Australian universities under threat from creeping corporatisation

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The knowledge economy stands to benefit Australians and their world status, but the drive to change the universities that produce this benefit is threatening quality and value of the "product".

That is the conclusion made by Lee Duffield who served four years on the governing Council of a leading university, Brisbane’s QUT, and is currently contesting elections for a graduate seat on the Senate of Queensland University.

When you go to hospital in Australia, despite all the flaws, you are entitled to think you are getting the best medical care in the world; that is common across all the professions in this country; it is something to be proud of, and it comes down to good education in our universities.

We can continue it by modernising the collegiate way of "producing"  knowledge and higher learning, based on the key idea that those who have knowledge pass it on.

Aggression and management of universities

But it’s being aggressively contested.

All universities, to one degree or another, have been going for corporatisation — trying to run these institutions of higher learning as if they are commercial companies.

It means they are being increasingly run by people who do not know about education; heads of the organisations tend to be scholastically mediocre, unable to provide intellectual leadership for the academic ranks; services are being narrowed down to meet the main, immediate demands of industry for labour and for co-contributing in research and development.

I have been describing it this way:

Too much running the universities like ordinary corporations, treating students only as business customers and treating research only as a service to “industry”.

What is behind it?

There are two main and overlapping explanations for it:

  1. the ideology of market fundamentalism that took hold in the early 1970s has spread into higher education and, while it has been faltering since it caused the Global Financial Crisis, its beneficiaries, apologists and protagonists are hanging on tight everywhere; and 
  2. the universities are struggling to adjust under pressure from technological advances, radical change in the economy, demands to take on more students, competition for students from commercial colleges or "digital" providers and governments reducing their budgets.

Breaking up the universities

In practice, this means that universities as communities that are glued together through learning and discovery are being broken up.

Two recent confrontations illustrate the way that academics are being “taken on” in American-style campaigns to strip them of autonomy in what they teach and how they do their work. Success with that may provide cheaper workers and no obstacles to whatever meddling that new managers might do in the fields of teaching, research and service to community which the academics created. 

Perth’s Murdoch University has just succeeded in getting the Fair Work Commission to cancel its Enterprise Agreement with staff. The Commission’s operating terms are fairly limiting; if a party wants to get out of an agreement it has a good chance. The process was accompanied by pressure from the university management, such as lawsuits against union officials. In the outcome, employment rights will be limited to only minimal safety-net provisions, leaving everything else entirely for management to decide. Along with entitlements, like redundancy packages or parenting leave, the payroll can be reduced and protections on academic freedom scrapped. A counter-balance exists. The other Western Australian universities have renewed their agreements with staff. Murdoch University managers must now calculate benefits and costs: big savings on staff, more power for themselves and the chance of more profit by not passing savings on to fee-paying "customers"; as against likely consequences of reputation loss, especially once they go cheapskate with staff. Cheap price or not, can people afford to send their “kids” to such a place?

The second case is an attempt by the University of New England to bump a staff member off its governing Council. The staff member concerned, a respected professor of the university, Margaret Sims, was challenged when elected President of the local branch of her union on a claim of “conflict of interest”. She took the Vice Chancellor and management to court and, in the outcome, in October last year, the union side claimed a victory. The case was discontinued and a joint statement issued, acknowledging that a material interest had not arisen by the mere fact that a member of the UNE Council was also a union officer and there was no inherent conflict of interest, along with the important contribution being made by the Professor being acknowledged by all.

Distractions of constant politics

To staff who enter academic work to think and know, not to be distracted by constant politics against them, it was another case of having a go at cutting down what they do. Other cases are wholesale around the country, including moves loaded with potential to bust academic standards, crucial to the standing and trust placed in universities in Australia and world-wide.

In one such case, a university has been negotiating to strike out academic staff representation on appeals boards or appointments committees. In another case, scientists with strong academic records, but also substantial salaries, were given impossibly big dollar targets for getting research grants; their expertise was not called on to establish those targets — they could clear out at any time.

The knowledge economy stands to benefit Australians and their world status, but the drive to change the universities that produce this benefit is threatening quality and value of the ‘product.’

