Today Raewyn Connell returns to FreshEd to talk about her new book, The Good University. In it, Raewyn takes a deep dive into the labor that makes a university possible while also detailing the main troubles the institution currently faces.
She argues that a good university must work for the social good rather than for profit. It must embrace its democratic roots and protect the process of being truthful.
Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney. She is an active trade unionist and advocate for workers’ rights, student autonomy and educational reform.
Photo by Peter Hall
Citation: Raewyn, Connell, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 157, podcast audio, June 3, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/raewynconnell2/
Will Brehm 1:30
Raewyn Connell, welcome back to FreshEd.
Raewyn Connell 1:31
I’m very glad to be here.
Will Brehm 1:33
So, congratulations on your new book. And just halfway through this book, when I was reading it, you tell this wonderful story about this famous Jacaranda tree at the University of Sydney. And I want to just ask, what made this tree so famous? And why did you end up writing about it?
Raewyn Connell 1:48
Well, it’s a very beautiful tree. It has lovely purple flowers, and it’s absolutely covered in blossom at a certain time of year, which happens to correspond with when graduations are held. So, for many years, since the invention of color photography, all the graduates would go and stand in front of the tree in their robes and get the photographs at the end of their degree. And it’s all in front of this sort of mock Gothic sandstone building in golden stone. It’s a lovely picture. Well, a few years ago, five or perhaps eight years ago, the University began including in its advertising, a picture of a tutorial group -a discussion group- sitting on the lawn in front of this tree in full bloom. And that was a lovely picture for advertising with the mock Gothic building behind suggesting how ancient and venerable the University was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true for two reasons: one, no tutorials are allowed to meet on that lawn. Two, the tree actually blossoms after tutorials are over. So, the thing was a fake! And it seemed to me that that somehow represented what was happening in universities as they became more commercialized. There was more fakery and misrepresentation. And just a couple of years after that image was used in the advertising, the tree died. Now, no biologist among my friends would agree that the tree died of shame but one suspected, and that somehow to me symbolized that the university in some sort of crisis. Yeah, universities in general. Well, by corporate standards, there’s no crisis. You know, the higher education industry is booming. There are now more than 200 million university and college students around the world. The flow of fees and money into the system is bigger than ever before. So, from a profit-making and corporate growth perspective, we’re doing wonderfully in universities. But, by other standards, there are terrible problems. I mean the casualization of academic labor force, virtual end of the prospect of a career for very large numbers of university teachers, the growing level of distrust and antagonism between workforce in universities and the managers, the growing level of inequality within universities just in sheer money terms, the level of anger that you see in conflicts in universities now, and of course, the decline of government support for higher education in most parts of the world, not quite all, which escalates in some countries like Hungary -it’s a famous example recently- of outright attacks by government on the university sector -at any rate, parts of it- showing a kind of political antagonism to good higher education, which is very disturbing, indeed. And in that kind of sense, yeah, there is a crisis that’s bubbling/boiling up around us.
Will Brehm 5:25
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen photos of many years ago, protests in Chile, just recently, protests in Brazil. Even in the UK, there’s been these mass protests of university lecturers fighting for basically better pensions and better wages and trying to resist this sort of corporatization of the university. So where do we begin? If this is this crisis that we see -and in your book, you basically start by looking at the foundations of the university, and really focus on the massive amount of labor that universities do in a way. All the different types of people that make a university possible require huge amounts of labor. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, what sort of labor actually happens based on your long career in universities?
