Richard Hil on “Whackademia”: Conversations with Richard Fidler

The Australian national broadcaster’s Radio National station has a segment called Conversations with Richard Fidler, where the host has a roughly 30 minute chat with someone interesting. A friend (thanks, Cathy!) recently sent me a link to a conversation that Fidler had with Richard Hil, author of “Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university.” She sent me the link of the 25th of June and it’s slightly telling that it took me until the 10th of July, when I was home sick and was looking for things to listen to, that I finally had the chance to devote 30 minutes to just sitting and listening. You can find the link to the podcast itself here, but I’m not sure if it will work outside of Australia. However, I have some thoughts on the podcast that will work just as well if you haven’t listened to it. The vast majority of the words here are my interpretation of Hil and Fidler. I will insert my own comments parenthetically.

Hil is fundamentally concerned with the change in Universities that he perceives as the change in the focus of education and making life less enjoyable and far less free for the academics. He feels that students have become, in the words of Laurie Taylor (from Schwartz’s “Paradox of Choice“), shoppers, in the sense that they are controlled consumers, shaped by marketing, branding and the illusion of choice. Students are becoming far less likely to spend time on campus, with up to a third surveyed reporting that they haven’t made even a single friend. Given the pressures of modern life, and fitting education in and around work and family, this is hardly surprising, especially when combined with the increasing on-line availability of courses.

One of the other elements in play is the strong vocational focus that drives subject and degree choice, students now being far less likely to take courses that are potentially enriching in the future, which often lifted universities up from the requisite lectures and tutorials and allowed students to be involved in the energy of education. It’s also very easy to scoff at “enrichment” courses, especially if it they are marketed in an empty or cynical fashion.

Some universities, such as Macquarie, have experimented with third year courses with titles like “Practical Wisdom” to cover general world, thinking and important issues – but at third year, we have to ask what we have been teaching up until then along similar lines? What are we doing to form the global citizen?

Hil identifies what he refers to as the rise of managers in University, increasing regulation, driving business-speak, business models and performance management drawn from, and more suited to, traditional private enterprise. (He makes a loose argument against the perceived subjectivity of performance reviews, but I didn’t feel it was very strong.) However, how did we get here? Was it the Dawkins Revolution? Hil thinks not.

Hil identifies an early essay by Milton Friedman about the role of University in society and the economy, which advocated a student loan system and a deregulation of the University sector to move it into a competitive business model. (My reading of the essay agrees with Hil but there are some wonderful phrases in the essay on the value of education – I do disagree with Friedman’s slippery slope argument and his argument that denationalisation automatically and magically equates to more choice, among many of his conclusions.) So, post-Friedman and Dawkins, we have a business model between educator and student, more fitting facilitator and consumer.

So, if competition increases choice, as Friedman asserts, has it? Hil refers (not too seriously) to specialist courses in courses that specialise in the study of Surfing, Casinos, David Beckham, Judge Judy, Cyberporn and the Phallus. (One can only hope that there are interlocking partial credit arrangements for the last two, if not four, given Rule #34.) Rather than an indicator of choice, this is an indicator of the “sexing up” of University as part of branding and consumerist issues. (Certainly, in Australia, we are seeing more schools and areas close than we are seeing open and there is no real sense of a locus of excellence for some areas outside of naming rights for institutions.)

In using business language, the University is implicitly stating that they understand the need to speak this language because it allows the consumer to attach value to our offerings but, because we aren’t really businesses, we come across as an amateur theatrical society – possibly looking good out the front but utter chaos behind. Part of this is the myth of our commitment to certain activities such as teaching, which is being increasingly carried out by casual staff, who may not have the background for the course or given the time to develop it. There is an expectation of expertise and deep familiarity, that we as teachers have thought about the work, imbibed it and considered it from all angles in order to move beyond understanding into wisdom – but this is too much to develop in one week! Hil does quickly note that he believes that vast majority of academics are doing the right thing but the increasing student numbers and class sizes, combined with an increasing ‘casualising’ of the work force, are taking us down a certain path.

Hil then talks about the implicit conflict of being a partially publicly, partially externally funded entity and that he believes that public funds were deliberately not given to Universities to make us more private and entrepreneurial. (I may have missed it but I don’t believe that he gives much evidence for this and the host did question him.) Private Universities are up front about being profit seeking, whereas we in the public sector walk a blurred line. Hil also feels pressure from directed retention policies to step attrition that, he feels, can compromise academics standards.

Academics are speaking out but mostly in private, Hil believes, because they are concerned for their futures and retribution. Academic tenure, the principle that academics can speak truth to power, is mostly eroded, with some institutions demanding clearance on all public statements concerning higher education and University matters. He’s also surprised that our Union membership, the National Tertiary Education Union, is very, very low, which appeared to surprise him given the level of discontent. On that note, the interview ended.

(From my perspective, an interesting interview but not a great many supporting facts but, given the topic, that’s probably understandable. I have already ordered Richard Hil’s book to have a look through and if I find something else useful, I’ll blog about it. I note that, at my University, we have very strict guidelines for assigning work to casual lecturing staff, including selecting an area of expertise, providing mentorship and training and most of what Hil talks about here does not appear to have taken as strong a hold in my University as other places, although I can definitely see tendrils!)


2 Comments on “Richard Hil on “Whackademia”: Conversations with Richard Fidler”

  1. […] small problems and they aren’t limited to one locale or country. You may also recall that I wrote a summary of a radio interview with Richard Hil, the author of Whackademia and I said that I’d write more on Richard’s […]

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  2. Dr Teri Merlyn says:

    On a convoluted postgraduate path to a mature (56yo) PhD (1994-2004), and subsequent academic non-career, my real-life experiences echo Richard Hill’s ‘anecdotes’ of the corrosion of our university system by the business paradigm of student as ‘consumer’; I am one of its casualties. As a tutor, I had to learn every course I taught and rarely worked as a research assistant in my field of expertise – History of Literature and Literacy in Adult Education – which is currently unfashionable.* Post-PhD hopes were dashed in an endless round of casual RA contracts that took me further and further from anything that had made a life in academe appealing, until my brain broke in despair. I guess it helps to know I’m not alone …

    *Being close to the coal face, I did have some presentiment of this, raised it with my primary supervisor, who assured there ‘would always be a place at universities for people like you’. Then, about half way through my thesis, I attempted to shift focus into Australian Studies and go with a departing subsidiary supervisor, but was blocked from doing so.

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