For a considerable time tertiary education in Australia has been commodified and its providers, to wit the universities, have been corporatised.
Commodification is reflected in the way universities market their offerings, search for new ‘products’, brand their services and ‘compete’ for ‘market access’ and other ways of growing the business. Collectively unis are portrayed as providing one of Australia’s most successful contemporary ‘export’ sectors – worth of $ 20 billion a year through fee revenue gleaned from international students.
Corporatisation is reflected in the governance and operational structures of universities where vice-chancellors are chief executive officers and there are chief operating officers, executive recruitment strategies, public relations departments and the many other accoutrements of corporate life.
Corporatisation means many different things but notions of structure, good governance and accountability are no bad thing in complex organisations with large budgets, public funding and social responsibilities. Professional development, periodic reviews and reporting obligations are ways of avoiding the complacency which might well have beset universities in earlier times.
Corporatisation in this ‘sector’, however, also comes at significant costs. It involves the inevitable tendency to measure performances in easily quantifiable factors, to apply short-term thinking, to close ‘unprofitable’ services, to reduce staff costs and to rationalise professional services. This is accompanied by the well-known growth of numbers in the various strata of university managers, supervisors, specialists and consultants, at the expense of the size of the professoriate. The new managers introduce not only measurable matrices but extensive governance-speech/gook to accompany their policies, procedures and pronouncements. The innovations may make good economic sense, or at least so it is thought, but they are not always beneficial for teaching and learning. Nonetheless it’s no easy thing to distinguish between good and bad corporatisation, just as it is not between good and bad debt.
Commodification is another thing altogether. Where tertiary education is seen only through a market prism there are concerns that it will be subject to all the factors of marketised thinking – recruiting new customers, maintaining client loyalty, providing new services for existing customers, being market responsive, exploiting price inelasticity of demand, and so on. While enormous lip-service is paid to teaching proficiency, to deep-level learning, to student support and the like, the efforts are not always compatible with the proclaimed objectives. This is not to blame universities entirely as they are merely mirroring broader imperatives in society and the economy and government notions of productivity. Students too are subject to new-found pressures in the form of easy distractions, time pressure, financial burdens, loan obligations and job scarcities, which also detract from engagement and reflective learning.
Commodification, unobligingly, is often not compatible with the noble soul of education in the sense of teacher expertise and retention, student engagement, deep learning and the development of life skills. Moreover the corporate surge for endless growth has the propensity to overwhelm traditional values of education, difficult as it now is to identify those beneath the league tables, ERA rankings, efficiency dividends and other performance indicators.
After my many years in the university sector, involvement in professional accreditation systems and conduct of continuing education programs I am considering ways, to use the common cry, of becoming disruptive. This is not to hearken nostalgically for the ‘old ways’ of university education and student participation. In my initial search I am heading to the great writers and artists, into fields seemingly unassociated with education. Step one is a full and fulsome engagement with the Proustian epic, In Search of Lost Time – all seven volumes. I shall report back periodically on what insights the marvellous Marcel might have for contemporary learning and teaching. Other Proustians are invited to provide their own insights.