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The Powell Memo Play in Australian higher education

The Powell Manifesto aka the – Attack on American Free Enterprise System – was a memo sent on August 23, 1971 to the US Chamber of Commerce by lawyer, Lewis Powell, who had been hired by the Chamber to craft a strategy to restore the dominant position of corporate America, which had felt diminished by the gains made by workers and citizens from social democratic policies. The dominant narrative in the late 1960s was focused on the so-called ‘profit squeeze’, which related to the redistribution of national income towards wages as a result of various government policies which increased workers’ protection, used taxation and spending as a redistributive vehicle, grew public services and infrastructure. Powell produced a path to reverse these gains by workers and citizens, in general, and

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The Powell Manifesto aka the – Attack on American Free Enterprise System – was a memo sent on August 23, 1971 to the US Chamber of Commerce by lawyer, Lewis Powell, who had been hired by the Chamber to craft a strategy to restore the dominant position of corporate America, which had felt diminished by the gains made by workers and citizens from social democratic policies. The dominant narrative in the late 1960s was focused on the so-called ‘profit squeeze’, which related to the redistribution of national income towards wages as a result of various government policies which increased workers’ protection, used taxation and spending as a redistributive vehicle, grew public services and infrastructure. Powell produced a path to reverse these gains by workers and citizens, in general, and ensure that corporate interests were dominant in public decision making. Conservative forces are still using it as a blueprint for their agendas. The recent decision by the Australian government to divert university students out of humanities and social science courses is a classic application of the blueprint.

I analysed the Powell Manifesto in this blog post – The right-wing counter attack – 1971 (March 24, 2016).

Powell talked about an attack from ‘socialism or some form of statism’ on the ‘American economic system’.

He talked about “the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.

And he claimed these “extremists” had attracted a “chorus” of “disquieting voices”:

… from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

He also implicated “much of the media” – which “accords unique publicitly to these ‘attackers'”.

He noted that:

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

The plan he devised, not unsurprisingly, targetted the enemy ‘strongholds’ that his paranoia had managed to identify.

In terms of “what specifically should be done” to the public education system, Powell said that the:

… campus is the single most dynamic source. The social science faculties usually include members who are unsympathetic to the enterprise system. They may range from a Herbert Marcuse, Marxist faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and convinced socialists, to the ambivalent liberal critic who finds more to condemn than to commend. Such faculty members need not be in a majority. They are often personally attractive and magnetic; they are stimulating teachers, and their controversy attracts student following; they are prolific writers and lecturers; they author many of the textbooks, and they exert enormous influence — far out of proportion to their numbers — on their colleagues and in the academic world.

He targetted “Social science faculties” who “tend to be liberally oriented, even when leftists are not present”.

He reiterated the claim that universities were “graduating scores’ of bright young men … who despise the American political and economic system” and infiltrate “centers of real power and influence” (like the media, government departments, academia, etc).

He thus recommended that the US Chamber of Commerce:

1. Establish “highly qualified scholars in the social sciences” who can pump out pro-system material.

2. Influence promotion systems to ensure these high-profile, pro-corporate scholars rise to the top.

3. Organise regular speaking events to disseminate pro-corporate narratives.

4. These scholars and others should scrutinise what appears in textbooks to ensure critical material disappears. This would include influencing publishers in their decision-making processes.

5. Should demand “equal time on the college speaking circuit” to allow the Chamber’s message to be heard.

6. Demand a “Balancing of Faculties”, which would downplay the importance of social sciences and humanities.

7. Ensure these changes apply to the “increasingly influential graduate schools of business” and influence the curriculum to ensure they provide “essential training for the executives of the future”.

In terms of sceondary schools, Powell recommended “action programs” of a similar nature – influential teacher appointments, the curriculum, and textbooks.

So why am I reminding readers of that ‘dark’ period in history?

Last week, the Australian government announced major changes to the university system, ostensibly, to help the nation recover from the debilitating pandemic.

But the changes have ‘Powell’ written all over them and reflect an on-going strategy to turn our higher education institutions into lackeys for neoliberalism.

Black arm band history

In 1993, Australia historian and conservative Geoffrey Blainey gave a speech as part of the Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture series. Latham was a noted High Court Judge, and subsequent release of his correspondence revealed he was anti-Communist and advised the then conservative government to introduce legislation to ban the Communist Party.

The Speech was reproduced in the Quadrant magazine article (Volume 37, No. 7-8, July/August 1993) – Drawing Up a Balance Sheet of Our History – where Blainey claimed that:

1. The social sciences rejected a view of history that Australia had been a success, and, instead, promoted an idea he called the “Black Armband view of history”, which allowed the “multicultural folk” to “busily” preach a message that “much of Australian history was a disgrace”.