Raewyn Connell 6:17
Well, what I do in the first chapters of the book is show how research, the production of knowledge, has to be understood as a form of work -a complex and intricate kind of work, but work nevertheless, with a workforce in certain conditions. And the same for teaching too. Education involves a form of labor by the teachers and by the students for that matter. And we have to understand the circumstances in which this work is done, the relationships that shape the work in order to understand the production of knowledge and the educational process itself. Now as the universities have got more commercialized and commodified, this labor has been changing. And the conditions of this labor has been changing. So, the academic work: Well, there’s a much higher level of casualization and insecurity for academic workers, as more of the face-to-face teaching is done by people in insecure, short-term jobs. The role of academics in longer term jobs has also changed. They’ve become a kind of middle management group responsible for organizing a casualized, insecure workforce. There’s been an intensification of labor. This is not unusual in today’s economy. That’s true in other industries as well. But it’s quite striking in academic work. The growth of a long hours culture, the decline of the sense that you have time to sit and think and look around, read around and come up with fundamental new ideas -this is now harder simply because of the change in the kind of work. And there’s more control over academic labor via audits and measurement, and management surveillance. Even a simple decision, like when you’ve done some research, you’ve written an article about it, where you publish it, that used to be your own decision as to where you should publish it to reach the audience who needed to know. No! That doesn’t apply anymore. There are now management pressures to publish only in high-prestige journals in the most central countries in the world, and so forth. So, that’s a very significant set of changes in academic labor. And for non-academic workers, what I call the operations workers, who are half the workforce of universities, the work also has been changing -sometimes in the same ways. There’s more sort of surveillance and control from above, so fewer people are just trusted to get on with a job, assume that they know what their job is, and they should get on with it -there’s less and less of that. More surveillance, more auditing. But there’s also more outsourcing of work in universities. That is, workers who actually work for the university, but are not employed by the university, rather employed by another company, which has a contract with the university management and that changes relationships in universities too as it would in any place where that kind of thing happened. Because people working in an outsourced basis for another company don’t have rights, don’t have recognition on campus, are not likely to be there long-term so they can’t develop long-term relationships with the teaching or research staff, and there’s just less of the basic, ground-level know-how on which universities have depended in order to work effectively as organizations. So, more control concentrated at the top means less effective work down below. And that has been happening on a large scale in universities.
Will Brehm 10:25
And has there been any consequences or impacts on student learning? I mean, this seems to be a major function of the university. So, with these various reforms, with this corporate-style management, this power residing at the top in these administrations, what effect on the student?
Raewyn Connell 10:42
Two things: One, because corporate management drives for lower wage costs, lower labor costs, they’re terribly interested in technologizing university teaching. So, MOOCs are the classic example of that, the massive online open courses, which have something like a 90% dropout rate, I mean they’re quite stunning. But in other ways too, the learning experience is more computerized, more technologized, therefore, more -and this is the other side of it- in various ways more formalized. So, we have more frequent and technologically controlled testing. There’s less scope for ambitious but out of the way learning practices by the students. They’re more, sort of on a prescribed path all the time. I can remember -this is, you know, I’m now one of the older generation very much. When I was an undergraduate doing a history program, we actually had two years in the middle of the degree with no exams at all. We had an exam at the end of the two, but for two years, we could pursue our own learning interests, we had to attend courses, lectures, tutorials, and so forth. But we weren’t tested. And, you know, modern students, I think -and this applies to schools, as well as universities- are tested to within an inch of their lives sometimes. And I think that really degrades the kind of learning experience that a university should be.
Will Brehm 12:25
So, one of the things you mentioned earlier was that there’s something like 200 million students enrolled in higher education around the world. And in a way, this is very much a massification of higher education. So many more people today are going to university than say 50 years ago. And we talked-
Raewyn Connell 12:45
-and that’s a good thing.
Will Brehm 12:46
Right. That’s a good thing. And universities often talk about this in terms of equity, and diversity, and opportunity, and enlarging that student base. But in your book, you start calling the university sort of “privilege machines”. You talk about how they actually produce inequality. And so, I wanted to know, in your mind, how are universities complicit in the production of inequality?
