Features Australia

Deconstructing Unis

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

So what has happened to our universities? There seems little doubt that the way they are governed has radically changed.

The traditional model of governance involving a small but skilled administrative group at the top usually consisting of a Vice Chancellor, perhaps one Deputy Vice Chancellor, a Registrar and a Bursar, has now given way and been swamped by a vast coterie of Executives including a Vice Chancellor, as many as 5 Deputy Vice Chancellors, 3 or 4 Pro-Vice Chancellors, a Vice Principal, numerous Executive Deans and sundry other Directors and Managers all supported by an array of general staff. Universities have in the course of this been transformed from places of research and learning into large corporate businesses or perhaps for some of us into ‘drone factories’, and managerialism rules the day, manifesting itself through seemingly endless layers of bureaucracy.

It is now all about executive power and the need to exercise it, governed by the firm belief that all wisdom and knowledge rests with those above. All the executive positions mentioned are in many ways not accountable to university academic and general staff. Decisions are made from on high and academics simply expected to accede. Critically the relationship between ‘management’ and academic/general staff is fast becoming more and more fragile and remote and one where ‘managers’ wield fiscal power and simply see staff as requiring instruction from above and often forming an obstacle to achieving business-like efficiency.

Decisions governing everyday life are now made by those ‘at the top’ and often this may involve redefining what the university is all about: such as pulling down buildings, amalgamating departments, making library staff redundant, removing disciplines not thought to be worthy of a university place (such as Chiropractic for example), or simply moving disciplines from one faculty to another so as to make, for example, a Science Faculty seem more ‘hard science’ orientated. The impact of such things upon staff or indeed upon students often counts for nothing.

And how has all this affected academic teaching and research; what a university should be all about? Well, university staff now need to adjust to a new regime of accountability and performance management and are regularly confronted by intense scrutiny of their research productivity, and in particular their success in obtaining research grants and publishing in top ranked journals. Performance indicators handed down by those above rule the roost and rarely if ever, is teaching ability and success mentioned.

Despite this, many academic staff are required to teach three courses a year as well as produce an acknowledged research output and engage in professional outreach. Failure to do so could see staff overlooked for promotion or on occasions simply asked to move on. Most disturbing of all perhaps is the fact that teaching now accounts for nothing in the promotion stakes and a cult has grown up around the pursuit of major research grants. It is through such things that recognition and promotion come about and such recipients have in management eyes been designated a ‘highborn cult’ to be protected from having to teach, by being awarded salary loadings, higher promotion and in some cases being formally awarded the title of ‘Research Professor’ or ‘Distinguished Professor’.

Teaching, particularly undergraduate teaching, matters not one jot and is often left to casual or part-time staff or to permanent staff in their first few years of appointment.

The rise of a managerial reward structure also deserves comment. At a time when many university departments are being told to cut back and save money, the upper echelons of university management continue to reap benefits such as high salaries, substantial annual bonuses, support staff, and special parking and travel arrangements. There is little doubt that universities are now run like businesses governed by a privileged elite. Ironically all this has occurred at a time when some big businesses have adopted forms of collegiality and staff involvement in decision-making just at the same time the university sector is adopting strict forms of management from above once characteristic of the corporate world.

Many years ago Deans and Heads of Department were part-time  appointments and always an integral part of their faculty or department. In those days the title Executive Dean did not exist. Now we are confronted by a cadre of professional administrators appointed from above and answerable only to those who appointed them. Sadly, many have become distanced and divorced from those that they are supposed to represent.

Further down the scale, Departmental Heads are now frequently being appointed from outside and the expectation is that such appointments will be at the Professorial level. Staff involvement in the running of their department is rapidly becoming a thing of the past and the days when staff could vote for a Head of Department drawn from amongst their own ranks are fast disappearing. But does all this deliver better returns in terms of research, teaching and outreach? Personally I have my doubts, but there are those that strongly argue that to be successful universities must be run this way.


Overall our universities have become corporate businesses and are governed as such and academic staff are now charged with the task of selling and delivering education while trying to push their own professional barrow. Key performance indicators rule and self-promotion has become one of the few ways of bringing your existence to the attention of corporate leaders.

All this impacts upon the student body as well. Students have ceased to be products of the learning process and have become customers of the business enterprise and expected to pay for everything while being largely ignored in the decision-making processes. To be sure those in power will claim that staff and students are represented on University Senates and Councils but we all know where the real power lies.

In the final analysis managerialism rules, and the gap between managers and the managed continues to widen with staff loyalty rapidly evaporating. The overriding philosophy remains that the manager’s job is to think and plan and the rest of us to simply do what we are told. The prospect of an academic career is fast becoming less alluring.

On a lighter note, I fondly recall the Glossary of a Cynic published in the University of Otago Newsletter in June 1986. In the interests of academic excellence, I felt it could do with a refresh:

Vice Chancellor -A person who is rarely seen, unchallengeable and who gives policy to God.

Deputy Vice Chancellor – A person in favour of Vice Chancellors.

Pro Vice Chancellor – A person in favour of Deputy Vice Chancellors

Dean – A person appointed from afar who knows your first name thus lulling you into a false sense of …..

Head of Department – A person appointed from beyond who last taught a course 10 years ago.

University Planning –Deciding behind closed doors which building will be pulled down, what department is under threat, and what all staff will have to do.

Promotion – An annual exercise in which you discover what a miserable place the university really is and how little teaching counts.

Deadline – The date two days away by which time you must submit your annual 32 page publications record.

Committee – A collection of familiar faces that regularly meets to hear messages from above and make decisions that carry no weight.

Resignation/Redundancy – Much welcomed devices by which money can be saved and the future planned. The last resort of the talented and principled university teacher.

Fulltime Postgrad Students – Mythical beasts hunted by a handful who remember what they are and why they are here.

Rotating Head of Department – a means of unsettling staff and continuing to apportion blame elsewhere

University Computer – a device for stock market dealing, wine purchasing, holiday booking or on rare occasions for university work.

University Library – once the repository of books, now a coffee lounge, student toilet and a mechanised system replacing staff.

Peter Curson is Professor of Population & Security at the University of Sydney.

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