‘We’ve turned our unis into aimless, money-grubbing exploiters of students‘ [Ross Gittins, Canberra Times, 17 September 2017]
Part 1 of my response to Gittins’ article dealt with the human side of the current university scene and noted pressures to conformity and uniformity, but this underestimates the element of underlying competitiveness.
Universities: Where to begin?
Enter the ‘money-grubbers’ in Gittens headline, seemingly likening VCs and their ilk to the biblical money-changers, not outside but inside (and managing) the temples of higher learning. The focus has now firmly been placed by Education Minister Simon Birmingham on the overly high salaries paid to VCs compared to their peers in Britain and Canada.
Two lines of defence have been offered on behalf of the VCs near the top of the financial tree, valued four times more than their Oxford counterpart. One related to size, contrasting Bristol’s 17,000 students with the University of Queensland (UQ) figure of 52,000; the other pleaded on behalf of the Australian Catholic University by explaining its apparent profligacy in terms of the complexity of managing multiple campuses in different jurisdictions. Perhaps, in negotiating their personal packages with Councils or Senates drawn from high-fliers in the business world, VCs might have identified their role as academic high-fliers deserving similar remunerations.
Size and complexity
Size and complexity obviously count for something. What is apparently rarely questioned is the innate virtue of being big and complex, apart from justifying the high pay? There is no obvious reason why if you wanted to quadruple student numbers across the nation that the only option was to quadruple the size of a relatively small number of existing institutions. (Perhaps I should append a later postscript on personal lessons from colonial history concerning size, diversity and quality assurance.) For a more detailed discussion see Dean Ashenden’s review of Glyn Davis’s book: ‘Diversity … for the others’ in Inside Story, 24.1.18.
As things stand, sizeable universities are difficult to manage, but actually somewhat different from most private sector corporations in their relationships with government, students and the wider community. But, like the private sector and many government agencies, they still feel the need to spend funds on a significant administrative infrastructure to manage public relations – with potential students and their parents, with alumni and potential philanthropists, with commercial users of research outputs. In my own lifetime, I have seen the University of Queensland move from a part-time Vice-Chancellor aided by peer-elected deans and a registrar to a panoply of deputies and pro-vice-chancellor appointments with their line management responsibility measured in quantitative performance indicators by their underpinning bureaucracies.
Fiscal constraints at all levels
So Gittins’s use of ‘money-grubbing’ can be seen as a hostile but not entirely inaccurate behavioural description for all levels of university management from the VC down to the most menial committee chair or executive officer dealing with curriculum choices, staffing allocations, library votes, catering spaces, car-parking and the other core functions of any corporation. Each university seems to be constrained by a system which provides fixed (but not always predictable) funding provided directly by central agencies of the government through operating grants and by fixed research income, running alongside more flexible choices where dollars are linked to student load or generous donations.
Deregulated growth or constraint?
For most of the recent era, universities operated within fixed envelopes of student numbers for specified courses and those at the top of the status tree (due mainly to their historical institutional advantages), got the best students into the courses the students most valued – Health Sciences and Law in particular. Briefly, under Prime Minister Gillard and urged on by the 2008 Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education, the seals on these envelopes were broken and those institutions lower down the status tree were able to dip as far into the talent pool as their resources would stretch – and even slightly beyond in the certainty that these additional fees could be used to fund new ventures. As with conventional neo-liberal economics, growth was king and Malthus was buried. Institutions could in a sense choose how big they wished to become and the higher-status places (like UQ) initially considered a strategic path towards recruiting significantly fewer local undergraduates, until the rules changed back again.
This size-reduction phase was not based on a desire to make crowded campuses more liveable but the predictable response which Gittens calls money-grubbing and others might dignify with management-speak about market forces and marginal utility in terms of return for dollars spent. In particular, UQ (and Melbourne and the Australian National University and to a lesser extent all the other older ‘metropolitanites’) correctly deduced that the direct government funding for undergraduate students was less rewarding than the income available in some areas from research-focussed funding from industry and government agencies and more significantly from international students. This story has been told elsewhere about some of the problems and consequences of this shift, and the way the market leaders have been followed by most tertiary institutions with variable results.