Raewyn Connell 13:08
Hmm. Well, universities have always been connected with privilege and power throughout their history. So, a phrase like “a college man”, a bit out of date now but it used to be an expression which signaled leisure and money among young people. Well, as the university system has expanded, it’s also become more unequal in itself. So, we’ve now got this massive hierarchy of universities from the very well-funded privileged institutions down to a worldwide mass of higher education institutions, colleges, universities, called different things in different places. And that’s symbolized by the league tables that are now published, you know, with Harvard on top, and MIT and Stanford up there at the top, and your local community college way down at the bottom. Now, the biggest part of the expansion, very recently, has been in privately owned, for-profit universities. That’s now a large sector worldwide. And I would emphasize the for-profit part because what these kinds of colleges sell, basically, is vocational training. They do hardly any research, that’s not their game and they have a very casualized workforce so that you’re not getting a high quality of educational thinking there because people don’t have time and opportunity to do that thinking. But you do have connections with local industries, local businessmen, who are often on the boards, and even involved in developing the curricula of those kinds of colleges. So, what you’re getting then, is an apparent mass expansion but also a change in the character of most higher education as that expansion occurs, which becomes a thinning out of the university or the college experience and a commodification of what it’s taken to be. So, the advertising, the marketing of the for-profit private colleges, is all about what this ticket you’re getting should yield you in terms of future income. Now that benefit often doesn’t happen because labor markets themselves are changing, and the meaning of qualifications in labor markets change. But that’s the way universities, on a mass scale, are now sold. I’m entirely in support of professional education. I think that’s a correct business of universities, and there I differ from some other critics who criticize the idea of professional education. I think that’s a central role of universities. But professional education itself should be an intellectual proposition, it should be involve thinking carefully and at length about the ethics, about the social meaning of the profession that you’re going into, it should involve understanding the clients that your profession is going to meet, so it truly involved social sciences, philosophy, humanities, other technical areas -all of those kinds of knowledges should be involved in good professional education. And I think that is being thinned out now in a very worrying way.
Will Brehm 16:48
So, I guess the obvious question then is, what can be done? What does a university look like that doesn’t embrace this corporate management, doesn’t embrace these sort of for-profit logics that many universities are around the world today? Like, what’s the alternative in a way?
Raewyn Connell 17:05
Well, there are multiple alternatives. It’s not a single blueprint that we should be following. That’s part of my critique of the “league table” mentality that assumes we all want to be like Harvard and we don’t frankly. So, one thing then is diversity. Multiplicity of purposes, and styles, and approaches to teaching, and knowledge. There are multiple knowledge systems in the world. We’ve talked about that kind of thing before. It should be part of the universities thinking. Universities now model hierarchy and even propagandize in favor of inequality. All this jargon that comes out about “excellence” really gets up my nose!
Will Brehm 17:58
I don’t know what it even means!
Raewyn Connell 18:00
It’s just a signifier of inequality, basically. And also, the nonsense that comes out about leadership. Leadership, for what for heaven’s sake! in what direction? Well, I think there is a direction which we should be leading and that’s democracy, and public service, and that doesn’t need hierarchies and league tables for heaven’s sake! Talk about self-satirizing university systems, they’re now developing league tables for public service!
Will Brehm 18:39
So how can a university be democratic? How can that ideal be embraced inside a university?
Raewyn Connell 18:45
Well, parts of it is already there. We do know how to run institutions democratically. And that’s what you know, the last 200 years of global history has taught us. There are ways of doing that. So, we have leaderships that are elected, we have forms of responsibility, from top-down and bottom-up, rather than just one way. We diversify the membership of institutions, we take steps to make social inclusion real rather than simply symbolic and selective. We can’t have a democratic education and a democratic knowledge system in an authoritarian institution, it doesn’t work.
Will Brehm 19:34
So, what would that mean? That would mean giving more power to the professors to make decisions to drive the direction of the university, than the central management?
