Our Corporate Universities


A week and a half ago the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) introduced a controversial new human resources regime called the Behavioural Capability Framework (BCF) to enforce staff behaviour. A few weeks prior, Professor Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, announced a $40 million cut to the university’s expenditure, $25 million of which is coming from staff. And at the end of last year New Matilda published an open letter from a number of high-profile Sydney University academics denouncing VC Michael Spence’s ruthless cuts and proposed redundancies at that university.

In much the same way as Australian universities tend to adopt the latest academic fashions from Britain, Europe and the United States, our best centres of learning are now importing the hottest managerial trends: corporate consultants, endless rebranding and unwieldy bureaucracies. The corporate university has been a long time coming and its effects are now starting to be felt.

In institutions dedicated to the pursuit of higher learning, scepticism and truth, the most damaging managerial trend is the requirement that academics, along with their administrative staff, uncritically support the university’s corporate goals. Prescriptive behavioural plans like RMIT’s BCF are being imposed on academics who are expected to, for example, perform more of their own administration, eschew teaching to produce more research, teach on a casual basis or "team teach" huge undergrad classes.

The BCF itself is a bizarre document, taking its inspiration from a junk pop-psychology trend called Neuro-linguistic Programming. RMIT film and video-game lecturer Christian McCrea unpacked how the program works, explaining:

"First, get staff to use new language to describe their work and the techniques they use to do their work. Second, shift the order of language so that ambiguities rule over specifics. Third, devolve responsibility for policing of the new language to the individual."

So under headings like "resilience," "connectedness" and "innovation" staff are encouraged to fit their own academic work into a series of broad value-statements — such as "copes with pressure and ambiguity, remaining focused and productive". They are then required to "self-appraise their performance against the behavioural expectations and identify relevant development opportunities".

End of year appraisals look set to become reasonably inquisitorial at RMIT as staff are now required to demonstrate their success at achieving BCF criteria. They have to bring their own evidence — emails, formal assessments, case studies and documented examples.

Don’t want to play the positivity game? Too bad. New Matilda spoke to an RMIT staff member from one of the university’s "boutique post-graduate programs", who declined to be named, citing management sensitivity. She, like many RMIT staff members, is taking part in a National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) initiative to sign the BCF but only "under duress".

"I’ve only been teaching for three years but I’m astonished at how much the university faffs around on minor things. It’s really astonishing; a very mysterious system I think. It can be very slow in one way — a change of curriculum will take two years — but you can find somebody’s gone off and done all these committees to change your work plan," she said.

"But I really do think [the BCF]will just go away. I think it’s just a bit of bureaucratic silliness that somebody got into. I don’t think it will make much of a difference."

Swinburne University is one place where the bureaucratic silliness remains, instituted by current ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young in his previous post as Swinburne VC. In 2011 I wrote a profile of Professor Young for the ANU law students’ magazine, detailing Young’s pet project, the "Swinburne Behaviours" — a system remarkably similar to what is being introduced at RMIT.

Under the Swinburne regime employees and academics are encouraged to "support, empower and encourage others to achieve excellence," among other aims. Performance assessment is linked to meeting the behavioural requirements, with a contingent system of "increments".

"If you turned up to an education or training seminar you got incremented up," Josh Cullinan, an organiser at the NTEU, said. According to Cullinan, the behavioural requirements themselves amounted to a way for senior management to reward themselves.

Twenty one out of 26 senior managers made the grade, compared to only 100 from 600 junior managers. Seventy four per cent of eligible staff took place in the 2010/11 round, 43 per cent of whom received pay bonuses. Even though the NTEU is still fighting the "Personal Development and Rewards" scheme and it remains voluntary, the 2011/12 cycle mandates:

"If staff elect not to participate in the PDR process, they are nonetheless expected to undertake an annual documented objective setting and appraisal process that contemplates performance outcomes and development needs." So if you decline the invitation to take part you go through the rigmarole anyway — without the opportunity to boost your paycheck .

