Universities at the crossroads – will town trump gown?

University mergers proposed for SA may be the wrong answer to the wrong question. We have let universities become captured by commercial interests and corporate culture. Now Covid has wrecked their business model. It is time to reclaim them for the public?

Proposals for a possible merger of SA universities have been floated in the Murdoch Sunday Mail of August 9. They came from a Committee for Adelaide recruited from a list published in the Murdoch press list of SA’s Top 50 Most Influential People. The Committee has proposed merging the three SA universities into one to be called the University of Australia. (I wonder what ANU thinks of this?) The man who suggested the summit heads a corporation that runs a tobacco retailer and the OTR chain of convenience stores which is currently in the Federal Court defending accusations of wage theft of up to $70M.

SA Senator and Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham has supported the proposal stating that the key goal must be to best meet the future needs of South Australians and successfully position the state as an attractive education destination.

The corporate sector sees universities in crisis as a ripe opportunity for mergers, asset stripping and re-marketing. But as 1200 academics across the country have recently pointed out in an open letter to Minister Tehan, Australian universities have already been absorbed into the corporate sector. They have focused on marketing the education product to full-fee-paying overseas students, restructured to cut and casualise the workforce, co-opted the university councils by radically reducing staff and student representations converting them into boards of directors and cemented in place a cohort of upper management who are astonishingly well-paid compared to their US and UK counterparts.

The Universities have bloated marketing budgets and increasingly rely on corporate partnerships and overseas students to replace the diminishing public funds. Yet their central role should be to build a better and wiser society.

In South Australia, the Jay Weatherill Labor government passed legislation in 2017 to amend the acts governing both Adelaide and Flinders Universities. The amendments reduced the size of the governing councils and effectively reduced the representation of staff and students while increasing the power of councils to appoint their own membership. Flinders for example, had 4 elected staff and 2 elected students, 29% of the total of 21 members and was reduced to one staff and one student rep making up just 10% or less of Council.

In 2017 The 3 Vice-Chancellors collected salaries of $1,045,000 (Flinders), $1,083,000 ( Adelaide) and $965,000 (Uni of SA). For comparison, the equivalent at Oxford earned $615,000. The average salary package for Australian VCs reached $982,900 pa in 2017. By contrast, we understand that in the 1980s Vice-Chancellors were paid about one and a half times a professorial salary.

At the same time restructuring and industrial ‘reform’ moved many academics into teaching only positions and greatly increased the number of short-term casual contracts while many middle and lower-level administrative positions were axed. Morale across the sector is abysmal with many early-career academics looking for the exit. A recent ABC investigation has found wage theft “rampant” with tutors effectively being forced to do a poor job to avoid unpaid hours.

In this gloomy context, the impact of Covid has been devastating and compounded by the exclusion of public universities from eligibility for JobKeeper. Both the University of Adelaide and Uni SA relied heavily on international students for their revenue streams and both have been hit hard and are facing salary cutbacks and the loss of possibly hundreds of jobs. Flinders attracted fewer overseas students and so is less vulnerable to the current threats.

However, it is still reeling from the effects of a restructure involving significant job losses and described by the NTEU branch as ‘heartless’. Uni SA VC David Lloyd seems keen on a merger model that would include closer integration with the TAFE sector while Adelaide, with only an acting VC, has been represented by its new Chancellor Catherine Branson who has expressed cautious interest and wants to see more clarity on the purpose and expected outcomes for the sector. At Flinders, VC Colin Stirling is not making any public comment on the merger proposals.

All of which begs questions as to the purpose of any merger and what the function of universities should be. The differential fee structure being implemented by Minister Tehan aimed at boosting the output of STEM (Science, Technology and Maths) graduates at the great expense of HASS (Humanities Arts and Social Sciences) is vehemently opposed by both universities, the NTEU and employer groups. It appears driven by ideology rather than evidence and likely to be both ineffective and counterproductive.

The push to STEM is accompanied by increased corporate interest in micro-credentialling. Micro-credentials are industry-recognised, skill-specific certifications; traditionally the work of the TAFE sector, but increasingly being offered by private organisations who may also seek the credibility of association with a university. Notwithstanding these attempts to regain viable market share by tweaking the product, Covid 19 has rendered obsolete the model of the corporate commercial university with its dependency on full fees from overseas students.

Pelizzon, Young and Joannnes-Boyau in a recent piece in The Conversation argue that the time has come to return to the traditional model, still dominant in most countries, of public institutions with public functions transparently managed by a council accountable to both the university and the broader electorate whose taxes fund the university sector. They point out that the current corporate model encourages competition, rather than collaboration between universities, results in aggressive student recruitment backed by huge spends on marketing and casualises and overstretches a diminishing workforce. The corporate university relates firstly to commerce and the economy. Research and teaching agendas are dominated by the short-term commercial interests of product development and anticipated workforce needs.

The traditional public university focuses on scholarship, research, free enquiry and a partnership with society. The 1200 academics who wrote to Minister Tehan propose a return to what they call the horizontal model of university management. They call for all senior and middle executive positions to be filled by an internal process rather than commercial corporate recruitment strategies. The current crisis and the vulnerability of the sector has come about by reduced public funding and increased dependence on corporate commercial strategies.

The immediate risk is that merger proposals will be negotiated behind closed doors by the Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors and perhaps some of their senior executives resulting in a deal that meets their commercial aspirations. The outcome may well be another round of dislocation, uncertainty and insecurity for staff and students involved in a job-crunching merger.

The recent decades have shown conclusively that access to quality tertiary education and research works best as a public good rather than a marketable commodity. Countries like Germany or Finland provide a natural experiment which highlights the value of governments funding Universities well. With adequate public funding, wasteful competition for students and corporate deals is lessened. Opportunities arise for cooperation across universities creating both efficiencies and greater choice for students, teachers and researchers.

Universities across Australia are established under acts of parliament that were intended to preserve them as nation-building resources, valuable public institutions preserving and fostering intellectual and social inquiry. Their primary purpose was never intended to be an adjunct to industry and commerce although that has often been a useful by-product. Through cuts in public funding and perhaps anti-intellectual populist posturing, governments have allowed corporate interests and culture to take control of the sector.

If it is to be saved, then the commonwealth must step up with adequate public funding and the states must revisit the enabling legislation to ensure universities have governance structures accountable to their communities and missions accountable to society. Any structural changes to the Universities should involve wide-spread consultation with staff, students, public good NGOs, industry, trade unions and the community at large. Letting market forces dictate the form of our higher education sector will be a tragic loss to Australia at a time when creativity, inventiveness and democracy need to flourish.

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Paul Laris is a semi-retired health and human services policy tragic, health care users advocate, medical regulator, community activist, gardener and sailor.

Fran Baum is a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Director of the Southgate Institute of Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University.

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