Raewyn Connell 19:43
More power to the whole of the workforce. Remember that half of the workforce of universities are non-academic and they also have know-how and commitment and ideas and should be part of the governing process of the institution. I mean, what I’m talking about is, you know, you can put in the phrase, ‘industrial democracy’, we know how to do that. We’ve done it in cooperatives, in mainstream industries, we do know how to do that kind of thing. It’s not rocket science. But we have been shifting away from those ideas in higher education, as in other industries recently, and there’s a struggle on our hands, I think. The other thing to remember is that at the core of the modern university is a system of knowledge, which I call the ‘research-based knowledge formation’. So, research is central to the knowledge on which we build our curricula, on which we base our professional practices, and which we give to the world at large, is what universities offer. And there’s a democratic core in research, actually. I mean, we don’t necessarily represent it that way because we give Nobel prizes, to a very few top scientists, or the media will drool over the professor with the furthest away galaxy, or the latest cure for cancer. But in fact, research knowledge is a democratic theme in itself. It’s produced by a whole workforce, not just by individual stars. Particular research programs involve research teams, not, in most cases, individual stars. Or the individual stars are standing for teams of 20, 30, 100 people. And they depend on other teams and other researchers. The term publication, which has become a kind of sight of tension and horror for young academics, is actually a sign of that democratic character of knowledge. We put our knowledge out there when we publish. We put it out there for everyone to see, and for other people to build on. That’s the whole point of publication.
Will Brehm 22:08
Yeah, its publication, not ‘priva-cation’.
Raewyn Connell 22:11
Exactly, exactly! And we’re building in the knowledge system, that universities depend on and produce, we’re building a “knowledge commons”. We’re building a common social resource in research-based knowledge. So, there’s a democratic element at the very heart of universities, which is not necessarily immediately obvious, but it’s there. And we can build on it.
Will Brehm 22:39
And it’s particularly not obvious when, you know, Elsevier and Wiley and Sons, and Taylor and Francis are owning that knowledge commons. And it sort of does take that public out of publication.
Raewyn Connell 22:52
Yeah, that’s a classic example of the harm that’s done by privatization, I think. And it is being resisted. There’s quite a strong movement now to reverse that by open access policies on the part of funders, by a kind of movement among academics towards open access for other ways of circulating knowledge that don’t run into those monetary barriers. That’s a hot topic in universities now and I’m very glad to see that kind of struggle going on.
Will Brehm 23:29
So, the beginning of our talk today, you talked about this sort of fake image that the University of Sydney was promoting, and it sort of gets to this idea of truth. And this idea of, what is the role of the universities in being truth?
Raewyn Connell 23:46
Yeah. I should say that I’m not particularly blaming the University of Sydney. I mean, that’s just where I happen to be. And I happened to know that tree from a long time, because I’m also a graduate of this university. But what the University of Sydney was doing was what the University of Melbourne is doing, the University of Queensland is doing, what all the universities in the country in one way or another have been doing, and internationally too. So, I was trying to give an example of something that is, in fact global, as a problem. And why I think that’s significant is that universities do have a cultural role. I mean, they’re not -the corporation famously has, there’s a lovely saying, by Lord Chancellor of England in the 18th century, that “a corporation has no body to be kept, and no soul to be damned therefore it can do as it likes”. And that is pretty much the attitude of the mainstream corporation. And as universities approach the status of money-making corporations which indeed, some of them now are 100% that, they inhabit that kind of situation. And the problem is that universities DO have a soul. And that soul concerns truth. It’s the cultural commitment to telling the truth. And anyone who has done research, you know, I’ve been a researcher for more than 50 years. And I know how difficult it is to establish truth. But that’s what research is, it’s hard work. It’s a struggle. So, you know, it involves interacting with many people and trying to understand situations and speak the truth. It’s difficult, but it’s what we’re about. And if universities start fudging the truth in advertising, pretending to be what they are not, misrepresenting reality, then they are doing terrible damage to their own cultural position as the institutions that embody truth telling. That seems to be a very, very serious problem. And, and that’s why I get, you know, more angry about what seems to many managements to be just good commercial practice. It’s not good university practice.
