Afterword: Higher education for good

Raewyn Connell

I’m very pleased to add a few words at the end of this remarkable collection. By the time you get to my words — assuming you are an excellent student and have read straight through the whole text, you will have travelled to many parts of the world, from Ireland to Brazil, from Jamaica to India, from South Africa to Germany to the United States. You will have explored and debated many methods of teaching and learning, age-old and ultra-modern. You will have been terrified by fierce computers and calmed by meditation. And your mind will have been expanded by multiple media: plain text, science fiction, visual art, dialogue, poetry, and even quilting.

We know, comprehensively, what has happened to higher education in the last generation. There’s now a formidable literature: higher education studies is now a research field in its own right.

The main points are not hard to summarise. The whole sector has expanded massively on a world scale, and that is a democratic gain. But it has also become more unequal, ranging from Ivy League universities with assets in the tens of billions of dollars to underfunded rural campuses in the poorest regions of the world. Higher education has always been a site of struggle to overcome privilege. Now, its context and rationale have changed. What was a generation or two ago, essentially a public sector serving public purposes has been half privatised on a world scale.

In the course of that change, higher education has become a bonanza for entrepreneurs, corrupt politicians, and corporations in publishing, ICT and business services. Right-wing governments have concluded it is possible and even desirable to shrink real public funding to higher education, by shifting the costs onto students and their families. Within university and college walls, power has increasingly been centralised in the hands of corporate-style managers. Students are increasingly placed in the status of consumers. The higher education workforce is increasingly precarious, and subject to remote control by surveillance, performance management, and audit from above.

And all that was before COVID-19.

If we are paying attention, we know what is wrong. But how do we know what is right? If we are concerned about these troubles, what alternatives are possible for the future? These are the main themes of this book, and I think they are very important questions indeed. They have consequences not just for the sector itself, but for the whole of human society. We need to understand not just the ills and weaknesses of higher education, but also its possibilities. These are grounded in the strengths and resilience of the higher education workforce — which were formidably on display during the COVID-19 crisis.

I have been a university worker since the early 1970s, and I was involved in university reform even before my first job in the sector. As a graduate student, I was part of a group who set up an experimental, student-controlled Free University in Sydney. Then, working in the mainstream system, with many colleagues I was involved in creating new curricula, exploring student-centred pedagogies, and designing research agendas with greater social relevance.

As managerial power increased, income inequalities in higher education rose and more of the workforce was outsourced or precariously employed. I had always been a union member, and now union action had become vital in defending employee rights and wage levels. Finally, at the university where I was working, we had to go on strike. In discussions on the picket line, I concluded that we needed a more ambitious analysis and agenda for the future; that thinking eventually became The Good University. Since that book was published, I have been deeply impressed, but not surprised, by the creative and cooperative responses of university workers to the pandemic.

We have many practical examples of reform. There is a much richer history of democratic, radical and experimental colleges and universities than we usually think. There have been labour colleges, folk high schools (adult education centres, despite the name), women’s universities, anti-imperialist and multi-civilisational colleges and universities, Indigenous colleges and universities, student-run free universities, popular research movements, illegal underground universities, and many democratic innovations and experiments within mainstream higher education systems. We don’t lack for models and inspiration.

In making alternatives real in current conditions, there will certainly be struggle in the realm of ideas. One illusion we must overcome is that it’s all a matter of individual inspiration and effort — an idea that provides some justification for the growing inequality within our institutions. Certainly, personal commitment matters for good work in any role in higher education. But a close look at teaching, research, community service, or the other functions that universities and colleges perform show that the basic effects are a matter of cooperative work and shared effort.

We celebrate star researchers and have even given some of them Nobel prizes. But their good work always builds on a mass of work by other researchers, by teachers and colleagues, professional and administrative and maintenance workers, and is inspired and ultimately enabled by generations of students. The advance of knowledge is fundamentally a collective undertaking. I think of the higher education workforce as the modern collective intellectual. And it’s the welfare of that whole workforce, and the capacity of the collective intellectual to work effectively, that are now at stake, in decisions being made today.

We can imagine paths into the future, and it is useful to do that — as many chapters in this book do. Utopian thinking is important, and we could do with more of it! Yet it’s not enough on its own. We also need to think about practicalities: about governance, about budgets, about the steps towards institutional reform. This kind of thinking too is found in this book. Since the current controllers of higher education are well entrenched, a reform agenda will need powerful support. So, it is necessary to think carefully about the alliances and resources that an actual reform process will require.

There are considerable assets for a democratic reform agenda. Public support for good, public higher education remains strong, despite the political ascendancy of market agendas and the high-profile attacks on science and education in recent years. The social need for advanced education and new knowledge remains; indeed, in the perspective of the coming climate catastrophe, that need is growing. The coming decades will not be easy but change for good is possible. The ideas found in this book are much needed.

Sydney, Australia, 1 November 2022

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