There is never an official apology for neglect of the mind.
‘Who knows what an academic is?’ In a class of forty Victorian Year 10 students, not one could answer the question. That silence is prelude to a new generation of university-community engagement.
As governments seek revenue savings to claw their way out of the financial crisis, universities seem strangely unaware that they’re under the Eye of Sauron. That is, until the money runs dry. Too late, think tanks such as Britain’s Demos
are exhorting educators to consider their role as cultivators of character. Too late, British and American universities have found that when the government cuts their budgets, there is no uprising. Not a sound from students, not a dog whistle from opposing government and not a care from the broader community. Or, to be fair, a total of ten responses in The Guardian
to Mike Baker’s rallying call for public scaffolding of falling ivory towers.
Yet, many universities remain reluctant to do the one thing that would fortify them in the austere years to come, which is to create a foundation of community support across the country by sharing the gift that is their raison d’etre: knowledge. Not just any knowledge, but the type by which higher education earns its nomenclature.
Knowledge transfer in a knowledge economy where citizens are capital, students are consumers and academics are siloed has led to a distance of tyranny between universities and their communities. This is particularly so with disadvantaged communities. Read through any government’s policy on university outreach to disadvantaged communities and you’ll find little to suggest that raising intellectual ability is the main game. Read through the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) guidelines
and you’ll find community mentioned once in 89 pages, listed after ‘government, industry, business’. One could be forgiven for thinking the best that universities have to offer the world, their research, had no civic value at all.
Instead, university engagement with disadvantaged students, such as that of the renowned AimHigher
program in Britain, concentrates on manner at the expense of matter. It is not uncommon to ascribe to disadvantaged communities a lack of intellectual capability which results in civic education programs that focus on issues such as self-esteem, or technical information, at the expense of stimulating intellectual development with academic content. Who has ever heard of a selective high achievers school for disadvantaged students, or universities creating joint curriculum with under-represented schools designed to articulate these students to higher education? Why are we not engaging their minds with the best of ours?
William Tierney, the Director of the University of Southern California’s Centre for Higher Education Policy Analysis wrote about the lack of academic engagement with disadvantaged students in Campus Review
last year, observing that, "The typical response at a tier one institution – I think of it as the Pontius Pilate approach to remediation – is: ‘my students are not very good – the schools need to do a better job'. In effect, we wash our hands of that problem. Pilate didn’t get a good reputation by washing his hands. I suggest academic staff won’t either."
Deakin is fortunate to have academics who were eager to participate in academic enrichment with Year 9 and 10 students across Victoria during 2009 as part of the Metropolitan Access Program (MAP) and Regional Engagement Access Program (REAP). But is it hard work convincing policymakers that university partnerships with disadvantaged students should have a strong academic component. By setting early intervention for university-school partnerships at Year 8 and below, the Rudd government’s recent draft Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program
diminishes the likelihood that universities will engage disadvantaged students academically. A setting at Year 10 and below would better enable engagement with students at an age when their minds are developed enough to cogitate challenging content.
We need less soft focus and more Helen Keller driving university engagement with disadvantaged communities. In her work on educating people with disabilities, for example, Keller wrote, ‘The public must learn that the blind man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realise, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself’. When universities appreciate their public duty, the public will feel a duty towards them. That's a compact worth creating.