The World of Pyne: Protest, Q & A and corporate education

| May 7, 2014

On Monday a group of students staged a protest on ABC’s Q & A against Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s proposed higher education cuts. Dr Binoy Kampark says Pyne’s stance is merely taking the project of a longstanding industrialisation and marketing of universities further.

Monday’s student intervention on the ABC’s generally soporific Q and A program did bring out some entrenched positions against standard government policy, notably on education. It was vital, firstly, that the protesters were of the Socialist Alternative, a student outfit that specialises in noise and effect as much as anything else. A bit derivative, if not selective on readings of the classic Left, they do at least keep busy in drumming up some noise on what are otherwise dour university campuses where education is less knowledge than commodity.

Compeer Tony Jones had to pretend to be outraged as the intervention unfolded with cries of “No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities” accompanied with the enthusiastic waving of a banner, suggesting that this was not how democracy was conducted.  Such a comment begged the question how exactly democracy might be conducted if not in full view of a live audience broadcast to the nation.

Then came the usual sneers that this was education well spent, a bunch of yahoos who served to make the education minister Christopher Pyne look rather better than otherwise.  Even former speaker Anna Burke claimed that, “It was all a bit of a shemozzle, and I think it actually destroyed their message.”

The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation predictably found the involvement “disruptive and ferocious”, if one is to take the disgruntlement of Matthew Lesh, its spokesperson, seriously. “Tonight’s protests are an embarrassment to students, and do not in any sense represent the regular student body.”

Pyne, in fact, might be one of Australia’s most unpopular politicians, featuring in a social media explosion with such covering labels as “Christopher Pain”, “I ain’t got no Spyne”, and a range of other juicy trimmings. The AAP reported that, “Even a radical student protest couldn’t save the Minister for Education last night, after he was slaughtered on social media and in studio for the Liberal Party’s proposed changes to the education system, which include modelling the Australian system off the United States.”

Pyne is a convenient target, the usefully daft object of progressive scorn.  What is easy to forget – and here Lesh may be closer to the mark than he realises – is that the entire industrialisation and marketing of universities has been taking place with some aggression since the Dawkins reforms of the 1990s.  The reforms encouraged universities to be pegged to a market model, using such hideous terms as a “bottom line” and reducing funding where appropriate.  Indeed, it made such students of the education system as the late Bob Bessant furious at what he regarded as a “subversion” university culture by an unsympathetic corporate agenda.

Enter, then, in all its ghastliness, the walking dead university manager, the corporatist who thinks, not in terms of humans so much as figures, who uses education rather disingenuously, as totem and unattainable utopia. Cash first; students an abysmal last.  It is fair to say that the idea of any university these days being anything but a business freak show – freakish because it is neither entirely business oriented or based on education – is patently inaccurate.  Pyne is mooting taking this project further, moving Australian education into an even more corporatised circus.

Such moves are patently ideological.  Pyne took aim at Gonski and also decided to appoint advisers keen on a cultural sanitising of the Australian curriculum.  An “orthodox” curriculum, at least in the Tory book of education policy, is one that is opposed to the left – hence the likes of Kevin Donnelly and business professor Ken Wiltshire getting their paws dirty with the new “reforms”.

Pyne is right to turn up his nose at the need of remedial courses in universities – by the time students get into the classrooms at the undergraduate level, a degree of competency should be assumed. But teaching these days requires the ditching of such assumptions.  No doubt the more cute comment here would be that the students of Socialist Alternative could have done with some of that remedial treatment, given that their banner was unfurled the wrong way around.

Ironically, a deregulated education market will not necessarily improve the world as Pyne sees it. There is much to suggest it will get worse, with remedial courses increasing, rather than decreasing, in number. There are pressing inequalities as things stand. Degrees are being created that are designed to provide “links” to industry. Reading loads are being reduced. Packaged boutique education programs are being wheeled out. Weasel words govern academic meetings and committees, seeing students as capital fodder rather than subjects of learning. This is the disease fostered by the technocrats of the learning sector. All have collaborated to undermine the educational life of students.  Pyne is simply ventriloquising that movement.