The crisis of academic values and governance in Australian universities

Apr 19, 2023
Back view of mature professor giving lecture to large group of college students in the classroom.

In Australia, public universities face a crisis that threatens the future of this country.

It is not a crisis of funding. Nor is it yet a quality crisis, although members of the Association of Australian University Professors (AAUP) are attuned to seeing standards slip and young colleagues brutalised by the Australian Higher Education System (AHES). Rather, there is a crisis of academic values and corresponding unfit governance within Australia’s universities. This crisis is progressively eroding the core of our universities as providers of public goods. This is the central thrust of the submission to the Panel of the Australian Universities Accord, made by the AAUP.

The AAUP is an association of professors from across Australia and is a policy forum and advocacy group for academia. AAUP envisions that the core national functions of public universities are to create knowledge, disseminate knowledge through advanced teaching, and to establish a deep reservoir of expertise in the public interest of the Nation.

Delivering these functions relies on implementing the core academic values of rigour in expertise; commitment to advancing and promulgating knowledge; collegiality; freedom of speech; robust intellectual discourse; freedom of academic research; and truth in all academic work. Some might think these are just personhood statements, but be assured that we appreciate from our long academic careers that the work of universities is achieved by putting these core values into action, and that this is for the benefit and advancement of society.

Institutional values should support institutional functions. For railways, the values would be different, including safety; punctuality; traveller comfort; and efficient transport. Nevertheless, we are considering public universities, and Australian universities’ national interest, public good, reputation and export capability, has been built upon and should continue to be built upon, working by these core academic values. Collegial shared governance in organisational management and leadership, emerges naturally from these values and is unnatural to authoritarianism.

It is evident that different professionals, from musicians to surgeons, must develop different specialised abilities. University academics who have mastered their discrete disciplines understand what is needed to achieve such mastery, and they gain promotion by continuing to develop those unique skills throughout their lives. It is logical to trust the expertise of academics to know how best to teach and lead others to achieve the same mastery, and to conduct research in their expert areas. High quality teaching depends on original research. Academic freedom is a hard-earned trust afforded to academics to research and teach, in the best way they know and in the public interest.

Australian university senior management has become distressingly disconnected from and unaccountable to academic values. Many university managers have no academic experience working in universities. Students, governments, industry and granting bodies pay universities to deliver services according to universally accepted academic values. However, academics are impeded from following those values, and from working to the best of their ability, by senior managers who do not share academic values, do not know what academic freedom is based on, and do not work according to academic values.

Therefore, the question is whether senior university management potentially deceives stakeholders and the broader public, by not respecting and breaching those values. A decoy is offered by managers in the form of global university rankings, where the ranking attained becomes the image of “the university”. This is in opposition to the public interest as enshrined in formal mission and vision statements of universities, available to all stakeholders to call universities to account.

This breach by management undermines Australian universities’ function, reputation, and value. Current university managements are comfortably and calmly unaccountable, to the extent that they publicly ignore empirical facts, readily make misrepresentations, and engage in mean spirited and unscrupulous authoritarian practices to demand and enforce their wishes and silence opposition.

The value of universities as training grounds for democratic participation is being lost. The 1957 Murray report on universities stressed the importance of academics exercising at times unpopular free speech, to avoid the self-delusion of governments and of the Land at large. The spirit of that report is now virtually forgotten, and increasingly authoritarian university managements dissociated from academic values, undermine the work of academics and put the Nation at potential democratic risk.

Good universities are not only protectors of democracy, but are essential for the future of this country, as a reservoir of deep expertise that generates ideas and helps educate the populace. As shown by the example of other enlightened countries, a low student cost for university education comes with many benefits, both for society and the economy. Good universities are priceless, and are well worth adequate public funding, as are the students who attend them. This is critical to maintain and raise living standards, and also for nation-building. Penny pinching higher education, costs more than it saves. The recent Australian practice of universities having to seek independent funding to support their fundamental societal mission, is as absurd as asking the military to find its own funding.

Having expressed these fundamental concerns, the AAUP commends the Federal Government for instigating an Australian Universities Accord. Governance that fails to prize and respect academic values, and the damage inflicted by this, is the core problem described in the AAUP submission to the Accord. Unfortunately, the Accord panel is populated with representatives of the same organisational management, that is the source of the most acute problems. Expressly, neither actual teaching and research academics, nor students are represented.

The AAUP submission recommends that the government enshrine and preserve academic values in university governance, policies, and procedures. It explains how, should the recommendations be adequately considered and implemented, there would be a sustainable improvement in university quality, and it also contains a roadmap for speedy implementation.

We urge the Federal government to take notice, so we can restore shared governance in public universities and improve the integrity and quality of this vital sector in Australia.

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