Can a Vocational University Produce #Leadership?

Can #Leadership Come Out of a Vocational University?

“#Leadership” has been emblazoned on red banners above an Australian university, waving out over the grounds beside sandstone walls and students running late for class. #Leadership is part of a broader effort by the university to instil values into their marketing campaigns, on banners and billboards and public spaces. The idea is to plaster the faces of alumni on walls and then associate those deeds with their university.

#Leadership is a philosophy. It’s a form of leadership that involves following a strict set of rules, established by those who are hierarchically above you in an organizational structure. The rules are simple: appeal to millenials, refer to social media and #GoViral.

On the one hand it is deeply ironic to use a hashtag, perhaps the iconic symbol of a trend, to discuss the topic of standing out from the crowd. On the other hand, it is almost too perfect as a symbol of the modern neoliberal university. Ivy League educator Bill Deresiewicz calls words like “leadership,” “service” and “creativity” all part of the new “buzzwords of contemporary higher education.” They are an outcropping of a corporate university model that cares very little about the real aspirations of students, but is willing to cash in on these aspirations in their marketing campaigns.

Top universities know that only a very small percentage of their students will attain leadership positions at major companies, social institutions and governments. In fact, this knowledge is part of the con, the bait and switch. Promise students bold ideas like creativity and leadership, and then train them narrowly in technical skills for technical jobs to become technical, junior employees, the modern definition of a follower.

The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once phrased it as follows:

We need one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

Bill Deresiewicz suggests we replace the word ‘manual,’ with ‘technical’ today. The vast majority of students will be technical workers, and only a select few will be given the benefit of a liberal arts education, and be tasked with leadership of their company or the nation.

Yet it is a student’s belief and aspirations in the ideals of leadership, of their values and of personal fulfilment that will initially compel them to doll out large sums of money to attend top universities. In other words, they are being robbed of their aspirations while being told to be aspirational. Their technical training, a foregoing of the liberal arts of critical thought and judgment, then robs them of the thinking necessary to understand this deception.

The marketing bait and switch is part of a wider project of universities becoming ‘neoliberal’. Neoliberalism is a political philosophy that came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s promoting “deregulation, privatization and the withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision”. Under a neoliberal model, universities were increasingly expected to ‘compete’ to gain a ‘market share’ of prospective students. Funding cuts to universities were spun as ‘positives’ because they ensured greater efficiency and allocation of state resources. The trend of all federal governments since Whitlam has been a gradual shift towards a decrease in public funding for universities generally, under the philosophical framework of neoliberalism.

Privatization of Australia’s public universities has been gradual, but persistent over the last four decades. Since Whitlam, successive governments have launched massive cuts in funding to public universities. Beginning in 1989, Labor reintroduced student fees under the HECS model, effectively abolishing the Whitlam ‘free education’ reforms. In the 1990s, universities received funding cuts by the Liberal government, including the single biggest cut in John Howard’s 1996 budget. The Abbott government tried a further round of cuts by way of deregulation in the 2014 budget but backpedalled due to community pressure. Where once Australia prided itself in creating a free and diverse university system, now it prides itself in creating ‘competitive’ universities that can compete in the global university rankings.

The defunding of universities led to a number of unintended consequences. Cardinal Newman in his book The Idea of a University, once wrote that a university should be centred on “learning for learning’s sake”. Today, universities no longer consider learning a priority, because they lack the money to prioritise anything other than revenue streams. The focus is instead on getting in as many students as possible, raising revenue, producing ‘job-ready’ students and attaining better global rankings, to get even more students. The training provided to these students is not aimed at challenging them but placating them, so that the university can attract ever more entrants. Instead of producing idealists with broad visions, universities are producing narrow-minded experts in their field, technocrats. #Leadership today often refers to expertise. A top scientist or a top lawyer is an expert, as opposed to an actual leader in the classical sense. Often expertise involves following the rules and regulations of one’s profession, i.e. not really leading anything at all.

The aspirations of students have likewise changed. Where once leadership meant having a personal opinion, making bold decisions or critiquing faulty systems, today leadership means getting good greats, gaining a corporate job at a large company and/or being quiet about your political opinions on social media until you get to the top of the profession. These silent, uncritical, obedient students are the type who will one day become the leaders of our major corporate institutions, social institutions and our government. Trained by the university to think small, we cannot complain about the incompetence of our political leaders without complaining about the incompetence of vocational education. We get passive leaders when we use passive, technical training. To paraphrase the bible: the meek will inherit the company. Or to put it more simply: #Leadership.