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Monash University’s appeal to snobbery reflects deeper intellectual malaise

In early April, Monash University ran a television advertisement, promoting itself as an institution that challenges the ‘status quo’. The advertisement sarcastically ‘thanks’ and therein belittles ‘contented and settled’ conventional people in different walks of life; they are accused of ‘closing down ideas’ and ‘accepting things the way they are’. It is inferred that the pathology of social conformity, which presumably blights the great majority of us, is the antithesis of life at Monash, where students are admitted to an enlightened elite that is supposedly unconstrained by social norms and conventions. Implicitly, being unfettered by the mental torpor of the majority, this elite becomes the rightful moral guardian of the unenlightened crowd.

At first glance, this may not seem altogether unsurprising from an institution of higher learning where, most people would expect, there should be robust social and cultural critique, a contest of ideas and the creation of new knowledge.
On reflection, however, the Monash advertisement requires closer examination. Aside from its crude and arguably un-Australian appeal to snobbery and pretence, the advertisement reflects a deeper intellectual and cultural malaise that has come to characterise Australian society over recent decades. The advertisement says much about the way in which Australian universities and the intellectual class more broadly have, in effect, seceded from Australian society and are now hostile to notions of the national interest that remain meaningful to mainstream Australia.

An ironic outcome of this secession from the nation is that, rather than being a powerhouse of unconventional intellectual enterprise and free-thinking, as the Monash advertisement piously would have us (the cultural sleep walkers) believe, Monash now represents a straightjacketed orthodoxy of a new kind.

Over several decades, the university-trained intelligentsia has increasingly identified with a set of attitudes which has set it apart from the values and expectations of a large part of the general populace. Central to this political and cultural divide is an inflexible and increasingly authoritarian commitment to a borderless, cosmopolitan world view, expressed through support for high immigration, support for elements of the free-market right deregulatory economic agenda, and an ideological fixation with cultural pluralism or ‘social inclusion’.

Underpinning the cosmopolitan orthodoxy of the intellectual class is a barely disguised contempt for the general populace, whose political instincts are stigmatised as basely parochial, inward looking and un-inclusive. Any hint of national interest in public discussion or government policy is immediately condemned as a form of resurgent xenophobia.

This estrangement of the intellectual class from the values and aspirations of those who still believe in a social mainstream has been a long time coming. Former advisor to Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, observed in the early 1990s the emergence of a class of workers involved in the intangible and abstract processes of problem identification and non-routine information management. In context of the disruptive impact of global economic integration – manufacturing decline, enterprise off-shoring, precarious employment and ascendant neo-liberalism, the class of ‘symbolic analysts’, as Reich called them, prospered as the national economy declined. Reich correctly identified the risks for US society: growing social disparities and weakening social cohesion combined with an ascendant class with an ever more tenuous commitment to the social mainstream. Reich correctly concluded that the “laissez cosmopolitanism” of the new class was socially dangerous.

There have been similar developments in Australia. “Laissez cosmopolitanism” now thrives within the Australian university system. A self-proclaimed global university, Monash is a foremost example. Monash has been increasingly dominated by a corporate, business management logic and a cosmopolitan commitment to the inculcation of global citizens who engage with an unbounded world and exhibit cross-cultural competence. Monash effectively functions as a transnational corporation for which the Australian national interest is largely a troublesome anachronism. John Monash’s creed that people should not only equip themselves for life, but for the benefit of the “whole community”, now seems strangely incongruous – what community?

Of course, the cosmopolitan high morality which is the raison d’etre of Monash as an institution, and of the intellectual class which occupies it, reflects a great deal of crude material self interest. As the umbilical cord of gold to the public purse weakens, Monash has invested heavily in attracting an overseas student clientele. Any pretence to serve a ‘national’ interest has become ever more tenuous. At the same time, its intellectuals’ careers and status hinge upon the institution’s global market strategy. ‘Social inclusion’ has material benefits. One consequence of this is that, we are reaching the point where the ideal of universities like Monash being ‘public’ institutions is losing its factual basis.

In one sense the main message of the Monash University television advertisement is quite honest. As an institution, it has become host to an ascendant intellectual class who have largely divorced themselves from the aspirations and values of the broader community, which they view with mistrust. In another respect, however, the advertisement is dishonest. The groupthink of the elite which now dominates Monash University is not intellectually unconstrained and open, but straight jacketed by a cosmopolitan dogma; an ideological immune system which rapidly identifies and purges from within its ranks any non-conforming interpretation of society. Anyone who thinks that cosmopolitan idealism and intellectual tolerance go hand in hand may be in for a rude surprise at Monash University.

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Just how much one has to spend on tertiary education now determines their eligibility to this so-called "enlightened" and elite group! About $2 billion in cuts to higher education remain on the books in the 2016 budget. The government will maintain a 20 per cent funding cut in which students will bear on top of a reduction in per-student government grants. Students will also be hit by a highly anticipated reduction in the income threshold at which they start repaying their Higher Education Loans Payment debt. A growing number of students do postgraduate coursework programs, which mostly charge full fees. The charges can certainly mount up to more than $100,000.
Students can take out a government FEE-HELP loan whose limit this year is $124,238. But that still leaves students with $146,093 to find. Unless they have very wealthy parents they'll have to take out additional loans or try to win bursaries. Those making these massive cut-back decisions to load young people with debt are probably beneficiaries of what used to be free, or low-cost, education.
One would have thought that the education-export industry would be able to subsidize local students? But no! New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the resurgent industry grew by more than $2 billion in 2015, on the back of four successive record quarters. They included an all-time record three months between July and September, when revenue exceeded $5bn for the first time. Being "enlightened" enough to belong to the intellectual elite costs $$$, and no wonder it promotes open-borders and a world not constrained by conventional thinking! Surely funding tertiary education is an investment in our future, not a cost? But no, the business model, and profits, determine academic values now!