Saturday, April 16, 2022

The university experience — then and now

It is interesting to look back on pre-pandemic discussions of the future of the university, and see how much of what we think of as new isn't. Robert Manne wrote about the "University experience — then and now" from the perspective of ten years ago. Manne writes that pre WW2 few went to university, but this changed after the 1950s to provide administrative and teaching professionals. I am not sure about the latter, as Australia had non-university teacher training until the Dawkins Revolution of the 1980s. Manne argues that universities filled the training need, as there was no alternative. That seems unlikely, as well as teachers colleagues, Australia had forms of vocational education within stand alone non-university institutions, and large employers (I was trained as a computer professional within the Australian Public Service (even some training as a civilian at military staff college).

However, Manne seems more interested in the university experience for staff, than the students. They argue that universities had to change from collegiality to professional management as they grew. However, there are large law firms which operate with relatively informal structures while having many thousands of professional staff.

Manne also seems to think there was a golden age where Australia universities undertook purely academic goals, free from considerations of the needs of government or commerce. However, from the first, our universities were created to train professionals for jobs, and to conduct research to help industry. Our universities have always needed to consider what the customer wanted, and was willing to pay for. This financial need tempered theoretical lifelong tenure. If academics were not producing useful graduates, or research, then no one would pay for them, and they would be out of a job, tenure not withstanding.

Ivy League and Oxbridge universities have retained their traditional character. But this is in part theater. Underneath the quaint traditions is an understanding of the value of a dollar (or pound). In visiting Oxbridge a few times I was struck by the way that everyone from the lowest student, to the VC, was out to get money. It is done very politely, compared to a company, but is still there. 

Manne claims not to be "an expert or an authority on universities", but I will avoid false modesty. I have held a position at an Australian university for twenty years, and studied them for my MEd. Like the 1960s university Manne describes, today's universities still have a cadre of long term academics, perhaps now not as permanent as they were. There are also more "professional" staff dealing with student and research administration. There is still an upstairs/downstairs differentiation between research students and undergraduates/coursework graduates. 

Professional administrators have a large say in how universities are run, but academics still make decisions concerning research and teaching. Or a good administrator allows the academics to think they are making the decisions. ;-) 

Australian university still have twin, often conflicting goals: training professionals, and conducting research. 

The tensions over teaching are unchanged: how to balance small and large classes. How much teacher training does an academic need? How generalist should the education be? How practical?

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