What is a university for? This sounds like the kind of vague question author Albert Camus once reflected could make us dream, but hardly think rationally about. In the time of the University of Melbourne’s multimillion dollar “Dream large” campaign to sell its new “Melbourne model”, however, Camus’ reflection can sound almost satirical.

Fortunately, Australians can get some concrete sense of the way their government thinks about the role of the universities, by looking at the December 2008 Bradley Review. The review suggests increased Commonwealth block grant funding to the tertiary sector address what it calls “the now clear signs that the quality of the educational experience is declining”. A central prong to the report is also the aim of making higher education more available to more Australians from rural and traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, which clearly differentiates the Rudd policy from its Howard predecessors.

Less clear from the report, however, is the exact role the report foresees for the university in contemporary Australia, or the reasons for the changes, beyond perfunctory references to a “decisive” moment in our nation’s history, and the “international consensus that the reach, quality and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be key determinants of its economic and social progress”.

Markedly increasing student intakes as Bradley recommends, on apparent equity grounds, is a noble enough aim. But it is also extremely ambitious to say the least in the light of the widespread demoralisation of tertiary teaching staff over the past two decades, who already face workload demands and staff-student ratios previous generations of academics could not have dreamed of, not to mention widespread casualisation and job insecurity across the sector.

In fact, a little word analysis tells a large part of the tale of what the university reforms seem really to be about.

In the executive summary of the review, the reader will search in vain for references to scholarship, values, truth, the humanities, mind, intellect, character, right or rights, the words “liberal” or even “civic” — all words until two decades ago inescapably wedded to higher education. Whereas “economy” and cognates appears 17 times, “society” and “democracy” are mentioned just once, and “culture” twice. “Knowledge” fares scarcely better, with three references (with one being to that proven performer, the “knowledge economy”), in contrast to “market/s” (12 uses), “regulatory” (16), “audits” (7), “market/s” (10), “industry” (10), “skills/skilled” (9), and “competitive/compete” (10 uses).

Whether the Rudd government’s post-Bradley reforms will then provide for better conditions for tertiary teachers and administrative staff — and whether this shows up as anything more than a regrettable risk or threat in policy circles — is at best an open question. The truth the Bradley Report confirms again is that the universities have completely lost their vocational or operational autonomy, and will continue to be wagged by the dog of economic and other concerns tangential to their traditional aims.

In fact, the Bradley Report does in passing mention the key motivator for the changes. They come from an analysis by private firm Access Economics of the situation facing tertiary education today. Access’ report is entitled The Economic Benefits of Increased Participation in Education and Training. In another time it might have been a Jeremiad, if it also was not so wholly immersed in the same colourless managerialese, which now pervades all Australian public discussion (no mentions of knowledge, scholarship, culture, character, civics and the like here either, you guessed it).

“Australia has a problem”, this report begins, in a lively enough clip. But the problem is an ageing population. The solution requires, in a metaphor which long ago died, a “larger pie” (that’s the economy) which “will reduce the competition over the slices from it as Australia ages”. And this means the urgent need to get more younger Australians into higher education to speed “faster productivity growth”. So equity meets economic necessity, and the need is “to act, and to act now”.

So however much Rudd’s Bradley vision of the new Australian university differs from that of his predecessor, the overwhelming framing of higher education policy remains the same. So, too, does the continuing atrophy and loss of anything more than an economistic vision for Australian higher education, and wider public culture. The larger dream of the new university, its surface rubbed, gives way to the continuing reign of economic reductionism in Australian life, which means the continuing transformation of universities into “human capital providers” for the global economy for some time to come.

There will be a public forum on “What are universities for?” this Friday, October 16, hosted by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy at the 1888 Graduate Building, Grattan Street, Carton, from 11am.