WTF

I’m still brooding on Ben Wildavsky’s review of his trip to Australia for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Whenever a visitor says “Aussie” like he does, there’s a risk of a Bill Bryson moment. But this time the issue isn’t our wacky fauna, our laid-back attitude, or the many ways that Australian nature can kill you—it’s our acronyms.

In a post-AUQA world, how will TEQSA make sensible use of the AQF, the ERA, the CEQ, the AUSSE, and perhaps the CLA?  As DEEWR adds the functions of the recently abolished ALTC to its many other responsibilities, how useful will the government’s new My University web site be when it is unveiled later this year? … I would certainly not claim detailed knowledge of these complex and contested matters after a scant two weeks in Australia. But I can state authoritatively that the Australians have more and better education acronyms than can be found in the United States – or perhaps anyplace else.

Although I’d still like to know why everyone who visits Australia then feels the need to write as though it’s the flat out funniest place they’ve ever been, this view isn’t just a tourist’s impressionWe’ve all noticed the same thing.  As our Deputy Vice Chancellor put it in his opening address to a forum on social inclusion this week: Australian higher education is a “nationally unified sector divided by ten thousand acronyms.”

This point about what acronyms do, and the impression they create, is a subtle one, and it’s really important now that we’re widening our doors for greater participation.  For many of our present and future students, universities are going to seem difficult, unfriendly, rigid, risk averse bureaucratic environments characterised by mysterious backstage activities that have something to do with reporting to government. In this, they won’t seem unfamiliar: they’ll seem just like Centrelink.

So in this culture of widening access, we need to think about the ways in which our acronyms stand for something, in addition to the thing they stand for. We also need to be more critical of the way in which they mark out the precise conditions under which Australia is prepared to tolerate a sector dependent on government subsidy whose productivity has to be measured in intangibles and abstractions like “the public good”.

These are conditions ostensibly designed to make our practices of research, teaching, learning and engagement easier for others to read, but really they’re related to markets, volatility of demand and flexibility of supply, the management of risk, and the proxying of trust to the process of audit.

For all these reasons, acronyms and their grip on the education landscape are making many academics feel defeated and annoyed. They turn our language for what we do into a series of boxy procedures and measurable outcomes.  In the everyday culture of the corridor, as we rush from meeting to meeting, they’re used with raised eyebrows and a shrug.  What can you do?  This is how we talk to each other, in the very act of becoming comedy.

So at one level, it looks as though Wildavsky is right to suggests that a cloud bank of accountability is building up over Australian higher education. Even as we struggle to explain what it is that we do, or how we think universities should address the big issues we’re all worried about, we are furiously aligning our plans to our targets and our goals and laying out our workplans and measuring our outcomes as though all our confusion and self-doubt could just be better organised.

The result is that we manage ourselves in permanent anticipation of review, and our larger goal always appears to be closure on the issues we raised last year. At the very least this means that there will always be something for our committees to do.

But at the heart of accountability culture is a sense of sadness. This isn’t about the dream of a system that delivers public good in equitable ways across complex and rapidly changing social circumstances.  Neither is it about a particularly efficient business model.  It substitutes review for reflection, and has very little to say about the elements of creativity, curiosity, flexibility and surprise that are critical to both research and student learning.

And it’s really not how we should be trying to represent our values and best ideas to our students and their families, who are one large group of stakeholders to whom the standards in universities really do matter, in concrete, practical ways.

So, you know, WTF.

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