Late in 2017, a scandal broke out across Britain’s university sector. The vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, Dame Glynis Breakwell, was found to be receiving a salary close to double that of her counterparts at other UK universities. The figure was £468,000 (then about $820,000). The outcry – both within her university and more broadly – was so intense Breakwell was forced into a humiliating resignation.
Clearly, she chose the wrong country in which to be a vice-chancellor. If she’d been recruited to an Australian university, the Bath salary could have been expected as a minimum. The sector average in Australia is $900,000. If she’d ended up at a Group of Eight university, a further 50 per cent could reasonably be added to the package, for an average of about $1.3 million.
Vice-chancellor salaries are just one of a host of governance issues now besetting Australian universities. Many of these have begun to receive coverage in the press – underpayment of staff, profligate spending on consultants, increasingly degraded learning experiences for students, inadequate transparency and accountability. There are different factors behind these developments. Increasingly, critics are pointing to a major structural change that has occurred in Australian universities over the past 30 years. This has been the unprecedented shift of power and resources in institutions away from traditional faculties to central administrations.
The phenomenon has been observed around the world, as documented in Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty. In Australia, where academic traditions are less robust, the fall has been arguably even more dramatic.
Higher education researcher Simon Marginson noted the beginning of this centralising trend in Australia in the 1990s. Before then, university chancelleries typically consisted of a vice-chancellor and just one or two deputies. By the late ’90s, however, this number had grown to an average of five. Now, the number of officers in many university executives often runs to double figures.
To take just one example: in 2022, Monash University had no less than 14 individuals on packages exceeding $500,000. The largesse thrown about in central administrations is matched depressingly by the increasing impoverishment of faculties. Yet university faculties are the drivers of virtually all earnings within institutions, either through teaching or research.
Increasingly, faculty staff are required to prop up the ever-burgeoning empires emanating from central offices. This has happened through a variety of means. The most obvious has been the well-reported chronic and scandalous underpayment of many teaching staff. At the University of Melbourne, for example, the sum owing in unpaid wages is estimated at $31.6 million.
There are other ways faculties are squeezed. There is management’s constant push to increase staff teaching loads and research outputs, compounded by an often niggardly approach to the refilling of academic positions that have become vacant. The resourcing of faculties has also suffered from management’s relentless efforts to push teaching online, a trend well under way before the pandemic. Once the bustling hearts of campus activity, a walk through a faculty nowadays finds them depleted spaces, both physically and socially.
Along with faculties’ financial deprivation has been their inevitable loss of power and status. In the 1990s, the structure of a university at which I worked was described as a series of powerful warring fiefdoms. These were the faculties, each presided over by a dean, ever fierce in their defence of their staff and disciplinary offerings. The key to being a successful vice-chancellor in this environment, it was said, was to artfully play these baron-like figures off against each other.
Such days are long gone, however, with once powerful deans now much diminished and put-upon figures. A canny move by management at some universities has been to create so-called “executive dean” positions, where allegiances are expected to be paid more to central administrations than to staff in the faculties.
The fraught dynamics of this situation played out in spectacular fashion several years ago at my former university – in an episode to match with the best of Game of Thrones. In its response to the pandemic, the university’s management decided to axe about 180 positions across the faculties. The short straw of implementing the cuts was handed to the university’s three faculty deans, an arrangement bound to put them in serious conflict with their staff.
After a long and bruising process, the deed was done. The harried deans finally drew breath, only to discover in an overnight email that they too had been made redundant, with a week to be off the premises. This presaged a major academic restructure – the third one in a number of years – whereupon faculties were stripped of that esteemed title and turned into “schools”.
Executive power plays such as this, repeated across the sector, have left many staff with a sense of despair about their institutions. As long-term higher education commentator Richard Hil grimly puts it: “Ask most academics nowadays whether they’re happy or not, and they’ll either burst into laughter, or tears.”
How did we end up here? How is it that a class of administrators, so tenuously engaged in a university’s core activities of teaching and research, have come not only to acquire such authority, but often to wield it in such brutal and arbitrary fashion?
Their rise has been enabled by two key sources. One of these is university councils. The nature of councils changed dramatically in the mid-2000s when Brendan Nelson, as education minister, saw an opportunity to impose a more market-driven approach on the sector. Drawing on models from the corporate sector, Nelson’s blueprint was to do away with virtually all staff on councils and have them replaced with doyens from business and industry.
It is clear the narrow, corporate make-up of councils has made them quite ill-equipped to provide leadership to the complex educational organisations that are our universities. Recent research by Academics for Public Universities found that across the sector less than a third of council members had actual educational expertise. There is disproportionate representation from members of the consultancy industry.
Even more concerning than their composition is the highly opaque ways in which councils have come to operate. At most institutions, there is no publication of council agendas and minutes. Virtually all council activity remains a mystery to staff, including the methods by which less-than-modest executive salaries are set.
Constitutional law professor Luke Beck notes that while current university councils have been created in the image of the company board, they are, in fact, far less accountable than their business counterparts. “Shareholders, who are the ‘members’ of a company, get to elect a company’s board of directors,” Beck says. “By contrast, the ‘members’ of the university do not choose university councils.”
The other key enabler of executive power has been the aforementioned consultancy industry. The Saturday Paper recently reported the exorbitant funds expended on consultancy companies by universities, estimated at $350 million nationally in 2022 alone. Consultants, ever ready to do a client’s bidding, have been handy accomplices in advancing administration agendas, especially around restructurings and staff rationalisations.
The managerialist orthodoxies these companies typically take to their work in any sector – centralisation, organisational uniformity, command and control – align well with the interests of university managements. Such notions, however, have proved entirely inimical to the devolved lifeworlds of faculties, upon which universities have been built.
In recent days, the federal education minister, Jason Clare, expressed awareness of the myriad problems facing Australia’s university system. In the ongoing review he is overseeing – due at year’s end – issues of university governance appear to be firmly on the agenda. In the days ahead, there will be many suggestions for the types of changes needed in this area. Some are very clear: councils need to be reformed; the consultants need to be shown the door.
More than anything, however, mechanisms need to be found to return faculties to the vibrant, robust and confident communities they once were. The future of Australia’s universities – and the education they purport to provide – would appear to depend on it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Losing our faculties".
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