By Dr Danny Butt
The British Empire mandated the export of a democratic concept of the nation that made laws on the basis of voting or counting and suppressed forms of customary governance that operated across the planet. For the descendants of empire in the settler colony, the mechanism of “nation-building” suppressed our memories of global colonisation that established our economic and social structures. The “cultural cringe”, diagnosed in A.A. Phillips’ famous Meanjin essay of 1950, could be escaped through a forward-looking optimism of nation-building that appropriated indigenous cultural production just at the time it could safely ignore Aboriginal sovereignty and governance.
Contemporary scholarship sees this schematic of nationalist cultural management as more or less shared across Anglophone settler colonies, rather than being particular to any single country. Most parts of the British Empire after World War Two were subject to similar forces that resulted in markedly similar social policies, regardless of which side of politics were in power. The Dawkins higher educational reforms, as Simon Marginson demonstrated, were Australia’s mechanism of bringing to higher education the now globally dominant neoliberal system of governing, using “markets as a tool of organisation and management, enhancing institutional financial autonomy, competitive allocation, contract-based planning, and income from commercial sources and student fees.” As the Commonwealth slowly assumed funding power from the states in the wake of the 1957 Murray report and 1964 Martin report, it abolished student fees in 1973 and was able to both synchronise tertiary education with national technocratic socio-economic development goals and reduce institutional autonomy in the name of universal access.
While today we see the neoliberal agenda as aligned with conservative forces, throughout the Empire it was the Left who were most active in building in the technocratic, unified education systems that from today appear as the harbingers of neoliberalism. Before the Dawkins era, social democrats chipped away at the state-resistant universities as one of the primary reproductive mechanisms of the upper classes. In the “stagflation” years of the 1970s, increased access also served as a policy remedy for youth unemployment. With Keynesian job-creation falling out of vogue, university investment perhaps foreshadowed the transition from national labour force management to today’s ubiquitous “employability” as an individualised product of university training.
As Rob Watts observed, the Australian academic community, due to its “rampant individualism” had “yet to discover its own capacity to function politically” as a community in relation to the Dawkins reforms. The incorporation of visual arts training - traditionally a mechanical art rather than part of a liberal education - into the University sector perhaps only reinforced the arts’ class-bound detachment from collective stakes of educational governance, joining the collective academic mourning of a golden age of fewer, more culturally homogenous and more able students that Watts notes has always been “some decades back.” The nostalgia discourse has a remarkable capacity to update itself while erasing the historical record. The lament of the passing “good old days” is buttressed by Romantic conceptions of the artist as one who evades politics of their distribution and support infrastructure and focuses on construction of new worlds in the studio. If nothing else, the discussions on artistic research that followed the creation of the Unified National System in the late 1980s promoted literacy in the realpolitik of administrative life, with the discourses of innovation and the “creative industries” bringing a new version of the bargain between nation, capital and art: the justification for art becoming less the classically elitist moral uplift of the raw human into cultured subject; and more a technocratic gentrification of the aesthetic character of everyday life.
A more rigorous engagement with the economic entity that state-funded tertiary education has become should sensitise us to how, much as in the Dawkins era, the political and economic landscape has changed and universities are globally on the back foot. The digital archives of knowledge and expressions of artistic community sought and constructed by students are owned by offshore corporate social media companies, remarkably indifferent to the control of the state, and these circulate cultural production through our increasingly porous and financialised institutions. Core compliance activities for the university as corporation around, for example, human resource processes; health and safety; financial management and even “student wellbeing services” are contracted out to specialist private service providers. This leaves the university less a managerialist entity modelled on the firm as in Marginson’s astute critiques; and more a platform or hub for aggregating business processes that are quite immune to the research knowledge produced by the academy. This weak strategic position of universities - unable to successfully transform themselves with their own knowledge - would suggest that structural transitions on the scale of Dawkins may again be imminent. However unlike in Dawkins’ era, government policy is no longer seeking growth for the tertiary education sector: rather it seeks new ways to reduce expenditure through cuts, caps, and other forms of de-funding that no policymaker would be keen to attach their surname to.
How then do we in institutions of artistic learning learn from our historical collective response to Dawkins? Perhaps the transition of our key sponsor from state to market allows us to be less focused on party policies in the nation, and to pay more attention to emerging globally-connected student movements. Their demands are for an education that is more responsive to what we know no longer works: Eurocentric, masculinist, cis-gendering, trauma-denying discourses that reproduce themselves as a default. Our imperatives to engage outside the institution, even where financially driven from above, should also encourage us to find new forms of collective solidarity with all those involved in artistic development, whether or not they are at the top end of town or in our own national boundary.
Universities have always been immensely flexible institutions, adapting to radical changes in their governance and social role. Perhaps now is the time for us to stretch ourselves in preparation for a potentially strenuous period of bureaucratic calisthenics ahead, and to seek the support of the international educational sector which is being forced through the same programme.
Marginson, Simon. “Steering from a Distance: Power Relations in Australian Higher Education.” Higher Education 34, no. 1 (July 1, 1997): 63–80.
Phillips, Arthur, and Others. “The Cultural Cringe.” Meanjin 9, no. 4 (1950): 299.
Watts, Rob. “The Politics of Discourse: Academic Responses to the Dawkins Reforms of Higher Education, 1945–1991.” Melbourne Studies in Education 33, no. 1 (January 1, 1992): 35–55.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 387–409.
Dr Danny Butt is Associate Director (Research) and Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne where he also coordinates graduate courses in social practice and community engagement. His book Artistic Research in the Future Academy was published by Intellect/University of Chicago Press in 2017.