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February 21, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The State of the Qualification

There are two universities trapped inside Victoria University. One wants to free your mind. One wants to free your wallet. Salient discusses the implications of both.

“Oh wow, that’s really interesting. What career track is that?”

This is the question faced by Joel, a Nietzsche-reading, Russian Lit/Slavic Languages double major in the film Adventureland. He sarcastically responds: “Cabbie, hotdog vender, marijuana delivery guy. The world is my oyster.” As well as providing one of the funnier moments in the film, this question highlights a major paradox, which exists at the very heart of every academic institution. A tension exists between the university’s imperative to provide qualifications with vocational outputs (gettin’ us the jobs!) and its role as a space that can facilitate a critique of society independent from external influences. We can talk about this in terms of disciplines. Just compare the respective functions of law and philosophy degrees. Upon graduating with a law degree, it is expected that you will pursue a career in law, or at least will leave the university with a qualification that will guarantee your future employment. As for a philosophy degree, well, Joel’s response might be equally applicable here too, but if he was feeling sincere he might just admit that the liberal arts also play an important role within society. The university has always been a contradictory entity, founded upon a deep-lying set of conflicts.

The Paradoxical University

In November 2010, Victoria University axed its Gender Studies program. To major in Gender Studies now will require students to cobble together papers from a variety of different departments. At the same time, New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce outlined the importance of increasing vocational outputs at tertiary institutions, highlighting what Canadian academic Alison Hearn calls “the central tension between the usefulness of the university to its society on the one hand, and its need for academic freedom from external interests on the other.” Hearn calls this the ‘Paradoxical University’. Her argument is that this tension has always existed within the university, but why is it so especially pronounced today?

One reason is the advent of neoliberal politics: an ideological paradigm that promotes a free market and individual autonomy from state intervention. Neoliberalism can therefore act as an economic and social policy imperative, both at the level of the state and also individual governance. Neoliberalism encourages private enterprise, consumer choice, and transactional thinking—in other words, an undertaking of personal responsibility over general wellbeing, based on the logics and language of the market, and a de-emphasis of government intervention in social welfare.

In light of these initiatives, external influences both public and private combine to unbalance the university’s orienting paradox, and we see this at both levels in New Zealand. John Key has made the government’s policy on tertiary education clear in his constant promotion of vocational output in NZ universities. Likewise, the imbalance in private or industry funding between faculties and schools affects the success and growth of each program. As both government and industry move to play a more prominent role in dictating and defining the operation of the university, the university’s emphases on teaching and research shifts toward those fields with a higher monetary yield, both in terms of research (sciences) and the production of workers (commerce, law, etc).

The Vocational University

In July of last year, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce outlined the National-led Government’s plan to directly link tertiary education funding to targeted career outcomes. “I want to see funding linked to employment outcomes, not just internal benchmarks. This will send a strong signal to students about which qualifications and which institutions offer the best career prospects. And that’s what tertiary education has got to be about.”

You can trace a clear connection between this policy initiative and developments like last year’s closure of the Victoria University’s Gender Studies department. Faculties with clear vocational outputs like Commerce, Science and Law stand to benefit, while the humanities (and liberal arts in particular) and languages are more at risk—and these aren’t the only changes that are in store for our academic institutions. National has also begun altering the tertiary sector’s funding structure in order to target better student performance. As Joyce puts it, “In short we’ll provide financial incentives for institutions to continually work to improve the educational performance of their students.”

So New Zealand’s universities will be judged on a mixture of performance-related factors, including successful course completion, qualification completion, and progression to further study, starting with an initial maximum of 5% of total university funding being performance based. This might sound like a potentially positive initiative—until one considers how such a policy would likely be implemented. Teaching staff will now be under immense pressure to reduce their fail rates, whilst simultaneously increasing pass marks across the grade spectrum. The question that needs to be asked is whether this will genuinely precipitate an improvement in teaching standards, or whether it will simply mean that marking becomes more generous. For instance, will greater administrative measures be taken to ensure that students at risk of failing a course are encouraged to withdraw rather than attempt completion, and therefore risk receiving a fail grade?