What is “dynamic”?

The rationale for all this is that the digital economy demands “dynamic” systems. They put up showcase buildings with wi-fi parlours and tell the public it’s so students can “study what they want, when they want and how they want.” On the premise that money is always going to be tight, university managers go into areas where they feel most at home, running for-profit parking enterprises, or real estate ventures using the valuable land granted to their campuses. Clearly enough, there are career opportunities here for some. At the top vice chancellors once primus inter pares with academics as distinguished researchers in their own right, are more specialist managers commonly paid over $1 million a year (and likely considering themselves short-changed compared to their counterparts in the strictly business world).

Politicians are brought into it. Conservative state governments have been lobbied to alter their universities legislation, to reduce their senates or councils to small, non-representative boards of paid directors — like in a company. Out will go elected students, staff members or graduates and with them their ability to keep the “top level” well-informed. The present Labor Government in Queensland inherited such a Bill, covering all the universities, from the Campbell Newman Government before it. It was watered down a bit to keep an element of representation for the students, graduates and staff, but retained elements like the undermining of the Senate power to make university statutes, transferring authority to stated “university policies” — the province of university managers. (See University Legislation Amendment Bill 2017). 

Set up for service, not to be companies

That goes against some stark facts, mostly that universities are not and were never intended to be set up by the public, governments or their founders as common businesses. A study of the legal identity of universities by John Orr, law lecturer at Southern Cross University, focused on whether they should be regulated by the Corporations Act like businesses, and showed they did not belong there. Universities could be considered as bodies corporate. They were described by Orr as public authorities 'which have important public objects and functions to fulfil'. (Other evaluations liken universities to charities rather than companies).

John Orr’s main conclusion:

'Public universities are higher education corporations that undertake important higher education and research activities for the benefit of the society within which they endure… They are created for the public good to benefit society politically, socially and economically and should be allowed to do so without the hindrance of inappropriate commercial pressures.'

So what?

Chief concerns come out not just in the treatment of students as paying customers (providing through fees as much as a third of the cost of their degrees), but also as a milch-cow paying for less and less. Class sizes are demonstrably bigger and unkempt online teaching programs cut the students off further from the academics who can help them. Evaluation of services is most often confined to student experience of teaching surveys, which notoriously miss their mark — that is, don’t assess outcomes or deployment of resources, but generate counterproductive bad feelings with staff. Imposition of set standards – for example, that any subject must have only two assessment items (as a cost-cutting measure) – blocks academics off from providing original guidance and blocks students off from a wealth of learning experience.

From that, we get back to the threat to good standards in the professions in Australia. If you go to hospital in a future time in this country, will they be able to treat you at the world’s best standard or will it be sub-standard? And so for any and all of the professions. We get back also to the demonstrated values of curiosity-driven and “pure” research for making knowledge, longer-term but higher yielding, as against overloads of applied projects only.

What answers?

Universities, like all institutions, are being exposed to more accountability regimes and, while today these checks on course content and the like play into the hands of zealous in-house regulators, they can be revealing, and can be read by many others outside. Pressure on political leaders to study what is happening in the universities on their watch might bring change. (Who wants to be responsible for churning out future quack doctors?). Legislation on universities to date has given maximum autonomy to universities out of respect for academic freedom, as they were thought of as communities of scholars — harmless enough and not to be touched. With galumphing corporatism, the autonomy just means carte blanche for executives to do anything at all, not even constrained by the Corporations Act. It's time for more politicians to be told.

In the “digital age”, the change being thought of here is to access the in-house knowledge, talent and expertise found in the universities and apply it to the tasks of learning and research in new ways — unbound by the constraints on academic freedom. Pragmatic measures are also being proposed, like the argument by (IA contributor) Dr Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters in their book Game of Mates, for the separation of universities from their businesses. (See an extract in

Universities might own businesses, but cannot have that activity affecting their core task as institutions of society. Now is as fine a time as any to get universities onto a good track to carry out their work for society in new but valid ways.

Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

Dr Duffield is also standing in the current University of Queensland Senate elections. If you are a UQ graduate, make sure you get your vote in by Wednesday 25 October HERE.

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