Over the past month there have been several completely contradictory statements about the financial health of Australia’s universities.

In mid-November, Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans released figures he claimed showed universities had made record operating surpluses last year. He commented to the effect that universities have never had it so good and should not expect increased public investment.

This was almost immediately contradicted by news of significant job cuts at universities. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is currently tracking job losses at seven institutions, the most prominent being the University of Sydney, where it has been confirmed up to 340 people will be made redundant. Rumours abound significant cuts could occur at several others next year due to financial pressures. For university staff facing a likely redundancy, things have never seemed worse.

So is the financial situation of our universities healthy or unhealthy?

The answer depends on what you expect our universities to be.

If you believe universities are degree factories pumping out as many students as possible and only undertaking research if it’s supported by external competitive research grants or the prospect of major commercial returns, you could argue things are going along quite nicely.

According to this view, the role of university management is to minimise costs, mainly through the application of Taylorist or scientific management principles. This involves breaking up the production process into its constituent parts of teaching, research and community service and treating each part as a cost centre which must be profitable in its own right.

If, on the other hand, you believe universities should be autonomous civic institutions operating for the public good and with a responsibility to provide the highest quality education and research, you’d probably conclude they are rapidly approaching a financial breaking point.

On average only about 40% of university budgets are from Commonwealth grants, in favour of an increasing proportion from students, including unstable international student fee income. Student-to-staff ratios have skyrocketed, unpaid overtime is increasing and universities need to find money to repair crumbling infrastructure.

People working in universities understand the necessity for much of the change they have gone through in recent years. What they don’t share, in our experience, is the unquestioning faith politicians and policy makers have in the market to decide everything.

Nor would many agree with the overly enthusiastic way university leaders have adopted corporate management philosophies. Many university staff, not just our members believe that amid all the talk of cost centres and operating surpluses, we are in danger of losing sight of what a university is.

It’s easy to brand those defending universities as public institutions in need of greater investment, as pipe-smoking professors with leather elbow patches and living in ivory towers (the people in those towers are more likely to be hard-working casuals with no job security taking tutorials of up to 30 students, but that’s another opinion piece).

Even more common is the argument by many senior university managers that critics are simply trying to protect outmoded and inefficient work practices, such as academics having the opportunity to engage in scholarship and curiosity-driven research that might not attract external funding.

No one is disputing universities need to be accountable for public funds. We’ve had that debate, everyone agrees and they are.

What we would like to see politicians and policymakers discuss is the bigger question of where our universities are today and where they’ll be tomorrow if we continue on the current path of market reform.

We’d also like to see vice-chancellors and chancellors, the leaders of their university communities, have the courage to stand and publicly defend what their institutions and their staff do for students, local communities and the broader economy.