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The Bradley Report into higher education: A recipe for disaster

The Bradley Report into higher education: A recipe for disaster
by Trevor Maddock

Having spent the best part of a month reading the Review of Australian Higher Education, released on 17 December 2008 and better known as the ‘Bradley Report’, I was at a loss to know where to begin. Then I came across a letter to the editor of the Guardian Weekly (22-28 May 2009, p. 23). It was in response to an article published a fortnight before entitled World Bank billions fail to boost health of poor (8-14 May 2009). The letter writer, a certain Fran Baum, responded by noting that World Bank funds are commonly used to privatise health services in so-called ‘developing countries’. She noted that “Health in Africa will only improve when comprehensive approaches to health development are used that focus on improving local capacity rather than being designed for the benefit of corporations looking for new markets.” It struck me that if ‘education’ was substituted for ‘health’ and ‘Australia’ for ‘Africa’, Fran Baum’s sentence would aptly describe my problem with the Bradley Report: it is not about improving tertiary education in Australia: it is about furthering its commodification.

Professor David Noble of York University in Toronto, who has written extensively on the commodification of education, argues that education must be clearly distinguished from training. “In essence, training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that it can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person... Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation but the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge... Knowledge and the knowledgeable person are basically inseparable.” The Bradley Review is remiss in this respect, making no distinction between skills-based training and university education, and as a consequence threatens the further degradation to an already savagely eroded tertiary education system.

Noble points out that a commodity is something produced for exchange. Some things, like land and labour, are not produced for exchange, although they may be exchanged. Education is exchangeable in this latter sense; it may be traded on the market but it is not and should not be produced expressly for that purpose. “The commodification of higher education, then, refers to the deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity form, for the purpose of commercial transaction.” This is the real task of the Review of Higher Education. In its own words, it is intended to address the question of whether “higher education is structured, organised and financed to position Australia to compete effectively in the new globalised economy” (p. xi). The Review does not understand this simply as a task of seeing to it that higher education produces the graduates needed for industry; the Review panel understands its quest as the (further) restructuring of higher education so that it becomes a better global competitor, a mass of global competitors, in fact. Nowhere in the Bradley Report is any consideration given to those functions of the universities and higher education that cannot be commercialised. In fact, if this report were implemented tertiary education would have no functions that could not be commodified.

The commodification of tertiary education means something much worse than that subjects, disciplines, awards and faculties will sink or swim on the number of customers they attract. Commodification changes the very nature of what is exchanged. As Noble notes, when education is commodified, concern is shifted from the experience of the people involved in an educational process to the production of what he puts in scare quotes as ‘course materials’, that is, syllabi, lectures, lessons, and exams, and so on, written materials, general formalised concepts of instruction with little relation to what actually takes place in education. The course materials impose an order on what is and must be “an essentially unscripted and undetermined process”. The materials thus produced are alienated from the context of their production and from those who organised and assembled the ‘courses’. The crucial step in the commodification process for Noble is when courses take on an independent existence. Academics no longer control the course but teach materials organised by others. Many of the people who teach these courses are sessional staff, that is, casual, hourly-paid workers. Typically, the teaching is expected to be carried out by the students themselves, organised into groups, with teachers minimising any input. These courses are then exchanged for a profit on the market. This determines the value for their owners, that is, people who neither produced them nor teach them. “At the expense of the original integrity of the educational process, instruction has here been transformed into a set of deliverable commodities, and the end of education has become not self-knowledge but the making of money”.

The Bradley Report makes much of developing the educational leaders so urgently needed if standards are to be maintained or even advanced, but how can these educational leaders come to the fore in formalised courses which they first learn, then teach, but never control? Where is the place for critical development within this framework? There is none. Where the Report talks of evaluation, it is by the customers who consume the educational products, or it is by an independent authority that by its very nature can only carry out the most formalised evaluation. Where is the assessment by one’s peers, by those who also know what you know? Again, there is none.

The Bradley Report has nothing to offer to foster and develop tertiary education in Australia. Indeed it is doubtful that it even offers a process for the sustained development of educational commodities, in the long run. When the buildings start falling down we will need courses that deal with the truth, regardless of whether or not they appeal to customers. Elias Canetti wrote a suitable motto for the Bradley Report: “The earth remains young, its life multiplies, and new, more complicated, more distinct, or more complete forms of wretchedness are devised. One man pleads with another: Help me make it worse!” (The Human Province, London, Andre Deutsch, 1985, p. 107) All that the Bradley Report will do is help to make higher education in Australia worse than it is today.

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