At the end of last year the Australian Association of University Professors circulated a manifesto in which they identified 10 key pillars that identified what the group thought an Australian university should be.
In many ways it is really sad that this group of senior academics felt it necessary to state what should be the obvious. That universities should be "the means for the promotion of a healthy democracy, and well-functioning civil society through the cultivation of informed, engaged, and democratically competent citizens."
However, thinking about recent world events, and the role that the general inability of many citizens to recognise post-truths fed to them via the media and social media played in, for example, the recent UK elections, it is clear that as a society we have reached a point where clever manipulation has persuaded those who are poor to vote to support the interests of the rich and the privileged.
In a recent post George Monbiot argues that "mendacious and manipulative" material is now used on a scale never before seen to promulgate "lies." Talking about the recent UK election he argues that many people actually liked labour's policies, but support of the policies did not translate into an election success for Labour.
Education plays a key role in challenging this. Education must focus on supporting students to learn strategies necessary to differentiate between what is fake and what is real.
Monbiot emphasises the importance of digital literacy. Finland offers a good example of this approach. There has been a large effort in Finland to teach digital literacy skills with the result that it is now recognised as the country whose citizens have the best ability to identify what is fake news and what is not.
My experience in higher education suggests to me that we are not doing the same with our students. Rather, we are diligent in sharing the accepted knowledge; the knowledge identified in my case by the multiple accrediting agencies who identify exactly what students are expected to know and do.
Required knowledge and skills do not include the ability to think critically about what they are taught, the ability to question what it is children ought to learn and the ability to challenge the accepted doctrine and offer children alternative learning experiences.
My success as an academic is measured by my ability to teach only the accepted doctrine, to assess student's acquisition of that doctrine by assignments that only assess against the accredited learning outcomes, and to make sure that as many students as possible demonstrate their effective acquisition of this doctrine and pass the unit.
Students judge my effectiveness as an academic by how easy I make it for them to gain the required knowledge (setting more than one or two readings a week pretty much guarantees low satisfaction scores which means I must be a bad academic) and how prescriptive I make the assignments so they know exactly what I want them to write (when I first became an academic an assignment might have been presented by one sentence; now I have multiple pages of instructions that shape exactly what students are required to produce - no room for innovation or lateral thinking).
Monbiot argues that change is never going to come from the top - after all the elite (managers, leaders, politicians) have a vested interest in maintaining a system that reinforces their privilege.
Change must come from the grass roots, from each one of us working with those around us (our children, our neighbours, our friends, our colleagues) to improve information literacy; the ability to critique information, to dig beneath what is offered to determine for oneself if it is credible, supported by evidence and to identify in whose interests it operates.
If we want a world in which education works to free citizens, rather than binding them further in the chains of neoliberalism, we need to challenge now and we need to support each other as we strive to shape a different world and a different education system.