'The Australian' Reviews Nussbaum's Latest Book

Soul-searching for a liberal curriculum
Luke Slattery
The Australian
June 30, 2010

The contemporary university faces many pressing, and often conflicting, challenges.

A catalogue of these pressures would include the need to compete in the global knowledge economy and the imperative to meet policy goals set by governments in fields such as equity, research and development and, increasingly, trade.

Australia's $17 billion export education industry is one of the nation's few green exports, one of the few sources of national income that does not leave the country in cargo containers.

Underlying all these challenges is a fundamental uncertainty that has shadowed the university since the industrial age, but has never bulked as large as it does now: what is the university?

The global rankings tell us where our universities stand, and illuminate their strengths and weaknesses, while government policy settings are shaped by the social goods, such as equity, to which universities contribute. But where are our universities going in a world where knowledge and innovation are the staples of economic advancement? And what might they become?

Of the two books under discussion the more apposite to Australia is The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, by US policy analyst Ben Wildavsky. The book is essentially a survey, journalistic in style, boosterish in tone, of the new international market for students, academics and knowledge.

Australian universities are regarded internationally as particularly successful marketers of mid-grade undergraduate education services, mostly to Asian students. As such, they are in many ways models of Wildavsky's entrepreneurially savvy global universities. Wildavsky's conclusion - that "higher education has become a form of international trade" - will surprise nobody involved in Australian higher education policy. Trade is something we do well.

His cavil is with opponents of free academic trade. "[The] psychological barrier needs to be lowered," he writes, arguing that "the healthy rivalry that comes with globalisation of higher education" is often viewed as a threat. "As with other kinds of free trade, it seems safe to predict that greater movement of people and ideas in the academic marketplace may create both winners and losers. But its net positive effect seems certain, which is why free trade in minds holds the key to sustaining the world's knowledge economy and ultimately to restoring global prosperity."

This declaration, and the values that animate it, contrasts starkly with Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Where Wildavsky celebrates the commodification of higher education, Nussbaum worries that mercantile values such as the pursuit of wealth and unchecked growth are now dominant in educational institutions, as, indeed, they are in Western society. Accordingly, she asks if education is not turning out "successful profit makers rather than thoughtful citizens".

Martha Nussbaum