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A former journalist and son of a line of management consultants, Mark Scott arrives at the University of Sydney as an unlikely vice-chancellor. Can his curious talents turn around a struggling sector? By Margaret Simons.

Can Mark Scott transform universities?

The vice-chancellor and principal professor of the University of Sydney, Mark Scott.
Credit: The University of Sydney / Louise M Cooper

Last Monday, a significant experiment began in the battered Australian university sector. Mark Scott, former managing director of the ABC, took up his position as the vice-chancellor of Sydney University.

Scott comes from outside the normal academic career path. He lacks even a PhD. But his appointment was made with eyes open: the university sector must consider fundamental change, and Scott is an attempt to find new ways forward. As one insider put it, universities are “in such an absolute funk”.

Scott is a quiet operator – tall, softly spoken, with a dry and sometimes mischievous wit. His middle-of-the-roadness, his grey managerialism, obscures the fact that he is already one of the most significant cultural figures of Australia’s recent history. He has changed the nation’s culture in significant ways. The question is whether he can do it again.

Those who talk to both government and the opposition about higher education say politicians tend to have a three-point mantra when it comes to universities, and it is hard to move them from it. First, vice-chancellor’s salaries are too high – which is symbolic of the view that universities are not well managed, and don’t use their money effectively. People paid more than ministers have trouble crying poor. Notably, Scott will be paid less than his predecessor. Second, there is a view across political lines that students graduate from university without skills aligned to the nation’s needs. Third, research is seen as insufficiently oriented to national priorities.

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University, says there is little shifting these latter two views: “There is no intellectual leadership or outstanding vice-chancellor” influencing government. He says Scott’s appointment is a risk, but “the sector is at a point where someone who can engage more effectively with the outside world is worth a try”.

So who is Mark Scott, and what might he do?

In an interview with The Saturday Paper, given the week before he took the reins, it was obvious he comes to the job with clear ideas.

Perhaps most significantly, given the difficulty universities have in getting a hearing from government, he had already had a “constructive and productive” meeting with the federal minister for Education, Alan Tudge.

The minister wanted to talk about teacher education. Scott, after he left the ABC, became secretary of the NSW Department of Education, which as he pointed out to Tudge is the country’s largest employer of teaching graduates. “So I had some perspectives to offer.”

It was a good conversation, Scott says, and “there was a commitment to continue to be in dialogue with him”.

This is markedly different from how most VCs talk about their dealings with the current government. Last year, for example, a delegation of high-profile university chancellors – including David Gonski and former heads of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson and Peter Shergold – failed to get a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to discuss the crisis engulfing the sector.

Mark Scott agrees that his record at the ABC, where he increased funding in the midst of the perpetual tensions with governments of both colours, offers a relevant example of his approach. He says it is important to engage with government as a “vital stakeholder … in an appropriate and professional way”.

Scott is the product of a particular kind of small-l liberal Sydney establishment – “a member of the Sydney high Brahmin caste”, as one person, not a fan, puts it.

As a child, Scott remembers being got out of bed to see his grandfather, Walter Scott, on television, heading up a public information campaign on the introduction of decimal currency – which was then, and remains, one of the biggest changes to national public policy affecting everyday life.

Walter Scott was an adviser to 10 different government commissions and boards of review, serving governments of all stripes as well as heading the Australian Decimal Currency Board. Knighted for his efforts, Sir Walter founded Australia’s first management consultancy and the Australian Institute of Management. Mark Scott’s father took over the firm. This is the family legacy, and its ethos – public service, and management as an instrument enabling change.

It was also a family of strong Protestant commitment. Scott’s faith worried some ABC insiders when he was appointed, but he has always resisted the idea that it is anything other than a private matter. One of the few occasions on which he spoke publicly about it was in a speech on accepting a Faith and Work award in 2016, shortly after he had left the ABC.

He spoke on how “being a follower of Christ has shaped the approach to my work” and said there had been fears that he would try to move the public broadcaster towards a “Christian world view … The sanctimonious barbarian was inside the gates.” But that was not his way, he said. “Being Christian doesn’t shape as much what I do, but who I am or who I want to be.”

He identified “New Testament principles” by which he considered his performance: “At work, am I quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry? Do [colleagues] see some fruit of the spirit in my life? … A sense of what is important beyond the simple material things of this world? … Jesus had little time for debate with religious folks. He saw the crowds and said they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, and that is where he’d spend his time.”

