Politicians Shouldn't Run Unis


Every now and then a single event in an institution reveals what is wrong with that institution.

The sudden departure on 20 March of Richard Torbay from the NSW seat of the Northern Tablelands, the candidacy for the federal seat of New England, and the chancellorship of the University of New England (UNE) was telling. It revealed the ill-health of the institutions associated with parliament — political parties, political patronage, forums of dissent, accountability, and transparency of process. And it shone light on the ongoing crisis in Australia’s troubled universities.

Two Australian scholars — Richard Hil from the humanities and social sciences and Donald Meyers from the sciences — have recently and separately set out some of the reasons for the decline of the contemporary university. The events attached to Torbay’s resignation show the vulnerability of Australian universities. Less secure, less independent than ever, the capacity of universities to speak truth to power is in serious doubt.

Yet there are many brave foot soldiers in the universities who refuse to give up.

This is despite the fact that the policies of successive governments have tied the hands of public intellectuals ― not just by doubling student-to-staff ratios over two decades and by multiplying surveillance and monitoring, but by unleashing a new class of managerialists on the universities’ structures. This means that those who see their professional responsibility as holding up a mirror to society, or as the critics of government, are often tied up with the fight within the academy. There is now so much injustice and sheer nonsense to be fought within its walls.

The traditional view about the autonomy of the university from the state is that the government is obliged to make public funds available and remove itself as much as possible from the running of the universities and from stipulating the conditions on which the funding is made. More recently, the New Public Management (NPM) view is that public monies demand the highest level of accountability of various kinds. Whether you concede the ground to the NPM advocates or not, the critical truth to cut through to is that the changes to the universities over the last quarter century — in legislation, in funding, in internal governance, and in the onset of a rampant managerialism — have reduced the level of accountability about the expenditure of public money and so much else besides.

In their refusal to recognise this, university managements show utter disdain for university communities and the public. The betrayal has come in two stages. The first was when vice-chancellors gave up challenging federal governments on the restoration of public funds lost under Keating and Howard. The second came in their ill-considered schemes to attract private money so as to adorn their corporate executive status. In this latter respect, they have been joined by the contemptuous stance adopted by university governing bodies towards their respective university communities.

University governing bodies have generally moved away from the concept and practice of choosing eminent persons as chancellors. In 2003 John Cassidy — once at the centre of UNE’s governance crisis — was selected by the powers that be because of his business skills.

One of the most distressing aspects of this shift is that those in power refuse to recognise that the authority of the university rests on its independence, respectability, and impartiality. Lacking confidence in the substance of their institutions, the managements have swallowed their own propaganda. We need someone who can do deals with business and government, they say, not someone who embodies the university.

The presence and subsequent disappearance of Torbay from his dual role of state parliamentary member and chancellor is so damaging it hardly needs stating. Yet an outrageous feature of contemporary managerialism is that a employee who says such a thing will be accused of “trashing the brand”. The culpability of those in 2008 who stultified the search for an eminent person who then and since displayed such appalling judgment, and who act as if public institutions are their playthings, is as patently obvious to the many as it is denied by the suits. In the world of personal litigation, expression is censored, and observation suppressed, while the managers’ actions that do indeed bring an institution into disrepute are disguised and often rewarded.

At the most basic level there was always a conflict between the role of a legislator within the body that writes the legislation of universities and the role of chancellor. Even if NSW politics were not a cesspit of sleaze, the attempt to coattail — indeed to capitalise — on the connections and prospects of a practicing politician would have been — and was — the most egregious of errors.

The integrity of universities is fundamentally dependent on their independence. Having lost their authority, university managers are now reduced to the application of brute power, and, in this exercise, are too often supplied the imprimatur of their governing bodies. It is no coincidence that the University of New England managed to entwine itself so incestuously and so tragically with the very realm its mission is to criticise.

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