Reconceptualising Higher Education: Critical Challenges in Australia

Reconceptualising Higher Education: Critical Challenges in Australia

Xianlin Song (University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia) and Greg McCarthy (University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2016070107
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Global higher education has been experiencing unprecedented levels of mobility, which has renegotiated and reshaped the identity of students, academics and universities alike. This paper explores the transformation of Australian higher education in terms of the global mobility. It analyzes the challenges of remapping a transformed higher education landscape, contesting the ‘neoliberal cascade', and the marginalization of public good. The paper argues that in the age of heightened mobility that should evoke respect for the otherness of others, Australian universities have regulated uniformity in governing practices in which difference is sublimated and categorized along a developmental continuum. It calls for a reconceptualization of higher education which is plural in nature and transcultural in approach within the global knowledge production system.
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Australian universities have been shaped by their engagement with the outside world, old and new but consistently have failed to challenge their ontological roots. The establishment of the first universities in the 1850s was in the face of the tyranny of distance, where intellectual life was a constant engagement with Europe through a colonial prism, universalizing western knowledge as the only knowledge (Seth, 2007, p. 3). The 19th century curriculum in Australian universities was designed to inculcate Western enlightenment thinking to the elite men and women of the colonies, training them for the professional workforce (Connell 2014), thereby reproducing a carbon copy of European elitist professions for ‘an ivory tower’ in the new continent. Whilst Australian universities were founded on certain meritocratic principles the knowledge basis to enroll into these institutions privileged a narrow class entry and an unquestioned Western knowledge bias (Forsyth 2014, 211). For over a century Australian universities have constantly struggled with the constraints of limited financial resources, debates over public versus private good, intellectual autonomy, global engagement, and governmental regulations, all within the contexts of what was happening in the rest of the world read through a narrow, essentializing knowledge prism.

From the beginning of the 21st century, economic pressure, government regulations and performance measures have transformed universities to be both elitist and mass institutions, from mainly public-funded to reliance on private revenue, from academic peer run to corporate management. The past two decades has brought a mass influx of international students who now constitute twenty-one per cent of the student population on Australian campus (OECD 2011, Table C3:1). Meanwhile, mass domestic student demand has seen the rise in higher education places; numbers rising from 117,000 students in 1970 to 1,258,000 enrolments by 2013 (Chester 2014, 1). Concomitantly, the academic work force has experienced fundamental changes which resulted in record levels of overseas born staff and extensive casualization. At a time when the higher education sector should be most creative, innovative and fully engaged with the knowledge domains and knowledge production systems in the outside world, however, Australian universities are in crisis, and have lost their founding narrative of the unfettered pursuit of research. Instead, the public language of universities has merged with discursive framing of the market, and the universities have adopted the persona of a corporation. As Connell (2014, p. 62) laments, Australian higher institutions can no longer present a convincing narrative about themselves regarding “what a university is, what it should be and what it is doing for society”.

The globalization of higher education in Australia has produced contradictory effects, which are both three-dimensional and interrelated: they are associated with the face of students’ population and academic workforce and the nature of educational institutions themselves. In Australia, the international mobility has resulted in a high level of fluidity and ambiguity embedded in all of these three dimensions, and poses significant challenges to the established conceptual framework. For educators and policy makers alike, in the face of globalized higher education, the following questions arise: do we know who is the student, who is the academic and what is the nature of the institution? Moreover, why has increased staff and academic mobility along with the globalization of universities reinforced essentialist categories rather than more fluid or critical identities (Dervin, Machart & Byrd Clark, 2013).

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