In the Olympic Games, we would be surprised if competitors who finished last received gold medals. But in Australian universities, management crafts its own gold standard: be rewarded for applying a failed model — increased class sizes, staff doing more with less and students asked to pay fees which they can ill afford.
The pursuit of tarnished gold is revealed in a report on higher education by the Grattan Institute, whose director Andrew Norton proudly recommends a 50 per cent reduction in government subsidies for fees, and for university students to pay more. Fred Hilmer, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales chimes in with his usual prescriptions for worshipping the market, encouraging competition and raising prices.
Norton and Hilmer’s prescriptions reveal the selfishness of economic rationalist policies and the bullying that management uses to implement them. They echo Margaret Thatcher’s claim that "there’s no such thing as society".
Thatcher’s emphasis on individual striving and reward, with no vision of collective wellbeing and responsibility nurtures Norton who thinks that people who do not go to university should not have to subsidize those who do, that citizens should only contribute to a service if it benefits them. Such values are the very opposite of the views of the visionary post-war UK policy architect Richard Titmuss who insisted that public policy should be about a common good built through the dominance of altruism over egoism.
Professor Hilmer’s glee over the Grattan Report was apparent in his plea that universities should be able to set their own fees. The characters setting the fees would presumably be the same invisible, unaccountable managerialists who have already contributed to the financial woes of Sydney University and UNSW, among others.
At universities such as UNSW, the deterrent effect of exorbitant fees partly explains declining enrollments of international students. In the face of such evidence, the managerialists want to charge more. It’s the financial equivalent of "the flogging will continue until morale improves".
Belief in economic rationalism fosters management controls that contribute to workplace bullying. At UNSW the governing body or Council has delegated its decision-making authority to three senior executives — of which Hilmer is one. The same pattern is repeated at the Faculty level, where Faculty Boards have disappeared, where a Dean’s role is to tell staff what’s happening and what they should do. Speaking with NM, a senior UNSW academic said, "we just click our heels and carry out management orders. The threats of forced redundancies are part of a pattern of saving money by getting rid of permanent academic staff ands casualising the rest. Morale is rock bottom".
Not to be outdone by its neighbour, Sydney University also likes control to ensure compliance. The latest NTEU Newsletter reports that "bullying by management is present in the majority of workplace disputes. Whether in being made offers they’re told they can’t refuse, disagreements over the value of an academic’s work, or unreasonable directives to perform additional work, bullying is real and shows little sign of dissipating".
Application of the new gold standard appeared at Sydney in 2011. At a time when staff were being told that the university was broke, an average $61,000 bonus was paid to each of five deputy vice chancellors. These rewards are unsurprising if universities are organized as business operations to be run according to "market values" — golden handshakes for chief executives who have deceived their shareholders, left their companies with massive debts and their former staff with no work.
The economic mantra to compete whatever the cost means that there’s no shortage of investment in boasting. Melbourne is better than Sydney which is better than Queensland which is better than UNSW which is better than … A sociology of boasting might reveal the time and money that goes into this activity but some of the absurdities are known. Sydney University recently paid millions to a Chicago management company for advice on how to appear more modern. Their recommendations were to remove the Latin motto from its shield, to publish a booklet to tell staff how to speak to students of different age groups and to force all foundations to adopt only the University’s logo.
Such motto madness also flourishes at UNSW where a fatuous and childish slogan, "Never Stand Still", has been introduced on every bit of publicity. No-one knows how much was paid to a public relations company for this piece of "branding" but I’m reliably informed that the word "Australia" is to be added to that university’s crest because nobody seems to know where to locate UNSW.
This is to say nothing for the mountains of glossy university magazines which describe alumni achievements or which list the names of those who have responded to the latest appeal for funds. These pamphlets have nothing to do with students’ education, but are a response to the instruction to "dramatise our virtues".
Economic rationalism and managerialism entrap students in a cage of "efficiency". Aided by computer technology, efficiency can mean that they seldom read a complete book, let alone re-read it. Caught out by limited funding, the managerialist culture ensures that the days of time and space to enjoy university education — to read, discuss, experiment, write, re-write and be stimulated by the experience of face to face discussions in small tutorials — are over. Students’ stamina is being tested, not necessarily their intellects.
To his credit, Federal Minister Chris Evans recognizes that if the findings of the Grattan report were implemented, Australian students would carry $3 billion more debt a year. He says, "We don’t want a situation where students leave university, join the work force and have debts that shadow them for years, preventing them from marrying, getting a mortgage and developing their lives."
But Evans also needs to be reminded that among OECD countries, Australia spends only 0.7 per cent of GDP on higher education. Only students in Japan, Korea and the USA pay more.
The financial malaise of public institutions, not just universities is perpetuated by an individualistic worldview. Hilmer, Norton & Co believe the economy must dominate society. To them, human relationships are merely a by-product of economic transactions.
To challenge the economic rationalists, we need a vision of a common good which would also be cost-effective. This means giving support to departments which are vulnerable because they can’t generate income and encouraging collegiate partnerships between staff and students in smaller, less well endowed institutions. The goals of university education can include not only a better educated society but also a civil and socially just one.
A highly motivated, well informed and skilled workforce will depend on much larger investment from Federal governments. It will also require an end to practices that place managers on the podium for gold, when they’ve really failed to perform at all.