11 Apr 2007

Tertiary Booming

By Malcolm King
The tenured boomers teaching in the 1980s and 1990s blew a perfect opportunity to shape the future of Australian tertiary education, writes Malcolm King

I have seen the best minds of our younger generations flee from teaching and research at our universities, due to poor leadership and generational intransigence.

I was a tutor and lecturer for nine years at a well-regarded institution. I left when executive incompetence took a logarithmic leap and scapegoating and bullying became the order of the day; when senseless bureaucracy had so effectively killed initiative that anyone brandishing a new idea was considered a radical or even a threat.

I don't want to just demonise baby boomers (especially the 1945-54 cohort) but my underlying proposition is that ignorance married with a lack of political vision ossified our tertiary learning institutions over the past 20 years, and that's why many universities and TAFEs are still going through organisational hell.

The cuts to tertiary education budgets that began in the 1980s flowed from a position that universities could no longer sit like hungry fledglings and squawk for more money without showing some autonomy and independent income streams.

So, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the executives of our universities knew their funding was being cut, they knew there were going to be institutional amalgamations. But what they did was appropriate some of the worst examples of 'corporate' managerial language, they hired hundreds of consultants to change brands and logos, and they produced highly polished annual reports that included a 'mission statement.'

There is a cruel irony in that execrable term 'mission statement' they are carpetbags chock full of terms such as 'innovation,' 'entrepreneurial,' 'flexible' or, my favourite, 'seamless.' What are we talking about here: an invisible panty line?

You don't need to have read Don Watson's books on the spread of 'weasel words' to know that this sort of language is the intellectual equivalent of the Killing Fields it's drivel so thick you can drive a truck over it. And passive verbs make passive people.

Changing brands and logos and writing mission statements was easy. The hard part was seeing the writing on the wall. So the chaos that surrounds the Australian tertiary sector today is, in part, a failure of vision back then combined with a failure to perceive any other option except internationalisation.

Some Vice Chancellors tried, and failed, to make changes, and some had failure thrust upon them (by their boards). Many executives thought it was the sole responsibility of the VC to swing the 'ship of Education' around to the open market but, in fact, that required a collective act of will by all staff.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Let us turn to the first baby-boomer cohort (1945-54) who have sat on tenure for maybe 15 to 20 years and never paid a cent in HECS fees. Many are hard workers and love teaching. Many are brilliant thinkers. Some have their own newspaper columns or are consistently asked for their opinions by the media.

It's a truism, universally held, that the majority of career academics do not have a strong understanding of corporate Australia. If they did, they wouldn't have appropriated its ridiculous jargon.

The majority of this first cohort of boomers sat in their fiefdoms, and apart from the growing number of students in their classes (which was disturbing), all was right with the world.

Except that it was not.

What the executives of the universities back in the late 1980s and 1990s needed was help and advice from senior staff. The ground was moving beneath them as they were entering a new economic and structural paradigm, and they needed bold and daring ideas. The old Alfred Deakin model of an Australia surrounded by trade walls and protectionism was dead.

These executives needed help to undertake the riskiest adventure that any senior management team can make they needed to change the strategic direction of the university so that it was not all things to all people, but a lot of things to some specific people. In short, they had to specify their program offerings and convince their staff that structural and systemic change was needed and that it would be immediate and revolutionary.

The options were fight, adapt or die.

Would the boomers rally to the cause? Would they support their VCs? Would they turn their considerable intelligence and powers of imagination to seeking solutions to these wicked problems?

The overwhelming response that the university executives got, especially from the first cohort of boomer was 'not a chance.'

Go back to issues of Campus Review and The Australian Higher Education Supplement from that time and it's clear, among the mish-mash of stories, that for nearly every proposal put by either the Keating or Howard Governments there were rafts of counter proposals from the boomer academic elite which opposed the Government's agenda but failed to either put up an alternative policy or realise it was a 'done deal,' that the people, via the Government, had spoken.

The primary effect of these tensions between executives and boomer academics which will take a generation to recover from is that from 1993 to now, when the money has started to dry up, hundreds if not thousands of casual academics were sacked.

So what are we left with? Staff feel bullied or harassed, lecturers are set up and scapegoated, and the best and brightest brains of the up-and-coming generation have either taken off overseas and said 'stuff this for a joke' or they've taken up offers of a healthy corporate salary.

One of the reasons why a large proportion of Australia's post secondary education sector is in stasis is due to the intransigence of the first cohort of baby boomers. This is the Australian Pensioners Insurance Association generation. Their intransigence to change when the going got tough in the 1980s and 1990s destroyed the career aspirations of many of the brightest minds this country has to offer.

The sad outcome on the shop floor is that many of those younger staff who took on more responsibility, who took on leadership roles (thereby sacrificing their own research and teaching), were either sacked or took packages.

Yet all is not completely lost. One hopes that those who survived the academic pogroms of the 1990s will understand the need for change management and succession planning. They've seen the results of the 'head in the sand' attitude of their seniors and will act to secure a brighter future for the tertiary sector rather than being stuck in yesteryear.

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