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July 29, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Critical Intentions

You are, I’m guessing, a student.

You might not define yourself as such, but it’s true. You are part of academia, an ancient tradition of cultural knowledge that dates back to Plato’s own Akademia in Athens. We may not have centuries of storied history, but hundreds of notable New Zealanders have once called Vic home, from Prime Ministers to Flight-of-the-Conchords members to John Campbell. Academia—the loose term that describes higher learning and the institutions which support it—is about as elegantly bombastic as 21st-century life gets. It’s not a job factory; it’s the very genesis of modern culture. Academia is older than the country we live in, older than the language you are reading this in, older than the printed word itself.

Even as a relatively young country, New Zealand’s tertiary sector is enshrined with grandiosity. Our Education Act defines academia as both the “critic and conscience” of general society, taking an active role in “advancing knowledge” with a “principle aim to develop intellectual independence”. Most people don’t think for a living, but we, academia, are supposed to—to independently analyse society itself and criticise it where we see fit. Everyone has their own personal conscience, but academia is a collective conscience for us all, independent from economic or political concerns. It’s all a bit wilfully idealistic, but fuck, so’s most of Western thought.

Sadly, university life doesn’t always feel so grand. With the job market so uncertain, higher fees than ever before, and an older generation increasingly fed up with paying our student-loan interest, it’s easy to become cynical. Either you are studying something ‘hard’ that will lead to a job, but is supposedly too boring to ever really talk about, or you’re doing a BA majoring in an impending sense of doom. With four papers, a part-time job and a full-time anxiety problem, who really has the time or inclination to act as both a critic and conscience for wider society? Certainly not students, and increasingly, not lecturers either.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Despite the seemingly exorbitant fees you pay to be here, the Government is actually picking up most of the tab. Government funding makes up the majority of university funding, turning the entire sector into a political football. In times of plenty this isn’t a huge issue—the Government has loads of cash to pour into a “public good” that doesn’t immediately show results. In times of austerity, like the era we have matured in, it can rear its ugly head.

The Government funds universities in two major ways: by paying for research and by subsidising student fees. You can see political and economic manoeuvring—anathema to an independently conscientious role—in both of them.

First up—guess how much of your fees you are actually paying? A fraction. The Government sets a certain amount of domestic Equivalent Full Time Students (EFTS) that they will fund for each university. Each EFTS (this can be two part-time students or one full-time student) pays a certain percentage of their fees—around a quarter for my papers—and the Government picks up the rest. International students that aren’t on exchanges pay “full fee”, without government help. You can see the difference between the subsidised rate and the full-fee rate on any course page: POLS111 costs $786 for a domestic student, or $3475 for an international student.

In 2010, Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce froze the cap on subsidised EFTS students. Victoria ended up refusing new enrolments in Trimester Two of 2010, and enacting more stringent requirements on new enrolments. His reasons for this were fairly clear. Universities needed to be producing employable adults, not debt. “Ultimately I want to see funding linked to employment outcomes,” he remarked at the time. “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.”

SUFFER THE HUMANITIES

Job factories. Joyce didn’t come right out and say that’s what he wanted universities to be, but he certainly gave that impression. Not an intellectual sphere of influence but an upper-class polytech. Indeed, one can observe these priorities within which disciplines the Government chooses to fund well. Victoria EFTS funding was once again frozen for 2013, save for targeted increases in fields the Government expects to flourish: two per cent for Science and eight per cent for Engineering.

Employment outcomes are not necessarily a bad idea, but they don’t always mesh so well with academia’s role as a conscientious critic of wider society. As New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations Executive Director Alistair Shaw points out, higher education is about more than employment. “It’s about creating a citizenry, encouraging people to contribute to society in a whole range of ways, not just find a job.” VUWSA President Rory McCourt, unsurprisingly, agrees with him. “There are certainly employers out there who want people to operate machines and to fill vacancies, but I think the university has a higher purpose than that,” he claims. “This should be the place for debate, the place where we can hold up a mirror to society and say, ‘this is what you are, would you like to be something different?’”

It’s certainly a laudable goal, but is it a realistic one? University attendance didn’t wildly increase after the global financial crisis because people were suddenly hungering for a more considered thought process—they needed jobs. There is nothing inherently wrong with gainful employment, and it’s much easier to sit around thinking about stuff all day when you come from wealth, as most academics have throughout history.

YOU ARE NOT YOUR DEGREE

University costs a whole lot more money than it used to. Your parents probably didn’t even consider a student loan. From a financial standpoint, spending tens of thousands of dollars on something that doesn’t result in a job is pretty fucking whack. “There has been a shift in the conception of university degrees from being a ‘public good’ to a private investment,” writes Sociology lecturer and past president of the Tertiary Education Union Sandra Grey. This has led to “a commodification of tertiary qualifications”. The more you pay for your degree, the more you expect from it. Students are now making demands “as consumers,” Grey claims, rather than learners. McCourt agrees.“In today’s age, you put thousands and thousands of dollars of your own money in; you should expect to get a job on the other side.”