2. The “past treatment of various categories” – “Aborigines, of Chinese, of Kanakas, of non-British migrants, of women, the very old, the very young, and the poor was singled out”.

3. He decried the growing number of books and texts which provided a more nuanced version of Australian history in contradistinction to the ‘white’ British view of a colony that had made itself prosperous in the face of adversary (remoteness, etc.)

Blainey’s characterisation was politicised by conservative Prime Minister John Howard who used the 1996 Robert Menzies lecture to advance the idea that our universities were promoting dangerous narratives that sought to degrade the advances made by the nation.

He was particularly focused on indigenous issues and his government continually talked about sloth and alcohol abuse, without discussing the causal influences that had left many indigenous communities welfare dependent – such as the abandonment of full employment.

During his period in office, Howard relentlessly attacked the university system through a series of statements and policy changes – including funding cuts, deregulation, student debt escalation and derogatory public attacks.

The cuts to funding forced the universities to adopt an ‘instrumental’ focus and as Margaret Thornton wrote:

The pressure on public universities is now directed towards producing large numbers of job-ready graduates cheaply in minimum time to serve the needs of industry. The private benefits of higher education are also invariably conceived in economic terms, emphasising vocationalism and wealth accumulation in order to justify a user- pays regime.

(Thornton, M. (2015) ‘Introduction: The Retreat from the Critical’, in Thornton, M. (ed) Through a Glass Darkly – The Social Sciences Look at the Neoliberal University, ANU Press, Canberra).

The Powell Play

Last week, the Minister for Education announced major shifts in the way students will have to pay for courses offered by universities.

We learned that fees:

1. For many courses offered by Humanities will double.

2. Courses in areas such as teaching, nursing, maths, science and engineering were cut significantly.

What was the justification offered?

The Minister outlined the changes on June 19, 2020 at a – National Press Club address.

The Minister said that:

1. “COVID-19 means we must double down on our core mission of educating Australians for the jobs that will be in demand in the future”.

The idea of education being training is one of the hallmarks of the neoliberal era.

The traditional idea of a university was outlined by the English theologian – John Henry Newman – in in his – The about “teaching universal knowledge”

Newman was controversial because he abandoned his role as an Anglican priest and converted to Roman Catholicism.

He was sent to Dublin (University College) and after retiring from his role he produced a series of writings which became known as – The Idea of a University – which outlined a rich philosophy of what higher education should be about.

It is diametric to the Minister’s claim that we should educate for jobs.

2. The Minister continued: “We want our students to receive an education that sets them up for future success … when the economy is facing its greatest economic shock since the Great Depression, success looks like a job”.

So the question the Minister should answer is why not use the Government’s monopoly status as the currency issuer to create jobs.

3. “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future”.

Again equating university education with vocational training.

There has always been some vocational elements in university courses – architecture, medicine, accounting, law etc – but even then the vocational development was somewhat secondary to the educational components.

But over the last three decades, the vocational training system has been degraded (either scrapped, in the case of the college of advanced education, or defunded, in the case of TAFE) and universities have been forced to absorb much of this function.

So, areas of study that emphasis knowledge have been less attractive to the over-paid university managers and funds and attention has been diverted into vocational training courses – like human resource management, marketing, etc – at the expense of the traditional disciplines.

I have regularly written about the value of humanities and social sciences in our universities:

1. Political censorship in Australian research processes – towards authoritarianism (November 8, 2018).

2. Education – a faux crisis, an erroneous ‘solution’ and capital wins again (May 3, 2018).

3. Brainbelts – only a part of a progressive future (July 25, 2016).

4. Tibet and higher education funding in Australia (April 18, 2013).

5. We need more artists and fewer entrepreneurs (January 10, 2013)

6. The humanities is necessary but not sufficient for social transformation (December 18, 2012).

7. Technocrats move over, we need to read some books (June 13, 2012).

8. We need more fermenting … much more (March 7, 2011).

9. Education – a vehicle for class division (November 23, 2010).

10. I feel good knowing there are libraries full of books (October 29, 2010).

I won’t repeat those arguments but for the rest of this post examine the actual evidence in terms of the Minister’s own logic.

The Minister said:

Today, I announce our plan for more job-ready graduates … We will also incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices, that lead to more job-ready graduates …

So it is about jobs and can be assessed in that way.

The Minister also said: “To deliver cheaper degrees in areas of expected employment growth, students who choose to study more popular degrees will make a higher contribution. The student contribution for Law and Commerce will increase by 28 per cent, for the Humanities it will be 113 per cent.”

So it is not about what students want to study (“popular”) which runs against the choice-theoretic ideology propagated by the conservative government.

A relatively simple way to assess this proposal is to examine the employment outcomes of different graduate outcomes.