Scott is an alumnus of Sydney University. It was there he met his wife, Briony Scott, who is now principal of the independent Wenona school for girls on Sydney’s north shore. Recalling meeting her husband to be, Briony Scott told Good Weekend a few years ago that he “was tall, very skinny, with a big mop of curly hair. He’d wear pale blue KingGee overalls. When he talked, people would listen.”

Scott gained a bachelor of arts, diploma of education and master of arts in political science and government from Sydney University, before getting a master of public administration from Harvard.

Still in his 20s, he worked for the Greiner government in New South Wales, including for the Liberal Education minister Terry Metherell – a bold reformer who antagonised almost every interest group, meaning that much of what he attempted failed or was quickly undone.

Scott agrees he learnt lessons relevant to his new job at that time – about the importance of building a constituency for reform, spending cultural capital carefully and thinking closely about the how as well as the why.

“Too much attention is possibly given to what is your ideal reform, rather than thinking through how it is going to actually bring about that reform in a meaningful way, that basically brings as many people with you as you can and finally achieves what you hope the reform will achieve. And I’ll be focusing on both.”

Before you can reform, however, he says there must be “operational excellence”.

That means “managing through Covid, the international disruption, managing the complexity around capacity to deliver on research ambitions. These are the immediate, pressing operational issues that need to be addressed as a precursor to the broader discussions around the future of the institution.”

Scott briefly considered the idea of a political career, before entering journalism in 1994 as education editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He rose rapidly to become group editorial director, but was working in the shadow of the then chief executive, Fred Hilmer, and was constrained by the masthead editors, who did not always welcome his interventions.

It was with the ABC appointment that he stepped into the light in his own right, and Australia began to see who he was, and what he had learnt.

Scott was managing director of the ABC for 10 years from 2006, appointed under the Howard government, continuing under the Rudd–Gillard Labor government, and leaving in 2016, shortly after Tony Abbott was rolled by Malcolm Turnbull.

He is generally acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, leaders the ABC has had in its 89-year history. His lasting achievement was in driving the organisation into new and digital media before that was an obvious thing to do. When he took the job, Facebook and Twitter were tiny startups. Web pages for the ABC were regarded as optional extras. There was no iView, and only two ABC television channels, the second constrained by antiquated broadcasting regulations that prevented it from screening things people actually wanted to watch.

He was an adept advocate, regularly seen in the corridors of Parliament House. He said once that his favourite place to be was in the green room for the program Q&A – one of the innovations during his time – when the politicians were limbering up for combat.

Scott kept an ear to the ground for government priorities and demonstrated a preparedness to frame what the ABC needed in terms the government could hear. Thus he gained more funding – initially from Howard, but followed through by Rudd – for ABC multichannels, arguing they would help with the government’s urgent problem of transitioning the population from analogue technology to the new televisions and set-top boxes needed for digital broadcasting. He also got extra money for reporting in rural and regional areas.

There was a concern that he risked bending the public broadcaster to government will, compromising its independence. “But that is only a problem,” he said at the time, “if you end up doing things you don’t want to do.” Most agree he left the ABC stronger, and less cowed by government, than he found it.

On the other side of the ledger, he made the ABC a much more Sydney-centric organisation – unwinding the production capacity in other capitals in a search for cost efficiencies. He built partnerships with other creative institutions but continued a trend of eroding the ABC’s ability to produce its own drama and documentary. Today, ABC-funded dramas show up on Netflix years after they were first broadcast, and without the ABC retaining rights. Arguably, this weakens the brand. Scott points to the quality and quantity of the output, and the fact that Australian stories would not have been told without the partnerships.

Scott was also an accomplished public performer – good at senate estimates, showing a dry and sometimes cheeky wit on Twitter. Once, in 2009, he tweeted at 5.42am: “What triggers the frisson of excitement in the pre-dawn light? Senate estimates day! To Canberra!” The cheek continued before the senators, with banter about Bananas in Pyjamas and Peppa Pig alongside to and fro over allegations of bias.

His 2009 A. N. Smith Lecture, “The Fall of Rome: Media after Empire”, was described by New York University professor Jay Rosen as “a world-class everything-is-changing speech”. Scott catalogued how media empires had “run on margins the envy of the world” and showed how they had been brought undone.

Now, reflecting on the university sector, he draws an analogy from his days in the newspaper industry of the 1990s. “Fairfax seemed obsessed by News Corp. News Corp seemed obsessed by Fairfax. But in reality both were facing an existential threat, not from each other but from new and emerging competitors.”