The Corporatised University

With New Zealand universities being under increasing pressure to reduce costs and generate revenues, while catering to a growing demand for tertiary education, as well as to redefine themselves under the contemporary Neo-Liberal paradigm of increasing privatisation and free-market rule, we have also seen a clear movement towards operational practices that are commonplace in the private sector. In 2010 the Wishbone food chain opened a store on Kelburn Campus as part of a redevelopment of the Cotton Building that foreruns the imminent arrival of the Campus Hub, a space which will provide further opportunities for businesses to open storefronts at Victoria University. These developments will do more than simply alter the social and physical spaces on campus. They will also have implications for the university’s orientation as an independent site for cultural discussion and societal critique. How is it possible, asks Hearn, “to successfully teach students to think critically about their consumerist environment, for example, when they are sitting in a classroom named after a corporation?” Although the presence of a multinational corporate entity such as McDonald’s at Victoria University remains unlikely, the sanctified status of the campus as a space free from the presence of private enterprise can no longer be guaranteed.

Major in Yourself

Students are faced with a choice of direction in the type of study we wish to undertake, which is, of course, part of a much larger formation of selfhood. The discourse of personal transformation has always been part of higher education, from the stereotypical freshman to the mature student: both are entrenched in a journey to, as academics James Cote and Anton Allahar put it, either “find oneself” or “better oneself” as “architects of their own destiny.” However, the rise of the promotional, neoliberal university brings with it a language of personal responsibility and a mentality dictated by market logic, where the journey of becoming is much more defined—that is, to pursue a career.

If the university is indeed dictated by an increasingly neoliberal mentality, then what can we expect from the student body? The answer to this question lies in another set of questions that all students, especially first years, should ask themselves: Why am I at university? What do I want from the university, my lecturers? What do I want from my degree? These seemingly simple questions are likely to be met with a predictable, straightforward progressive answer: degrees get jobs, which pay the rent. However, upon scrutiny this mentality challenges the fundamental (albeit idealistic) purposes of higher education. Within this relatively consumerist mentality, students start to appear as autonomous ‘choosers’, perceiving education as what Hearn calls a “zero-sum game, where they get (in the form of grades) what they pay for (in the form of capital or fees)”.

Likewise, the university becomes less a space for the production of knowledge: instead, as Vice-Chancellors’ Committee chairman Derek McCormack commented to Nathan Beaumont in the Dominion Post (16/07/2010), the university “becomes more and more like an employment agency”. Alison Hearn has suggested that this consumerist mentality, prevalent in many universities around the world, can be seen as a major factor in the obsession of ranking and comparing various institutions. Take Victoria University’s current marketing slogan, “Get amongst the best”. This marketing strategy certainly doesn’t mean to be taken literally (the QS World University rankings put Victoria at 225th); rather, it is an imperative for consumer choice. It upholds a predictable neoliberal stance on education—that it is purchased, and added to a list of numerous other qualifications in order to build a well-rounded, productive workforce. If students are encouraged into a “get the most for the least” mentality, then where does that leave student organisations such as clubs, sports and the student community in general?

Clearly, the balance of orientation within the paradoxical university is becoming more and more one-sided, with worrying implications for students, staff, and the nature of tertiary education itself. If the contemporary university continues to be subservient to commercial pressures, then developments like the axing of the Gender Studies programme are likely to become increasingly commonplace. As students, we need to carefully consider our place within the academic institution, as well as that institution’s place within society as a whole.

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Comments (7)

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  1. I think the discussion is valid, although I sense it is futile. Commercial pressures are the norm in society as a whole, and that includes tertiary institutions. I think this ‘corporatisation’ is moving at a pretty reserved pace in New Zealand tertiary institutions, and I don’t see it as a negative when viewed within the context of society as a whole. Moreover, I’m fairly confident there won’t be a huge shift to named building sponsorship at Victoria in the near future.

    Rather than dwelling on the argument though, I would like to add one shortfall in the government’s attitudes around the tertiary sector. I believe, there needs to be more funding into R&D within tertiary institutions, rather than the government’s focus on business based R&D, as outlined in last year’s budget.