Will Brehm 26:05
Are you hopeful that the university will soon move away from this corporate-style management? Or are there examples of universities around the world that are actually doing something different? And yes, it could be a multiplicity and a diversity of different ways of managing and organizing the university but sometimes I get very pessimistic about the whole industry that I have spent the last ten years of my life working in. And I don’t know, is it going to change in my lifetime or am I going to be battling this corporate-style management for the rest of my career?
Raewyn Connell 26:41
It’s a good question. And I think everybody involved in these issues at times despairs at the difficulty of moving in a more democratic direction. And I’m sustained, I think -I mean, I’m originally a historian. So, I’m always interested in the history of institutions. And I took some time when I was working on this project to go back into the history of universities and look specifically at the history of alternative universities. And it turns out, there is a wonderful history of alternative and experimental universities all over the world, which is not all that widely known. But things like, for instance, there’s an extraordinary story of the Flying University in Poland, which was developed back in the 1880s, when Poland or most of Poland was part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. And the Russian regime tried to control universities, to ratify them, and to exert regime control over them. So, the Poles went underground and invented a kind of underground university, which became known as the Flying University because its classes would move around from place to place in Warsaw in order to avoid the police. And taught a whole curriculum, natural science, educational sciences, humanities and so forth, all under the radar. And after the 1905 revolution in Russia, that came to the surface, became legal, became a regular university. Then Poland was invaded by the Nazis and they did it again, under incredible repression during the Second World War. Then the Russians threw the Nazis out and established a communist regime in Russia, which restored the universities but also attempted to control them and the Poles did it again! They had a Flying University teaching all the forbidden kinds of social sciences and humanities. Now, that’s one story, there are anti-colonial universities in India, which was set up by people like Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, back in the 1920s as a place for the meeting of civilizations rather than the Eurocentric curriculum in the universities the British had set up in the colonial system. When the pink tide occurred in Latin America 10 or 15 years ago, a series of progressive governments around the continent, they set up reform universities too. Indigenous universities, working class universities, universities in remote parts of the country with rural populations and so forth, publicly funded, bringing in new groups of people who, for years, they’ve been excluded from the university system. In AotearoaNew Zealand, there’s a university which is based on Maori indigenous culture. Similar things in parts of India, all over Central America, in parts of South America, like Bolivia, there are now indigenous universities which have curriculum that try to blend research-based knowledge with indigenous knowledge and develop curricula that are relevant to indigenous communities. So, there’s lots of experimentation in the history when you go looking for it, and that, to me, is a deep source of hope. People have done it in the past, it’s still possible for us to move in these directions now.
Will Brehm 30:34
And that actually is incredibly hopeful that the system that we’re in today is not static, and it can change and there is a history of change over time. And that’s deeply, deeply hopeful.
Raewyn Connell 30:45
I had a bit of involvement in this kind of work back in the 1960s when I was a radical student among the many other radical students. I was involved in setting up what we called Free University in Sydney, which was a student-directed, cooperative learning institution that did a couple of dozen courses on a variety of issues that we felt were missing from the mainstream university curricula. I’ve taught in publicly funded universities that were part of another reform movement, the kind of “Green Fields” universities set up in the 1960s and 70s in countries like Australia, Britain, the United States. The expansion of the University of California was a good example of that, places like UC Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara Davis, were involved. You know, experimentation with curricula, combinations of disciplines, student-centered teaching practices, lots of really interesting educational innovation happening in those institutions over a period of 20-25 years. So even in the mainstream system, it is possible to innovate and democratize in inventive ways.
Will Brehm 32:04
Well, Raewyn Connell, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. You know, I read your book, and it’s like a love letter to the university itself. And it’s critical but supportive and offers so much beautiful history. So, I mean, I can’t recommend it enough. And I just want to say thank you for writing the book and getting these ideas out there. And, as a young academic, I must say that I am actually very hopeful of being in this industry and in this career and hopefully getting involved in some of these new movements to diversify the university. So, thank you very much for joining FreshEd and you’re always welcome back on in the future.
Raewyn Connell 32:40
That’s great to hear. Thank you.