a few weeks ago, i attended a seminar at the university of waikato, where i was privileged enough to hear prof jane kelsey speak. she was particularly inspiring because she spoke immediately after mr roger kerr of the business round table, and so nicely but easily refuted his rather bizarre claims (such as that nz businesses were over-regulated, and the current global economic crisis showed that less regulation was needed - no, i'm not kidding, that's what he said).
one of the points she made was about the money available to the BRT to carry out research, and prepare reports. these reports were made available to ministers, to government departments at many levels, and to the media. in this way, the BRT are able to influence thinking in a way that not many others are able to do.
it was up to academia, she maintained, to provide the research and the counter to these views and to refute the claims made by the BRT. of course she's hardly an independent voice, given that she's an academic herself so would have personal interest in seeing a strong academic sector. she was, however, speaking to law students to encourage their activism. and besides that, she does have a point.
academics are supposed to be independent from the government of the day in terms of what they research and how they disseminate that research. a strong academic sector should ensure that knowledge is not political nor biased towards, for example, the business sector or the powerful in society. our academics should be shining the light on issues that otherwise would not get any attention.
it's hardly surprising that many right-wingers seek to discredit the academic sector and weaken the value of that independent voice. we have the "ivory tower" used as an insult to show that the academic is somehow disconnected from the "real world", as if universities and academics exist in some parallel universe. and as if academics never belong to families, never go shopping, never have to worry about job security, never partake in all the other activities that are somehow defined as "real world".
then there is the whole attack on "book-learning" which we saw particularly in the campaign against mr obama (and also from what i understand in the 2000 campaign against al gore). even though mr bush did actually have a degree, it was the democratic presidential candidates that were being attacked for having knowledge and an education that supposedly made them different to and disconnected from "real people" - the latter being defined as joe sixpack.
and of course labour party MPs here are similarly attacked, for being a bunch of teachers and academics. as if learning is a bad thing. as if education makes you less able to perform well in a leadership role. as well as being an attack on a political party and on individual MPs, it's also an attack on academia that serves to make the academic voice less valuable, and less able to challenge right-wing thinking.
but the best way to attack the academic sector is to cut back the funding. this release on the nz vice-chancellors' committee website sums up concerns arising from last week's budget:
"The Government has withdrawn funding already committed to keeping academic salaries at levels which are barely competitive in an international market. This move will make it difficult for universities to retain existing academic staff at a time when they are facing increasing student numbers due to the economic recession.
“Further, the Government has made an explicit statement that no provision has been made for growth in university enrolment. The number of unfunded students in the system this year will continue to grow in 2010 and beyond in a compound effect and this can only result in increasing numbers of prospective students being turned away, potentially to join the dole queue.
“Universities are seriously questioning whether the Government appreciates the impact this Budget will have on universities and their ability to supply the skilled professionals the country needs for economic recovery. The Budget will also deny opportunities to a significant cohort of the generation about to enter tertiary education."
when our universities have uncompetitive salaries and there are too few staff to cater for the students attending, the sector will surely be weakened. it will be less able to provide that independent information that is crucial to a democracy. and we will all suffer because of it.