A hundred academics at the university signed a petition protesting against the possibility that the institution accept a philanthropic donation from the Ramsay Foundation to teach a course in Western civilisation. What’s noteworthy is that there was no alternative petition with even a handful of signatures on it urging the university to accept the donation to teach, what up until a few years ago, was taken for granted as the essence of our intellectual heritage.
That’s because the university staffrooms of humanities departments in this country contain about as much diversity of philosophical and political opinion as does the cafeteria at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
University staff are often quick to call upon notions of “academic independence”, but in practice “academic independence” in Australian public universities only means thinking the same thing as your colleagues.
“Academic independence” is interpreted as meaning universities can spend their more than annual $9 billion of taxpayer funding in whatever way they like.
What’s happened in humanities faculties – and particularly in history departments – is that a generation of academic staff brought up in the theories of postmodernism and identity politics now teach subjects framed almost entirely from that perspective. The Australian public universities that offer undergraduate history all teach basically the same content and topics, from a nearly identical ideological framework.
When humanities teaching becomes merely a political vehicle, the result is entirely predictable. As Dirk Moses, professor of modern history at the University of Sydney recently acknowledged, enrolments in bachelor of arts courses are declining.
For all its faults, the American higher education system is intellectually curious, diverse, and vibrant in a way Australia’s is not. In the US, a student can choose to attend a university such as Evergreen State College in Washington state where for one day of the year some students are told not to attend because of their skin colour (white). A student in Australia can do the same thing. They could choose to attend the Victorian College of the Arts, a faculty of the University of Melbourne, where their admittance at a dance performance is segregated according to their skin colour (i.e. there are white and dark coloured skin queues) and where, during the performance, they will be lectured on how they should “process their positionality in a colonial state and in a world where whiteness is privileged”.
But in the US, a student could also attend somewhere like the University of Chicago or Boston College and immerse themselves in the study of what is unashamedly called “The Great Books”. No such opportunity exists in the insular and parochial world that is humanities teaching in Australia’s universities. In this country, only Campion College, a private college in Sydney comes close to approximating the liberal arts tradition in the US.
Part of the problem is that Australian universities are too big. Being big perpetuates bureaucracy and uniformity. Our universities are designed to deliver mass higher education and the outcomes of our universities have all the hallmarks of something mass produced. Australian universities have more people who administer than teach. The University of Sydney has 60,000 students. Harvard University has 22,000 students. Princeton University has 8000 students. The three top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the US each have only about 2000 students.
Australian universities have become too big to fail.
They should be broken up and the Labor government’s amalgamations of the 1980s should be undone. Australia shouldn’t have 40 universities, we should have 140 universities. And in tandem with this process, if higher education is to continue to receive public resources, funding should be provided direct to students, not to the institutions. Universities must have incentive to be different and compete for enrolments in a way they currently do not.
It would be troubling if staff at Sydney University didn’t have the ability to complain about what they disparage as “European supremacism”. But it’s no less troubling that an equal number of Sydney University staff have not taken an opposing viewpoint and pointed out that students should learn about how “European supremacism” created the right of their lecturers to complain about “European supremacism” in the first place.