A proposal to politicise university curricula

In this morning’s Australian, I am reported criticising some recommendations of a Universities Australia report on ‘Indigenous cultural competency’.

The report contains examples of things universities are doing to better serve their Indigenous students or give other students knowledge they may need when working with Indigenous people. All this is within the scope of what universities should be doing to educate their students and prepare them for their professional lives. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations go well beyond necessary, reasonable or desirable initiatives to a much larger political agenda. Consider the first three recommendations in the section on teaching and learning (emphasis added):

Recommendation 1: Embed Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundations of Indigenous cultural competency.
Recommendation 2: Include Indigenous cultural competency as a formal Graduate Attribute or Quality.
Recommendation 3: Incorporate Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives into programs according to a culturally competent pedagogical framework.

The ‘all’ in recommendation 1 is a step too far. There are no Indigenous ‘knowledges and perspectives’ on much of what is taught in universities, if by that we mean their traditional knowledge. If it means the ‘knowledges and perspectives’ of modern Indigenous background people, then it is hard to see why these deserve a place in the curriculum (even if academics perhaps need to know what some of their Indigenous students might believe). Nobody has any special insight just because of their ethnic background. At least in theory, the modern university rejects any such claim to authority. Knowledge and theories have to stand on their own, regardless of who advocates them.Read More »

What drives tax and spend opinion?

The latest ANU Poll finds, like all such polls in recent years, that given a choice between reduced taxes and increased spending on services, most people would go for the latter. Report author Professor Ian McAllister observes:

Public opinion on government spending tends to be both secular – in that it is largely unrelated to
partisan debates and changes in government – and cyclical – in that it is responsive to broader
economic conditions. For example, on the latter point, it has often been observed that national
electorates are more likely to favour spending on social services and welfare when economic conditions
are benign, and to favour reduced taxes when economic conditions become harsh.

I agree, having argued for this interpretation in a 2004 paper. But a few years ago Professor McAllister thought that other factors were at work. In a newspaper report on the 2007 version of the tax and spend question, he was reported as saying that:Read More »

Is academic professionalism adequate?

“Over the past two decades, there has been a serious diminution in professionalism as we are
compelled more and more to complete accountability/kpi measures, as if jumping over ‘productivity’
hurdles could substitute for professional ethics.”

– quote from an academic, p.24 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

Overall, 37.3 per cent of academics have never undertaken training in university teaching,
and 72.1 per cent indicate that training is not mandatory in their institution.

– report of survey research, p. 25 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

As this report makes clear, collecting data and filling in forms – administrivia, as Conrad calls it – is the bane of academic life. I’m quite prepared to believe that some of it is unnecessary and much of the rest could be delegated to administrative staff.

But I am much less prepared to believe that we can put our faith in the ‘professionalism’ of academics. Quite clearly in my view, academia failed to develop a proper professional ethos around teaching. Though things have improved in the last 20 years, still a very large minority of academics have not undertaken any training in one of the key tasks of their occupation. The previously abysmal results recorded in the survey sent to completing students are now reasonable though not great.

Until the norms of good teaching practice are internalised in the academic profession, external pressures to protect and promote student interests are necessary.