Review of Raewyn Connell, The Good University

January 2020

Raewyn Connell, The Good University: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change, Zed Books, London, 2019, 233 pages.

Universities are vital contemporary institutions. Raewyn Connell, a retired social science professor from the University of Sydney, offers her perspective on what they should, and what they currently are, doing. It is her fourth book, and in it she examines the institutions tasked with creating knowledge (research) and its transmission (teaching), and sets out to provide a brief history of their evolution into the contemporary era, with a particular concern for the plight of their workers, both academic and administrative. Coming from a humanist, left-of-centre viewpoint, she deeply laments the increasingly “neoliberal” and business-like character they have adopted over the last forty or so years. For her, universities have lost touch with their collective, public-good roots of teaching and conducting research, and instead are serving to perpetuate economic and social inequalities as tools of the globalized, capital order. Modern universities, in her eyes, more closely resemble large corporations, run by executive managers, not their workers, as they have rushed to embrace competition, privatization and individualization as their core values. She then provides a path to rectify these problems through, among many suggestions, the empowerment of students; the destruction of universities’ hierarchical characters and the de-privileging of dominant identity groups within them; the elimination of the hegemonic role Northern universities have over their Southern contemporaries and the “de-colonizing” of knowledge more generally. Her remedies would be all too familiar to anyone employed or attending a contemporary Canadian university.

Connell provides a good general analysis of universities in an easy-to-read format. She offers an excellent historical background on universities in the western world and includes an insightful discussion as to the inherent messiness and complexity of conducting research, paying attention to the social and collective dynamic of modern research projects especially in the social sciences and humanities. Other pertinent issues she addresses include the increasing casualization of teaching work (reaching over 70% in some places); the increasingly corporate character of university’s management styles that often includes heavy reliance on performance indicators for all staff, including professors; the growing reliance on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for undergraduate teaching; and escalating student debt levels as tuition fees have risen significantly, among a host of other troubling observations. She pays specific attention to the plight of workers, and their employment conditions, pointing out the inequalities between and within various employment categories and noting that differences often follow class, racial and gender lines. Problematic corporate and external interference in university-based research and teaching are noted throughout her work. She raises a host of worthy and worrying trends regarding contemporary universities and their operations occurring throughout the world.

But, the inconsistencies in her analysis, and the failure to engage in any real self-examination of herself and her views, combined with her inability to recognize the enormous pressures on all public institutions today, are all too apparent. As one might expect, she decries the “post-truth” politics of our current age and the emergence of climate change “deniers”, for instance, since for her universities are places that should strive to reveal “truths” about our world. Yet, it was her post-modernist contemporaries, now dominant throughout much of the humanities and hegemonic in many disciplines, that have sought to discredit the very concept of “truths” and, indeed, the entire western project of modernity, including the legitimacy of universities themselves. For someone deeply concerned with diversity and academic freedom, she shows astonishingly little concern for intellectual minorities at contemporary universities. Nowhere in her book does she lament the challenges faced by academics of faith, particularly devout Christians, or (C)conservative thinkers, among a host of many others. As so often is the case, the term “minorities” has a very limited meaning and does not extend to include divergent ways of thinking. At the core of the inconsistencies in her arguments is the fundamental fact that the role of universities is to propagate social and economic inequalities by creating and, in the case of professors, employing a professional and intellectual elite. Universities at their heart are credentialing factories turning our future members of the professional class. For people such as Connell, post-secondary education has a more abstract noble and collective value (and should promote “social justice” causes, of course), but for (almost) all students, universities are the means to learn about the world and acquire key skills, in order to differentiate themselves in the labour market in the quest to earn premium wages. This tension is endemic within all universities. Of course, recognizing this component of their character would fundamentally alter, and undermine, her entire thesis. Free or heavily subsidized tuition, one of her core suggestions, has the perverted effect of subsidizing the children of the middle and upper classes many of whom go on to become high-income wage earners. Finally, she has no appreciation for the enormity of the challenges public institutions such as universities face. Growing demands for their services, reduced public funding, powerful and deeply entrenched interests within them, and significant external pressures from a host of sources makes running them a rather difficult endeavor. Senior university executives are not mustachio-twirling villains who get up in the morning set on “neoliberalizing” their workplaces, but rather are men and women who must manage exceedingly complex public institutions that are saddled with meeting divergent and, in many cases, contradictory goals.

If there is a core take away from this book, it is a renewed appreciation for how good we Canadian academics have it. I realize that our schools face many serious problems – academic freedom is always under threat, corporatization is a real concern and the growth of precarious employment is occurring, among other challenges – but when I read a book like this or talk to my contemporaries in other Anglo-western nations, I’m eternally grateful for my professor job at a small Canadian university on the snow-swept prairies. Canadian professors are well paid, enjoy wonderful benefits and are, almost exclusively, represented by strong (some might argue, too strong) labour unions. We have teaching loads that are reasonable, research requirements that are manageable, administrative duties that are fair and, perhaps most critically, we’ve escaped (so far) the performance management methods and intense pressures to bring in research monies and to publish that are ubiquitous most everywhere else. (Many professors are not only micromanaged in having to quantify their outputs but must also account for the “impact” of their work as well!) While precarious employment is growing, it is not at the heights seen in many other western nations. Our universities continue to be well funded by our provincial governments and our tuition fees are reasonable. Despite the perpetual complaints of my colleagues as to the hardships they face as academic workers, we’ve got it really good here. I suppose this view goes ultimately to support Connell and her observations that things are changing for the worse for workers at many universities throughout the western world, but for the time being, Canada has largely avoided this fate. We’d better enjoy it while it lasts.