Internationalisation benefits and costs
What seems to me incontrovertible is that the nature of university education has changed as a result of ‘internationalisation’. On the plus side, apart from the rivers of gold, is the social benefit to Australian students insulated from cross-cultural contact where classes are populated by students from overseas, mainly from Asia but also on state-supported scholarships from Africa and the Pacific and a smattering of first-world scholarly tourists. There are also benefits in this change to staff in advancing their own knowledge of international contexts for their work in all disciplines, from health sciences to sociology, and opening up new fields for potential research of benefit to the wider community. State governments and local administrations welcome the impact of international students in bringing in resources locally, filling up vacant accommodation and promoting familial tourism.
But there is also a negative side, almost certainly not anticipated when people like John Menadue identified the benefits of expanding international education beyond the modest contact we both experienced with the Columbo Plan in the 1950s.(see footnote at end) John Dawkins in his creation of the Unified National System made expansion of international education a key performance indicator which would assist moving university costs off the central federal budget. Education services now ranks third among our exports and generates a significant percentage of the income generated among all tertiary institutions. But the market advantages of location and historical presence have loaded the dice in favour of the metropolitanites and against most smaller institutions (although not necessarily against beach-side locations where polling shows enthusiasm by students).
Implications for curriculum
The result of the competitive search for overseas students in uncontrolled numbers and unrestricted fee levels has been to change the face of universities. The search is for curriculum products which will appeal to this market, which gives a much greater return to the grubbers at every level in the university administration. Once upon a time, my home university was acknowledged as being expert in national, intergovernmental and state-level studies; now a course on Queensland politics is infrequently taught by a contract lecturer because the rest of the staff all paint on a wider canvas. Skilful recruiting of a bevy of distinguished professors has led to endorsement by major international agency like Rotary International and a very high competitive ranking within Australia; add in major investment in advertising and UQ is now pre-eminent across a wide range of fields appealing to international students.
[I recently attended a graduation ceremony at which a long-term colleague from UQ, now retired, was awarded an honorary Fellowship for his contribution to University administration and to his discipline of Classics and Ancient History. Various awards in the second part of the two-hour ceremony were conferred on students in several humanities disciplines within an omnibus faculty which also incorporates business and economics. The longer first half of the ceremony was confined to a particular discipline area, conferring mainly bachelors degrees of International Hotel and Tourism Management on very large numbers, an award which superficially appeared to have attracted very little support from local students (but came with a listed ‘indicative’ price tag of over $120,000 for non-residents).
Aims and values
So, from a management perspective, money-grubbing should not be despised if it brings its own rewards. It is certainly not aimless, although Gittins does use a comma which differentiates the grubbing from the aimlessness. If he intends this as a qualifying adjective for ‘exploiters’, then he has a stronger line of criticism concerning ‘aimlessness’. The University of Queensland is fortunate in having as its new Chancellor a former senior diplomat and departmental head, Peter Varghese. In an address to staff when he was apppointed he warned that ‘it would be a mistake to think about a university purely in the language or the vocabulary of business, and universities can’t afford to be driven ultimately by the equivalent of its share price’. He counselled about the need for institutions to be subject to radical incrementalism, the evolutionary process of achieving change, how to set a direction and begin the evolutionary process of achieving change. ‘No institution is perfect, none can say we have found absolutely the right pathway and absolutely the right strategy’. [Chancellor’s Staff Address, 19 July 2016]
Davis’s magisterial work, The Australian Idea of a University [Melbourne University Press, 2017], mentioned earlier, includes a similar reflection on the need for clarification of aims: ‘Reflecting on the purpose of a university education, academic Alice Garner suggests what great institutions teach us is how to ask hard questions, where to look for other people’s answers, and, if none is satisfactory, how to go about coming up with our own’. [p.126]
Mea culpa -who’s to blame?
Those who manage universities – and those in government and those in the wider community – need to contemplate their roles and aims, whether money-grubbing at government behest or responding to other imperatives which might be articulated by students, employers and tax-payers. Gittins places the blame for what he clearly regards as a parlous situation on an unspecified ‘us’ as in We’ve turned our unis into aimless …
I personally do not feel any sense of guilt, but I am aware that the turning has been done in my name as a member of the Australian polity and I too am unhappy about the direction of the turn. Those who actually did the turning in response to legitimate questions about community priorities were not at all malevolent in their search for smaller government and efficiency in resource accumulation and management. But the time has come for others to have a look at these hard questions, since ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’.
Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.