It should come as no surprise that the corporate attitude of "encouraging" employees to self-manage their behaviour bleeds through into the way university administrations razor the budget bottom line.

At the ANU, under Young’s $25 million staff cut, individual departments inside the university will be required to identify their own cutbacks, devolving the hard decision once again onto the individual, while the university can blame the funding cuts on reduced income from its investment portfolio. Criteria like student interest and research output mean plenty of small programs, most likely in the humanities and social sciences (think classics, gender studies etc) will get the hatchet.

The Australian’s higher-education blogger Stephen Matchett describes Young’s push as a "smart strategy" because it means the NTEU has no choice but to engage with the "consultation process". Contrast this with the top-down approach taken by Sydney University, which was rejected by Fair Work Australia for lack of discussion with staff.

The ANU’s funding cuts have more to do with the byzantine block grants system than the investment portfolio, but even so, the university’s financial situation isn’t as dire as the "ANU by 2020" plan suggests.

Professor Michael McKinley, an ANU International Relations academic, told New Matilda that the university still stands to make an operating profit of around $40.5 million in 2012 alone.

"Given that universities are not ‘for profit’ organisations that are committed to the public good, this is essentially turning the university into a commodity," he said. "[Young] says it’s largely the fault of the federal government. In this he’s absolutely right. The federal government intentionally underfunds undergraduate education."

"Decent financial planners saw some of [the GFC]coming. [Young] also says salary increases were not taken into account. That too is a serious problem, because he and the financial planners of the university knew what salary increases were negotiated a long time ago. Effectively he’s blaming the victims of the university’s own poor financial management."

While individual academics and whole departments are on the chopping block, the top-end of the university’s managerial staff has grown exponentially.

"I’ve been at ANU for 25 years and the number of administrators — especially high-level administrators — has increased five times or so," McKinley told NM. "Pro-Vice-Chancellors, a raft of people below who go by various titles. What you do find is that far and away now is that high end academics are not being paid anything like the high-end managers are being paid."

Cuts to (overwhelmingly) undergraduate programs, large managerial staff and the institution of behavioural programs support the goal of the modern university to produce more "research" — usually in the form of papers published in high ranking, prestigious overseas academic journals.

Research attracts funding under the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) scheme and pushes the university higher in various ranking schemes, especially in the group of eight.

"What the VCs are trying to do is buy CVs and names from around the world. When these people come to the ANU or anywhere else they don’t do any teaching. They sit in their offices and produce, which is fine, but whether the student populace as a whole benefits from their presence is very difficult to see."

These cutbacks and changes in undergraduate education coupled with the Gillard government’s desire to have 40 per cent of Australians with a tertiary education by 2015 place staff under huge amounts of stress. New Matilda’s source at RMIT complained that:

"There’s a huge new swag of extra students next year with no extra resources. I really worry that I won’t be able to give the personal assistance to students. I’m worried about the quality of teaching — the teachers will find a way to cope, they do — but I’m worried about the quality."

McKinley agrees. "What they really want are classes in excess of 100, that will be team taught. So you’ll have people dropping in and out as lecturers. The idea is that will free people up to do more research, to apply for more research grants. So it becomes a totally neurotic enterprise. Teaching undergraduates is time consuming, it’s energy consuming. There’s no way you can apply standard economic measures of efficiency to it."

Is it any wonder then that programs like the BCF or Swinburne behaviours are rearing their heads? Make do with less, keep a smile on your face, keep publishing or get "reviewed".

The sad truth for academics though is, McKinley says, that "the public at large don’t give a shit".

"The public at large have got their own concerns about their own declining standards of living and they don’t actually regard academics’ plight as being central to their concerns. They don’t know what academics do. That’s understandable — we don’t often know what they’re doing either."

Meanwhile, only one academic from the ANU has spoken out in public about the cuts. If the soul of the corporate university is to be redeemed, it won’t come from the NTEU either, who have been limited chiefly to negotiating salary increases. The university will almost certainly have to save itself.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.