Politics and loss

You may be reading this post against the backdrop of the American presidential election, but it was written before we started obsessively refreshing news pages on results. The ‘politics and loss’ of the title is on a smaller scale: changes to higher education in Australia.

Here in Australia, higher education is making front-page news like never before. The current crisis in higher education has been a long time coming. It has happened, to quote Hemingway on bankruptcy, gradually then suddenly. Or, as he is often misquoted, slowly and then all at once. We are in the midst of changes to funding, loss of university staff, cuts to courses and uncertain student outcomes on an unprecedented scale.

If you are new to the politics of Australian higher education, I recommend the following resources:

  • If you have half an hour: ABC radio show Rear Vision on Australian Universities in Crisis. “Australian universities are confronting a firestorm, the loss of foreign students, the layoff of academics, the underpayment of staff and radical changes to domestic university fees. Why is our university sector in so much trouble?”
  • If you have ten half-hours: The New Social Contract podcast series. “A podcast that examines how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through this global pandemic.”
  • If you have ten minutes a day: subscribe to Stephen Matchett’s daily Campus Morning Mail and add Hannah Forsyth’s (2014) book A History of the Modern Australian University to your reading list.
  • If you have two hours a week for ten weeks (and want to improve your teaching as well): take the free online course Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching. This includes a speciality module I co-developed with Cathy Rytmeister on The Politics of Australian Higher Education:

This specialty module provides an opportunity to reflect on the context of Australian higher education, and consider the ways in which history informs the future. What is the context influencing higher education in Australia and internationally? What are the key reforms that have impacted the sector in Australia? This module invites you to take a big picture look at the political, economic, social and cultural factors that have shaped the higher education system as we know it today.

Here is our short video introduction to the module:

Our definition of politics is: a non-violent method of allocating resources to groups with diverse and often competing interests. It always involves the exercise of power, and is shaped by negotiation. As we put it in the video above, if you want to change higher education, then your power comes from your knowledge of how it works.

I find the history and politics of higher education fascinating, but as a qualitative researcher and a lover of creative non-fiction and narrative methodologies, what interests me equally are the stories of how everyday life, knowledge and power interact.

In my conversations with colleagues across Australia and internationally, there is palpable sense of uncertainty and loss. Universities are unstable right now (of course, they have always been unstable workplaces for many). There are layers to this: some people are leaving the university after accepting voluntary redundancies, some are staying and worrying over the future of work in their institutions, some are finding their already insecure work is disappearing. Many universities are undergoing rapid curriculum change, and subjects and courses will no longer be offered. There is uncertainty about how students will respond to fee changes that, among other things, will make a Bachelor of Arts far more expensive (a ‘gateway’ degree for many students). There is also fear about the workforce conditions that students are facing on graduation. Institutional change, especially at this scale, is emotional work, although rarely acknowledged as such.

Guided by my colleague Barbara Grant, I read the 2002 essay collection The subversion of Australian universities, and this sentence from Robin Massey’s stood out:

I know that when academic staff feel like irrelevant flotsam rather than an integral part of their university, something is very wrong …

Colleagues and I recently talked about radical hope, inspired by Kevin Gannon’s work on Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto as discussed in this podcast. Radical hope, as Catherine Manathunga taught me in her work in Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, comes from the philosophical anthropology of Jonathan Lear. He writes about 19th century American Indian leader Plenty Coups or Alaxchiiaahush who wanted to enable “hope in the face of an abyss where no one can really know what survival means”. Lear’s focus is the question: how should one face the possibility that one’s culture might collapse?

Gannon applies this term to teaching in the university, in his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. This is still on my to-read list, but the blurb reads:

Higher education has seen better days. Harsh budget cuts, the precarious nature of employment in college teaching, and political hostility to the entire enterprise of education have made for an increasingly fraught landscape. Radical Hope is an ambitious response to this state of affairs, at once political and practical—the work of an activist, teacher, and public intellectual grappling with some of the most pressing topics at the intersection of higher education and social justice.

I am looking forward to reading it, and re-orienting my thinking from loss to hope.

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