He means the digital platforms that first broke newspapers’ monopoly on classified advertising and then, with the advent of social media, cornered most of the remaining advertising revenue and much of the audience for journalism.

This is the kind of existential threat coming to universities, he says. New technology companies are ready to steal universities’ monopoly on education and qualifications.

And here there is a meeting point with the government’s emphasis on skills. Scott talks about providing “micro-credentials” – short knowledge- and skills-based courses – to professionals who need to learn throughout life.

“Universities are in an extraordinary position to be able to deliver that … but I think one of the risks for the sector is that other organisations see that as a tremendous market in which they want to come and play. If universities don’t do it, then someone else will.”

So what will he bring to the University of Sydney, and tertiary education more broadly?

In his words: “The first thing you need to do is spend significant time on the ground in Canberra listening. And listening is your starting point rather than asking.

“You don’t want to be in a position where you’re out there with a begging bowl crying that you’re poor and trying to make a case that you are worse off than all those other people who are in a queue arguing extenuating circumstances and crying that they are poor.

“What we need to do is to have a deep understanding of the complexities and problems and challenges that government is trying to deal with. And be in the position to think through how our institution can best help provide solutions to those problems.”

There are plenty of academics who are outraged that Scott, whatever his personal merits, has been given the leadership of Australia’s oldest institute of tertiary learning. It’s a view articulated by the national president of the National Tertiary Education Union, Alison Barnes, who describes his appointment as part of a “disturbing trend” of introducing leaders who lack experience in the sector and see universities as corporations rather than public institutions. “We hope that he applies a broad public interest lens to his new appointment and his management of the University of Sydney, rather than a simple cost-reduction lens.”

The University of Sydney, says one observer, should be Australia’s leading university, given its natural advantages as the oldest, embedded in the richest city. Instead, the University of Melbourne holds Australia’s top position in most of the international rankings. Sydney has underperformed for decades.

Insiders talk about the legacy of a divided university senate, under chancellor Dame Leonie Kramer in the 1990s and early 2000s, followed by multiple restructures and a fracturing and duplication of departments and research institutes driven by internal politics rather than efficiency or logic.

“People are abusive about what they call corporate management,” one observer says. “What they mean is they don’t want any management at all.” On top of that there is what another observer described as “the most recalcitrant arts faculty in the country”.

Asked about the underperformance, Scott is quick to point out that international league tables don’t tell the whole story. They privilege research over teaching, and in particular medical research.

He says Melbourne’s universities – particularly Monash and the University of Melbourne – have stolen a march through close co-operation around medical research, attracting state and federal government support and driving “disproportionate benefit back to Victoria”. He has already spoken with the incoming UNSW vice-chancellor, Professor Attila Brungs, who was appointed last month, about exploring greater co-operation.

Scott has clearly been appointed as a change agent, says Gwilym Croucher, a senior lecturer in higher education policy and management at the University of Melbourne. “The likelihood is that universities are going to have to reposition themselves, and fundamentally reconsider how they deal with the community, government, their operating model … I suspect they have appointed him to bring about that change without quite knowing what the change might be.”

There is no one magic answer to the multiple problems facing universities. Scott declines to “give you all my ideas”. Others suggest a suite of measures, including micro-credentials, a more active role in monetising intellectual property, more collaboration and a nimble response to opportunities and threats as yet only dimly visible on the horizon.

Scott says it won’t be the first time he has to win respect from people who know more than him. He was light on for reporting experience when he became a senior executive at Fairfax. He had no experience in broadcasting when he moved to the ABC. At the Department of Education, he had not been a career bureaucrat. “So I am familiar with entering into new environments and being surrounded by people with significant depth of knowledge and expertise that I don’t have.”

He believes his new colleagues will find him “an intensely curious and interested person. I think they’ll find me universally fascinated by the work that they are doing. But more than that, I think I’ll demonstrate to them, as I demonstrated to the folks at the ABC, that whilst I may not be able to do what they do, I’ll be in a position to support them to be as effective as they can be.”

Scott began his new job working from home under lockdown. As he had at the ABC, he used Twitter to communicate with the many people watching his every step. His header image shows him reading a newspaper with a comically furrowed brow and – could it be a conscious visual pun – a very fat cat perched beside him on the armchair.

He apologised that of necessity his leadership style had so far been “remote”. Then he set to tweeting about the achievements of the university’s researchers. The experiment begins.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "The experiment begins".

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Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author.