    I wrote in a column last year… “John Key has announced that the government will cut $96 million from the science sector to fund the government’s new grants and voucher systems included as a part of the package, both of which support business R&D. This underscores what is an incredibly pro-business package, although that isn’t exactly surprising considering the government in power.

    An encounter between the government’s Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman and Radio New Zealand’s Sean Plunket, where Gluckman commented that “our private sector spends between 25 and 30 per cent of what other comparable private sectors spend [on R&D]”, provoking Plunket to ask, “Why should the government subsidise a private sector that isn’t pulling its own weight?” This led Scoop columnist Gordon Campbell to complain that this “brand of corporate welfare is really indefensible”. Campbell further speculated that under this “misdirection of funds”, science is actually likely to suffer from the profit-enhancing, short-term nature of business-focused R&D funding.

    Taking these concerns into account, while any increase in funding for R&D is a positive step, unfortunately the National Party has shown an ineptitude in realising the potential in significant and wide-ranging funding across the board, and instead of thinking progressively, New Zealand will instead be relegated to continuing to endure Dr Brash’s flogging of the 2025 horse.”

    With the likes of Australia and Singapore actively seeking New Zealand graduates for research in institutions and think-tanks, I believe that New Zealand really needs to reevaluate the importance it places around tertiary institutions.

  2. Kim Wheatley says:

    Cheers for your response Paul, and definitely agree with your remarks re. R&D, which strike me as being emblematic of the broader issues which we were attempting to engage with in our article.

    However:

    “Commercial pressures are the norm in society as a whole, and that includes tertiary institutions.”

    Isn’t this exactly the problem? Just because something is ‘the norm’ doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be deeply concerning. In fact, it makes it even more worrying.

    What we had hoped to outline was that the university’s central operating paradox requires some kind of equilibrium between its reified function as a site of knowledge/critical thinking/academic freedom (whatever you want to call it) and its social role as a producer of an educated workforce. The commercialisation and vocationalisation of the university simultaneously marginalizes the former and amplifies the latter. If you extrapolate on this trend what you get at the end quite literally looks like McCormack’s “employment agency.” Is this really what the university should be about?

  3. Jess says:

    Paul, it’s interesting that you state that “there won’t be a huge shift to named building sponsorship at Victoria in the near future”, when in actual fact, there is already a named lecture theatre at the University of Auckland – the Fisher and Paykel Appliances Auditorium, in fact:

    https://uoa.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/217/~/f%26paa-lecture-theatre

    It might only take a Stuart McCutcheon-type presence at Victoria for this kind of shift to corporate sponsorship to occur.

  4. Sliso says:

    Interesting article.

    I think the reason that we have wishbone and other commercial enterprises springing up is because that’s what students want. They want a place to buy lunch, books, a PC on campus. Because lets face it. It these places had no demand and couldn’t turn a profit then they wouldn’t be there.

    Students want new buildings, don’t want to pay more in fees. Therefore we have corporate sponsorships.

    Students want high paying secure jobs, we have more BCA BSC students, fewer gender studies students.

    It all boils down the the universities responding to what the student body demands. The universities are simply changing into what students as a whole want.

  5. smackdown says:

    yah i agree so long as theres no gratuitous attempt to stop research into wishbone or wishbone-related subsidiaries, or even anything that may involve the precooked dinner industry, then its ok. but its more an interesting commentary on the loss of public space to the almighty $$$ in a venue set up to question and probe that very thing. makes me think.

    im an auxiliary poster commentator.

  6. Electrum Stardust says:

    ‘ Increasingly, it seems to me, our world is dividing into two kinds of things: those that aid work, or at least represent a path to it, and those that don’t. Things in the first category are good and noble; things in the second aren’t. Thus, for example, education is good (as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that “end in itself” nonsense) because it will pre­sumably lead to work […]

    ‘ […] Today the roads of commerce, paved and smoothed, reach into every nook and cranny of the republic; there is no place apart, no place where we would be shut of the drone of that damnable traffic. Today we, quite literally, live to work […]

    ‘ […] I’m a student of the narrowing margins. And their victim, to some extent, though my […]

  7. Nicola Wood says:

    National hate BAs because they don’t want anyone getting educated enough to not vote for them.

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