Class Acts: Independent thinking not on the agenda

Critical thinking: What functions should higher education serve?

Critical thinking: What functions should higher education serve?

Over the past few weeks I have written about how neoliberalism results in a form of managerialism that creates a workplace context where bullying and intimidation have free reign.

I often wonder what it must be like for young employees who have a lifetime to work ahead of them in this context.

Certainly for me there are days when I feel so disrespected and angry that I want to walk away, but then I think of my colleagues many of whom do not have that option open to them.

Naming the issues, opening the debate about what is happening, and why, and focusing resistance in ways that potentially lead to other alternatives are things I can do and will continue to do. But in all of this we cannot forget students. 

Students are also subject to the same reign of neoliberal managerialism. They have to shape their lives around inflexible deadlines, enforced by academics who are often required to do 116 hours of marking in a 75 hour fortnight (in addition to teaching and any other work they may need to do such as research and/or service).

Students are expected to commit 150 hours to each undergraduate unit (a federal government definition designed to ensure that a unit of study is the same amount of ‘work’ across all Australian universities). For those studying fulltime (4 units) this means 600 hours spread over 11 weeks (54.5 hours a week), or in some courses over 8 weeks (75 hours a week).

Students subject themselves to this because they believe they will benefit; higher education is now commonly sold as a commodity. This was not always its role.

Jim Coombs wrote earlier this year: “the birthright of our children and grandchildren to access to the world of knowledge became reduced to a mere job ticket, sellable to those who had the disposable income to buy it.”

The government continues to position higher education as a private good: it is about your qualifications, your ability to earn a good living, and your ability to be an active part of our consumer society. Therefore, it is argued, if you are benefitting, it is only reasonable that you should pay a greater share of the cost of your education.

Nowhere is there any recognition that a higher education ought to serve another function; that of producing critical thinkers who are capable of providing societal checks and balances, capable of innovation, of creating new ways of thinking about and doing things, and of holding those who make decisions (politicians, CEOs, funding agencies) to account. 

Recently I watched a play where the author talked about how we are sliding down the greasy pole of totalitarianism.

We laughed at the time but it is a serious point: if we continue to allow those in our institutions of higher education to be shaped and silenced, to insist on conformity, to privilege only certain knowledge and not others, to overburden people with work so they have no time to think for themselves, then we are certainly placing ourselves on the greasy pole. Where will we end?