When people ask, “What do you do?”, what springs to mind? Do you blurt out your majors and minors without a second thought, or do you take a second to remember exactly what you are paying thousands of dollars a year for? Do you recite it in a derisive tone, signifying your utter disgust with this position of supposed intellectual importance? Do you mention university at all? I’m a full-time Humanities student who writes for a fucking student magazine, but it still always takes a second to remember that I study at all. I’m a student, yeah, but it isn’t really how I define myself, it isn’t how I see my life. I’m not attempting to solve society’s problems with this essay, I’m attempting to solve my problem of ‘this is due tomorrow and I have work at 8 am’. According to Shaw, I’m not alone. “It’s much harder these days for many people to focus exclusively on their study,” he claims, citing the part-time jobs most of us have in order to live. Furthermore, almost half of Victoria students didn’t even change cities to be here—an increasingly urban population has resulted in a student body who can often live at home, and continue living their lives the exact same way they did in high school. It’s hard to criticise your parents’ voting choices when you don’t pay rent. It’s hard to feel like a ‘student’ when you’re only at uni for a few hours a day.

And if you don’t feel like a student, you probably aren’t acting like one. “If I stood up in POLS111 and just said ‘Fuck politics, let’s riot’, nobody would follow me,” claims Political Science Senior Lecturer Jon Johansson. “20 years ago they might have.” He sees our generation as the product of Rogernomics—‘80s political reform which favoured capitalism, and which is why universities cost so much in the first place—and the internet, which has individualised us to the nth degree. We are “far more acutely aware of [our] self-interest,” he says, and I kind-of agree with him. How often do you have tuts where people are contributing for more than just brownie points? How much do you hate group assignments? Would you ever consider paying to be a member of VUWSA? For better or worse, ‘students’ aren’t a definable political group any more, and most people don’t want to hear the opinions of some random 19-year-old by themselves. Luckily, academia is much more than just students.

ALWAYS BE PUBLISHING

Students are what most people think when they think ‘university’—including us. We do bring in the majority of the funds, but the “conscience” the Education Act refers to means much more than just PHIL106. Most of New Zealand’s population aren’t currently students, but academics still reach them—in the paper, in books, on talk shows. Or rather, they should.

Academics are an invaluable resource to the public. They spend their lives understanding and analysing complex phenomena, the stuff many of us would never have time to fully understand. When New Zealand decided to change its electoral system, from the unfair but simple First Past the Post (FPP) to the complex but fair Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), academics proved invaluable, providing independent, non-partisan advice on which system to choose. This role, however, is diminishing. “I simply cannot see the point of doing what I do unless I’m engaged with the public”, claims Johansson—and he does, regularly appearing on political television and providing comment for media stories. His thoughts are echoed by Grey. “It’s academics’ role to be that critic and conscience for wider society,” she states, both by “engaging our students to examine the world around them and to critically engage in the public debates” and adding to the public discourse themselves. Sadly, the “public intellectual” appears to be in decline. You still see their comments on a science story here and there, but never on anything social or cultural. Their impact on the conversation has diminished significantly, and they’ve barely put up a fight.

Why? Well, why bother calling up an academic when Google can answer your question? Why answer the phone when it won’t help your career in any way? According to Johansson and Grey, the universities have hugely shifted what they encourage academics to focus on, from critical thought into research output. If you want a promotion, published research which the general public will never read is a pretty solid bet. Meanwhile, there is no performance indicator for your role as a “critic and conscience” of society, other than the hazy “public contribution”. Why are the universities demanding research? Duh, funding.

The government, through the PBRF system, demands not only research, but ‘outputtable’ research. That is, journal articles, which according to Grey, “is a very specific method of knowledge generation and theory” that favours some disciplines over others. It’s also much easier to get published with very specialised research, which Johansson decries as “academics talking more and more about things that matter less and less.”

All this research, while often important, requires a lot of time, and very little of it makes its way into the public discourse. “There’s an overemphasis on measuring research” claims McCourt. “We’ve stopped measuring good teaching and good learning.” Why? According to Grey, research is the best way for an academic to get promoted, while engaging with the public on a wider level is rarely considered. “Our critic and conscience role and our engagement with the community has kind of dropped off the bottom of the ladder,” she claims, “we’ve especially seen a quietening down on social issues.”

SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY

This “quietening down” isn’t just a lack of time—it’s a genuine fear. “Academics are less autonomous today than they were in the past,” states Grey. “People are put off by the rhetoric of our political leaders, of the attacking of people who do speak out […] It makes people think twice.” It’s much harder to bite the hand that feeds when it’s punching you in the face. “Any time you have governments that come down quite heavily on institutions that try to engage in autonomous activity, it has a chilling effect,” observes Grey. “I find myself reassuring people that it’s okay to fulfil that function, it’s okay to engage in critical debate, it’s okay to be critical of your own institutions.”

Cynicism isn’t wisdom, but it definitely feels like it. Faced with a job market that prefers experience to knowledge, a government who are obviously sick of how much you cost, and an older generation who can’t get over their own academic glory days, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling a little shit about uni. University feels like the least responsible option after high school, except for all the others. I hiccuped the year after high school, plunging myself into a design degree I ended up dropping entirely. In purely financial terms, I lost around $7000 with no tangible benefit—not even any points cross-credited. If I look at my life as more than just dollars and cents and employment outcomes, it taught me a completely different way of thinking about the world. I start every trimester of my new degree thinking I’ve got the world pretty much figured out, and I’m wrong every single time. If that isn’t worth fighting for, not much is.

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