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Type: Journal article
Title: The last post: From the modern to the postmodern University
Author: McCarthy, G.
Citation: The Journal for the Public University, 2008; 33(44):605-620
Publisher: Association for the Public University
Issue Date: 2008
ISSN: 1449-5481
Statement of
Greg McCarthy
Abstract: This paper takes Keith Tribe’s provocative thesis of the shift from a “modern” to “postmodern” universities in England and applies it to the history of universities in Australia. Tribe argues that the modern university in England developed over 200 years, built around academic research and teaching, and these imperatives shaped the governing structures of the universities, with senior academics overseeing the programs and directing the institution via a Senate type structure1. The universities were for the students of the elite, for employment in the upper strata’s of society. This university system in general emerged in a historical dialogue between the United Kingdom, Continental Europe and the United States in the period between 1700 and 1940s. According to Tribe following World War II, this modern university system began to gradually unravel, under the pressure of mass enrolments and chronic underfunding. By the 1980s, universities were in a financially parlous condition. The Thatcher government exacerbated the under-investment in university funding but paradoxically was keen to micro-manage university practices. To survive this financial predicament, universities transformed themselves into top-down institutions and in the process lost their research and teaching purposes and along with it academic governance. These universities had the appearance of modern universities but behind the façade they were now postmodern, the imperative of financially survival and top-down management over-rode the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The paper outlines the argument made by Tribe on the change from modern to postmodern universities in England and then argues that the thesis has heuristic value when applied to the history of universities in Australia. The paper contends that the parallel between the British and the Australian university experience is striking, in no small part because Australian universities were based on their U.K. counterparts but also because Australian government policies, from the 1980s to today, tended to mirror many (but not all) of the policies and ideologies of those in U.K. In Australia, the under-funding of universities began to have affect by the 1980s, a series of reforms similar to that in the U.K. brought about a similar transformation from modernist to postmodernist universities. What was striking about the Australian process was the government’s brazenness in destroying the modernist university and how timid the resistance was to the advent of a postmodern university by the vice chancellors.
RMID: 0020084654
Appears in Collections:History publications

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