MAC: Mines and Communities

In Universities, Money Talks

Published by MAC on 2015-12-14

It's a theme to which MAC has returned several times in its almost-fifteen year history (see for example: Argentinian university faculties reject mining hand-outs)

And a trend, which was once sporadic and fairly isolated, has become a new social normal. Increasingly, not just learned individuals are being snared by corporate nets into (in many, if not all, cases) dishing-up research to cross the palm that feeds them.

The academic institutions themselves are also increasingly funded by mining companies - and even those of so-called "lower education".

Now read this educative article by a man who's experienced such mind-creep at first hand in his own country.

Associate professor Richard Hil isn't just forthright about this risk to intellectual independence in general.

He's also brave enough to take issue with the university that employs him.

For more on Andrew Forrest, the mining magnate named in this article, see:'s_Trust

In Universities, Money Talks

By Richard Hil

14 December, 2015

A few weeks ago I decided to avoid reading anything to do with higher education, at least for a while, including the weekly columns in Australia’s’ only daily broadsheet, The Australian. In truth, this self-imposed ban was more experiment than convalescence. I hoped to emerge from the void to find a new dawn: a blaze of enlightened commentary that would finally put paid to what felt like an unfolding dystopian nightmare. But nothing of the sort; it was Groundhog Day.

So, on 25 November, after six weeks of abstinence, I resumed my weekly foray into the higher education columns of Wednesday’s The Australian. As I thumbed excitedly through the broadsheet, I recalled an article I’d written a few years ago for one of Australia’s more critical outlets, Arena Magazine, in which I argued that almost everything that transpires in universities these days can be sheeted home to the almighty dollar – they were, par excellence, entirely financialised. It didn’t take long to discover that this monetary preoccupation continues to permeate the majority of content in The Australian whose editor, Julie Hare, was once the risk-taking editor of Campus Review.

The first page said it all: a lead article reporting that “UM [University of Melbourne] heads industry research grants list” which was placed next to a photograph of smiling ‘philanthropists’ Paul Little (outgoing boss of global logistics company, Toll Group) and Julie Hansen (ex-investment banker) who announced a $10m donation to the University of Melbourne. The latter piece also contained a list of “major donors” to university research centers and institutes, which included, among others, global corporate philanthropist, Chuck Feeney ($500m), mining magnet, Andrew Forrest ($65million), Westpac bank ($100 million), and cashed-up financial planner, Barry Lambert ($37 million). Alongside this article was a report by Julie Hare on the new vice chancellor of RMIT, ex-executive of Microsoft, Martin Bean, whose five-year strategic plan is apparently destined to turn his “edgy” institution into a leading labour market provider.

Further evidence of this sort of strategic repositioning was found in another column - once again by Julie Hare - which outlined the University of Melbourne’s intention to redefine the word ‘engagement’ in order, as Hare put it, to “source new funding” and to build closer links “with business”. These, aims, said Hare, are integral to a “modern, cosmopolitan, research intensive university, with a social conscience and a global outlook”. We’re never told what constitutes a “social conscience” and how this laudable moral condition might fit with the growing influence of corporations in university affairs.

Such matters appear inconsequential to The Australian’s columnists. Take the no-nonsense, this-is-how-it-is, Professor Hamish Coates from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education who insists that work and study are good, character-building activities that together prepare graduates for the challenges of modern employment. Coates maintains (in tones reminiscent of a Calvinist preacher) that we might need to accept that the work-study combo is part and parcel of the virtuous order of things in Australian higher education. Forget all that nonsense about graduate attributes, new curricula, pedagogy etc., says Professor Coates, and just accept that labour is good for us, even if some students, by his own admission, work 20 hours or more per week, mostly out of necessity and the desire for occupational experience.

Professor Coates appears somewhat oblivious to the many concerns associated with the so-called ‘work-life balance’, not least that many international students toil away in illegal, exploitative jobs, that women still bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities, and that droves of students turn up exhausted to lectures and tutorials. Professor Coates, urges us not to “waste time with debates that espouse rethinking higher education” and to just get on with it.

As if to reinforce this conformist rallying cry, just below Professor Coates’s column - under the header, “Griffith again ranked in world’s top 50 under 50 [years old]” - is the photograph of a beaming associate professor from Griffith University’s Queensland Conservatorium. A lofty ranking and 5-star rating for “excellence” have seemingly contributed to the associate professor’s joyous demeanour. The fact is that such rankings are crucial to market share, especially when they can mean the difference between stagnant or increased enrolments, and a boost in research funding.

It’s too easy of course to deride universities for their endless boasting and marketing gimmicks. That’s what happens when the system is opened up, as it has been since the late 1980s, to what’s now a global competitive marketplace. Take away much needed government funding and it’s not all that surprising that our vice chancellors – apart from the lone gun, Professor Stephen Parker at the University of Canberra – have led the charge on the deregulation of student fees, revenue which will inevitably go into cross-subsidising research activities.

The fact is that universities have, to some degree, been driven into a fiscal corner, mainly because of escalating infrastructure costs as well as repeated cuts to core funding. The latter has been driven more by ideology than arguments about fiscal restraint and budget repair. The intention always has been to integrate universities into the global market. In effect, this has turned these once public institutions into brand conscious, hyper-competitive firms headed by salary packaged managers whose performance targets are governed by the imperative of ‘income generation’.

The upshot is a system riven by competition at each and every turn: between national and international institutions, academics, students and even administrators. In the new hegemonic order of Higher Ed Inc. the financialisation of university affairs (manifested through the so-called “business model”) is viewed as beyond contestation: a given, natural way of being with no alternative at hand. To suggest free education, greater academic autonomy, decoupling from corporate influence and decent government funding is tantamount to ideological heresy. It’s simply not part of the ‘real world’ of privatized, neo-Darwinian relations. This is why newspapers like The Australian seem so imbued with the same ideological worldview because income generation and competition are the assumptive ways of the world, at least according to neoliberal ideologues.

What is urgently needed if universities have any chance of being rescued from the stranglehold of market values is a public conversation about the sort of institutions we want in a truly open democratic society.

But it’s not only universities that have succumbed to neoliberal mantras. Schools and colleges too are characterised by a focus on business acumen, often at the expense of students’ quality of education. This was recently brought home by Sarah Haynes, the school captain of one of Brisbane’s most prestigious private schools, Ravenswood School for Girls. Bravely, Haynes offered the following observation about her school to an assembled audience of pupils, parents and teachers: “I don’t know how to run a school but it seems to me that today’s schools are being run more and more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated, where more value is placed on those who provide good publicity or financial benefits.”

She could well have been talking about universities.

Dr Richard Hil is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and Honorary Associate at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney. Richard’s publications include Erasing Iraq (with Mike Otterman), International Criminology (with Judith Bessant and Rob Watts), and Surviving Care (with Liz Branigan). He is currently completing a book on the Iraq conflict with Donna Mulhearn and Ross Caputi. Over the past five years Richard (under his own name and as ‘Joseph Gora’ and ‘Henry Barnes’) has written extensively on Australian higher education for The Australian, Campus Review, New Matilda, Arena Magazine, The Advocate, Overland, Online Opinion and Countercurrents. His last two books are Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled University, published in 2013 by New South, and Selling Students Short; why you won’t get the university education you deserve, published by Allen and Unwin in 2015.


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