate specialists to work in industry and government who have the skills and expertise to seek out, commission, contribute to, assess, and use this discipline-specific knowledge to solve the day-to-day problems of society and the greater problems of humanity.
A pragmatist would say that a university (also, or perhaps even only) exists to provide accreditation and certification: to warrant that its graduates are competent and have demonstrated suitable achievement in their chosen area of expertise. There is no doubt that for a significant number of university students, the main objective is the testamur – the piece of paper confirming that a graduate has earned a degree – because without a degree, many employment opportunities evaporate. This pragmatic casting of the institution, with its focus on credentials and warrants, does a grave disservice to the traditions and cultures of the university. Creators, curators, and custodians of the knowledge and expertise that underpins humanity’s capabilities are deeply embedded in their disciplines. They have known for centuries that an education is more than a qualification and that a university education differs in significant ways from educational programs developed for delivery by other educational institutions. Specifically, universities bring together the tasks of research and teaching, and it is when these are woven together elegantly that profound and invaluable discoveries are made for humanity, by individual scholars of all ages. It is important that those who provide our funding also take the time to understand this as well.

Those universities offering research-led education (and almost all Australian universities provide research-led education in one form or another) are preparing two kinds of graduates. The first category (by and large, those who stay within the walls of the university) includes those who take on responsibilities as custodians of the body of disciplinary knowledge. These are the researchers, the teachers, the writers, and the academics operating from within the discipline. They have a responsibility to maintain and develop the body of knowledge, to disseminate existing and new disciplinary knowledge, and to set the standards for those entering and operating within the discipline. These graduates go on to careers in academia, as teachers, theorists, and researchers. The second category (those who will have careers outside the walls of the university) includes those who use their disciplinary knowledge to solve the problems of society and perhaps of humanity. These are policy advisers, technical officers, managers, and practitioners whose jobs in industry and government are informed by their disciplinary expertise. They use the content knowledge of the discipline, along with the methodologies, theories, tools of analysis and problem-solving, techniques, skills, language, and forms of communication of the discipline. Both groups see the world through the lens of the discipline, and approach their work from the perspective of a discipline expert. Both groups have a responsibility to extend their disciplinary expertise over time. They are more than competent technicians; they are disciplinary pioneers.

The best of our disciplinary experts have a foot in both worlds.

Therefore, on behalf of my colleagues, all Australian university students, and every single Australian, I ask you to reconsider these cuts."

I can only hope that good sense will prevail, but I foresee a long, hard battle ahead of us.