If, for example, science and mathematics degrees lead to superior labour market outcomes then the Minister’s logic at that level is unquestionable.

That is quite apart, of course, from the deeper and more important debate about whether university education is about ‘training’ – and the cited blog posts above consider that issue in detail.

However, if it was not the case that the STEM subjects uniformly outperform the Arts and Social Science courses in labour market outcomes then we are back into the Powell Play – that is, there must be something else going on here.

And the conjecture that this is part of a long-standing attack on the humanities and social sciences by conservatives in Australian has pretty solid ground in that case.

Evidence Base 1 – What employers say!

In October 2018, a management consulting report (Deloitte) – The value of the humanities – concluded:

1. “Humanities degrees involve many technical skills including quantitative analysis skills, policy development, software use and foreign language skills. This report identifies over 30 technical skills that may be acquired in a Humanities degree. Precisely because of their diversity, and not being common to all degrees, these skills can be difficult to neatly summarise but are nevertheless highly valued by employers.”

2. “In addition, transferrable skills … which have at their core the ability to solve complex problems by taking a flexible and adaptable approach, have become widely acknowledged as important in driving business success.”

3. “Changes in the labour market are making these skills more important over time – the share of the work force with transferrable-skill-intensive employment is forecast to increase from 53% in 2000 to 63% in 2030.”

4. “Surveys of employers echoed these findings, with Humanities-educated individuals exhibiting superior transferrable skills in terms of collaboration and overall employability.”

On November 4, 2016, the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, the peak body for large business, gave a speech – The True Value of Humanities – where she said:

1. “To be a successful leader in the 21st century, every leader will need some form of humanities perspective and education.”

2. “our economic and technological success has not been matched with a constant orientation towards a better human condition. And to achieve this, you need to understand what the human condition is to begin with. You need to have some organising principles that allow you to question and think about what it means to be a good society.”

3. “Humanities is about giving people an organising framework that goes to the heart of the human condition. It’s about giving people the philosophy and the understanding to apply values, ethics, and morals to a range of situations. It’s about giving people a world view and an historical perspective to allow them to balance complex issues and make good judgements.”

4. “The true value of humanities is the kinds of people they produce – people who can ask the right questions, think for themselves, explain what they think, and turn those ideas into actions.”

5. “When our leaders in business, government and the community are making decisions on our behalf, we want to know they are guided by a clear organising framework.”

6. Our leaders have “a mind to history, a perspective on culture, a global mindset and fundamentally having a set of values. That kind of awareness and thinking comes from having worked through some of the big questions. The kind of awareness and thinking that comes from the humanities.”

7. “Universities should not be just about producing accountants and lawyers, they should be producing leaders and good citizens.”

I could cite other evidence.

The point is that the humanities and social sciences appear to develop capacities that employers see as essential and will become more important over time.

The latter point is important because the Minister stressed the labour market of the future as part of his justification.

Evidence base 2 – the Government’s own data

The most recent – 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey – Longitudinal (released October 2019) – funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, provides useful data.

You can download the – Graduate Outcomes Complete Dataset.

In terms of employment outcomes, it shows:

1. “the proportion of undergraduates in full-time employment” was:

– 74.5 per cent in Law and legal studies in 2016 rising to 95.2 per cent in 2019.

– 77.8 per cent in Business and Management in 2016 rising to 93.6 per cent in 2019.

– 63.1 per cent in Humanities, culture and social sciences in 2016 rising to 86.2 per cent in 2019.

– 62.5 per cent in Science and Mathematics in 2016 rising to 87.8 per cent in 2019.

2. This data shows that the areas the government is hiking fees in, deliver among the highest employment outcomes.

It also shows that the students in Humanities, culture and social sciences do not have inferior job outcomes relative to Science and Mathematics.

3. This data is longitudinal, so shows the evolution of outcomes over time. The results show that:

This continues to demonstrate an important point that while undergraduates from some fields of education, in particular those with generalist degrees, have weaker employment outcomes soon after completing their course, the gap in employment outcomes across fields of education tends to narrow over time.

In terms of earnings outcomes, the following Table tells the story. It shows the annual salaries in 2016 and 2019 for graduates from various fields of study who are in full-time employment.

It is clear that the Humanities, culture and social sciences graduates are more valued by employers than Science and mathematics graduates.

The Powell Memo Play in Australian higher education


Of course, I have framed the empirical aspect in terms of addressing the Minister’s own logic. It fails on that score.

But, I also reject his logic – that university education is about getting a job.

That might be a derivative outcome but should never be the rationale for how we offer the courses.

Further, the whole debate about fees is symptomatic of the obsession with user-pays. The Australian government has no financial constraint and has never done a proper study of the costs and benefits of forcing students to pay (ultimately) for their higher education.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

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