Adi Wimmer responds to Gillian Whitlock

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I come to the exchange between Gillian Whitlock and Kerryn Goldsworthy (with added commentary by Nick Birns and Philip Neilsen) a tad late, I know. There has already been an American comment (Nick Birns), so I’ll add my European perspective, thus making it a truly global debate.

A friend of mine working at an English department in an Australian university told me that he had developed a habit of staying in his car after arriving each morning at the uni. car park. He just could not get himself out of that car and into the department to face another crowded day. One day he suddenly noticed that all around him in the same car park were people who likewise sat behind their wheels, staring blankly though the windscreen.

There are a number of reasons why the exodus of Australian academics from the humanities is of concern for me. The most important is that my own (Austrian) government has just “reformed” the universities and the result bears an uncanny resemblance to Australia’s university system. Gone are the
many and quite varied committees composed of teachers of all ranks, and students, who decided a great many university matters. Power is now concentrated in boards with only a few men on them (so far, only a handful of women has made it into any of the 19 boards existing nation-wide, but that’s just an aside), and these men will appoint vice-chancellors (who have to come from outside the university) and their assistant managers, deputy vice chancellors, plus assistant managers, deans, assistant deans, deans of studies, plus their assistants. Sounds familiar? The rank and file will have no say at all in the future, and that includes Heads of Departments. The mood here is one of gloom, to say the least. What irony that Australia, the country in which I have invested my academic interest, should have inspired my conservative government with a deadly university superstructure inspired by Australian managerial thinking.

In October 1999 I attended a meeting of Australian and Austrian vice-chancellors in the city of Graz; the agenda was “university reform” of the Australian kind; my own Rektor had invited me to brief him and to come along to the meeting. The Australian VCs we met there were on a European tour spreading the gospel of their reform, and quite excited and starry-eyed about their successes they were too. In preparation for that meeting I had sent out a letter to all members of the AUSTLIT debate group inviting them to send me reports on how it “felt” to be a recipient of these reforms, how the climate, the mood in their departments had changed in the past five years or so. The result was about 40 letters, not one of which struck anything but a negative, depressed note. Being forced to justify your existence at every turn was the most frequent complaint, followed by a sharp increase of the workload. Frustration with the unequal distribution of academic income was another matter adding to a sense of alienation: academics “at the coal face” of teaching and research have to put up with stagnating incomes, whereas the new caste of high-level, high-flying administrators can determine their own wages and fringe benefits. I admit I was already prejudiced, I was hoping for ammunition to load my guns, but the ferocity of some of these reports, the palpable anger and resentment I encountered, came as a shock to me.

Later that semester I was contacted by a Monash academic who offered a presentation to my students about the possibility of becoming a fee-paying student at his university. Their MBA was a hot item, he added. He came and gave a wonderfully efficient presentation on the merits of Monash, power-point and all, complete in every detail with the exception of the fees. Anyone interested should contact him privately about the fees he added. (There were no takers.) An item of some interest to me was that Monash now has two “off-shore” branches, one in Kuala Lumpur and another in Johannesburg, where fee-paying students acquire degrees recognized as Monash degrees. How ironic it is that a country which describes itself as “postcolonial”, which has explored with great energy the enduring legacy of British colonialism, is now becoming a coloniser itself. I bet the local academics in KL are paid a fraction of what their counterparts in Australia are paid. I also bet that their academic “sahibs” who fly out once a semester to give the programs a tinge of authenticity are richly rewarded (also in terms of prestige) for their work.

My main objection to Whitlock’s essay is the word “mythologise” that she uses twice in reference to academic existence. With all the caveats that she offers, and added up they are a kind of litany of woes, the reproach of “cry-baby” academics who ought to compare their lives to those of steelworkers or farmers, “real people” in the bush tradition as it were, seems to be the real essence of her argument. However, I think her argument is based on a myth itself, and a peculiarly Australian myth it is too. On the other hand, it is no myth that academics working in the humanities have had their workloads substantially increased, and their status diminished, in the past decade. Whitlock makes only brief mention of the well publicised resignation of Hazel Rowley nine years ago; I remember how her departure caused quite a lot of debate and concern at the time; now it seems irrelevant. That increased workload has recently forced Helen Thomson of Monash into early retirement, a retirement caused by stress and ill health. Having experienced Helen as a teacher at my own institution, knowing her exemplary engagement (in the French sense of the word) for ASAL and the encouragement of young writers, and knowing her great skill as a theatre reviewer, I know her retirement is a dreadful loss to Monash. It is my guess there are a great many other people now in their 50s who are planning to opt out early, dispirited by that relentless accountability now characteristic at all Australian universities: work pressure has detrimental effects on your health, particularly above a certain age. I am reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm and its saddest character, the workhorse Boxer. Do you recall what Boxer’s motto was? – “I must work harder.” He held on to that motto because there was the promise of many years in retirement in which he would be cherished, respected, well looked after. We all know his cruel fate when he could no longer work and who it was that sent him to the knackers.


Adi Wimmer, (Former EASA Chairperson), Department of English, University of Klagenfurt, Austria

Read Gillian Whitlock’s Leaving “ME”

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