Education

While the Howard government is remembered for dismantling student unionism, the changes it made to university councils had an even more chilling effect on academics wishing to critique the universities where they work. By Tim Moore.

Academy of silences

Business academic Samir Shrivastava, who is appealing against a forced redundancy from Swinburne.
Credit: Supplied

In 2018, Bettina Arndt embarked on a speaking tour of Australian university campuses. Dubbed “The Fake Rape Crisis Tour”, Arndt was out to pour scorn on growing concerns about sexual harassment in institutions.

These forays into the nation’s halls of learning were to have an impact beyond Arndt’s wildest imaginings. The student protests they provoked – one at the University of Sydney shut the event down – not only earned Arndt much free publicity for her cause but also put her at the centre of a fiery national debate about free speech and academic freedom.

The federal government was quick to capitalise. It jumped in and commissioned an inquiry into the state of academic freedom across the sector – the French review. At the review’s announcement, then Education minister Dan Tehan declared: “Our government is committed to protecting free speech and universities must share that commitment.”

Robert French’s findings were not quite the damning indictment the government was hoping for. His report concluded that no systemic free speech crisis existed in the sector. The only concession was that the vagueness of some institutions’ policies could, in theory, make some restrictions possible. Significantly, French also suggested that institutions should be under no obligation to host ideas and theories “which do not meet scholarly standards”. In the face of this clear non-crisis, the government nevertheless pushed on, forcing universities to sign up to a code of conduct. It all felt like a major beat-up.

But French’s focus on cases such as Arndt’s blinded him arguably to a more serious academic freedom issue – the freedom for academics to speak openly about the state of their institutions, and especially about the highly corporatised way they are run. Not only are opportunities to speak up becoming more restricted, recent cases suggest that the consequences for individuals choosing to do this can be extreme.

One such case is that of Gerd Schröder-Turk. A maths professor at Murdoch University and elected staff representative on the university’s council, Schröder-Turk’s sin was to appear on a Four Corners program expressing concern about student recruitment practices that allowed international students to enrol without the appropriate English language levels – including at his own institution. This, he maintained, was damaging both to the students and morale generally across the sector.

The university’s response was swift and brutal. Its first move was to seek to have Schröder-Turk removed from the Murdoch council. When he sought an injunction to prevent this, management turned around and sued. The potential damages bill for Schröder-Turk would have been in the millions. It was only after a wave of negative publicity from a global campaign by fellow academics that Murdoch dropped its case. The targeting, however, has taken a personal toll. Schröder-Turk speaks now of his “deep disillusionment” with the sector: “I used to be a happy, enthusiastic academic. I’ve become withdrawn from my research community, less productive … I’m trying to keep it together.”

For rank-and-file academics, to participate in governance processes via university councils is proving a perilous career move. Such was the experience of education academic Margaret Sims at the University of New England. On being elected by her colleagues as the staff representative on the university council, Sims found the university’s management took issue with her also being the president of the local branch of the National Tertiary Education Union. Sims was first denied access to key council papers and later shut out of meetings altogether. It took action in the Federal Court before she was able to properly take up her constituted role.

Sims later documented her experiences in a book, Bullshit Towers: Neoliberalism and managerialism in universities in Australia. “For my efforts,” she wrote, “I was disrespected, and simply dismissed as a troublemaker.”

Other cases remain under the radar. One is that of Dr Samir Shrivastava, a business academic at Swinburne University. Shrivastava’s case is worth quoting in detail as it demonstrates the lengths to which administrations will go to silence “troublesome” staff.

After originally pursuing a career in the Indian army, Shrivastava arrived in Australia in 1999 to take up doctoral studies. His well-regarded publications as a PhD student led to an appointment at Swinburne. It was a proud moment in Shrivastava’s career when, in 2019, like Schröder-Turk and Sims, his colleagues saw fit to elect him as their representative on the Swinburne Council.

In the face of widespread cuts at Swinburne, Shrivastava, in his capacity as staff representative, found himself querying the wisdom of certain management decisions, including a surprise move to shut down all foreign language programs. Queries were also made about the activities of a majority privately owned offshoot of the university – Swinburne Online.

Trouble came when a forced redundancy program was launched in late 2020. The university had already embarked on a major voluntary redundancy round, leading to the departure of 150 staff. The advantage of the forced round was that the administration could now decide exactly who would be retained and who banished.

To the surprise of many, Shrivastava’s name was on a list of 17 academics to be cut from the faculty of business. The surprise stemmed not only from him occupying a key governance role but also because he was supervising eight PhD students, an inordinate load for any academic. Shrivastava was required to be out of the university immediately after Christmas.

There was provision, however, in the university’s enterprise agreement for the decision to be appealed. This proved successful, with an independent assessor finding the process neither “fair” nor “objective”, and that Shrivastava had been “denied natural justice”. Among other things, the review noted the university’s failure to properly consider Shrivastava’s major PhD responsibilities. Reinstatement was required.

For management this proved only a temporary setback. In a shock move, a second redundancy was launched – this time to remove a single position: his. Against a yearly university budget of hundreds of millions, the administration claimed that cutting this lone position was essential to “stabilise” the institution’s finances. The real motivation, however, was clear.

Shrivastava is now seeking a second appeal. He is left incredulous at the lengths to which management have gone to have him removed. “Among other things, it has been a ridiculously expensive exercise, with the university contracting a leading law firm to ensure my exit,” he says. “All this is probably costing more than my annual salary.”

The more sinister aspects of the case are not lost on him, and the Victorian state government has expressed concern about his treatment. “Around the world we are seeing all kinds of threats to democratic processes,” Shrivastava says. “It is one thing to witness the denial of representation happening among certain authoritarian regimes. It’s another to see such behaviour playing out at an Australian public university.”

All three cases – Schröder-Turk, Sims and Shrivastava – attest to the dangers staff face in speaking up about the operation of the institutions where they work. How have things got to this point? Brendan Nelson, in his time as Education minister in the Howard government, is remembered most for his dismembering of student unions, a move that contributed significantly to the demise of campus life. But Nelson’s lesser-known reforms to university councils have been just as consequential.

Seeing the potential for councils to drive change, Nelson made funding to institutions conditional on major restructuring of their chief governing bodies. Councils were no longer to be founded on once-hallowed principles of academic collegiality but on the command-and-control methods of the corporations. In time, they became stacked with representatives from the business and management sectors – with many appointees lacking any evident education expertise.

It has been in such an environment – where the allegiances of council members are owed almost entirely to those who now run our universities – that some of the less-than-sanguine developments in recent times have been allowed to flourish: a burgeoning of management ranks in institutions, the ballooning of vice-chancellor salaries, questionable student recruitment practices, the precarious employment conditions of many teaching staff. A climate of fear, made worse by the pandemic, has made it virtually impossible for such developments to be challenged in any serious way.

As with Tehan before him, the new federal Higher Education minister, Alan Tudge, has been keen to seek political advantage in concerns over academic freedom. “Freedom of expression is the most fundamental foundational principle of a university,” he recently declared. “If universities are not places for free, robust speech, then their very purpose is jeopardised.”

When it comes to their own governance, however, university managements have shown that free and robust speech is just about the last thing on their minds. The same is true of the government, which has an obsession with the rights of the likes of Bettina Arndt but pays little heed to those of academics who actually teach in our universities. 

Tim Moore is a former colleague of Dr Samir Shrivastava.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 27, 2021 as "Academy of silences".

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Tim Moore is a Melbourne academic.