Thursday, May 10, 2007

Word class or 'no frills'?

One of the depressing facts about public life is that individuals or groups can get away with entirely hypocritical poses, 1950s Communists presented themselves as campaigners for peace whilst Stalin continued his war on the Soviet people (some interesting comments on the post-war famine in this biography of Zhdanov). Al-Qaeda is seen by some as a defender of Muslims whilst it slaughters them in vast numbers. Thus we have Stephen Schwartz, Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor, who in an article declares that Australian universities must escape from their 'Soviet' model:
Universities will be free to determine how many students they will teach when funding follows students and prices are deregulated. Some will opt for high price and restricted access. Others will go for a low price and a high volume of students. Our leading universities will compete with the best in the world. Other universities will offer a low-cost, no-frills, mainly vocational, education. Some universities will teach at nights and weekends while others will take learning to the workplace. Competition for students, who will control the purse strings, will produce better student services.
What exactly would a 'no frills' education mean for the students that I teach at a struggling provincial campus? For Schwarz and his co-thinkers the world-class is confined for a very few, the rest will be penalised. It is appropriate he evokes the Soviet example for the post-Communist Russian economy has seen the mergence of massive income equality and dramatic fall in life expectancies for the poor. Would a Labor government offer any effective opposition to the plans of Schwartz and co.? Doubtful if the example of the good Labor man Glynn Davis at Melbourne is any example. Indeed Schwartz's metaphor is remarkable, we know that Soviet levels of productivity and quality were far below best practice. Is Schwartz seriously claiming that the skills and abilities of Australian university graduates are as far below best practice, that productivity levels in Australian universities are of a comparable level?

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