Fellows of the University of Sydney Senate have been petitioned, by more than 2500 people including many members of the university’s own staff, and colleagues from around the world, asking them to call a halt to a “change plan” devised by Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence.

The scheme calls for hundreds of academics and administrators to be dismissed forthwith. But the underlying drama has ramifications far beyond the jobs and careers that hang in the balance. Student numbers are rising, but by less than projected, so staff cuts are sought in order to finance the university’s ambitious building plans. It raises the question: what is “value” in a university?

Academics feel themselves to be members of a community of learning, sustained by — and helping to sustain — intangible values such as scholarly integrity and commitment to students over and above the call of duty. Against that is the argument unis should prioritise measures to build up their capital stock. That has been imported from the world of business, where shareholders ultimately look to sell their equity stake to others who will assess value chiefly on tangible assets.

The University of Sydney Act of 1989 is typical of legislation adopted for Australian universities at the time — as economic rationalism tightened its grip — in stipulating that at least two Senate Fellows should bring senior commercial experience. To have that expertise on tap is no doubt useful. But it should not be allowed to sow confusion over the nature and purpose of scholarly research and higher education. These activities are part of society, and they should offer vantage points to inspect and assess rival economic claims from the outside, not absorb them into their concept of value. A public university is not for sale.

Academic redundancies are nothing new, of course. Now, at the Australian National University, the collars of academic gowns are being nervously adjusted as Vice Chancellor Ian Young has announced 150 staff will have to be shed there too.

Two aspects have marked out the Sydney plan as being of particular concern. One is that these are not genuine redundancies: student numbers are rising, so departing lecturers will have to be replaced. The other is the criterion being used to select candidates for dismissal.

Last October, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — hardest hit by the job cuts — published “research expectations” for staff to be deemed “satisfactory” in their performance. The number of “outputs” required — just under one per year for a typical academic — was then abruptly raised, just a month later when the change plan came out, to four in three years, and applied retrospectively. Anyone whose output had not met this new target was immediately put on a hit list.

The Act gives Senate Fellows responsibility to ensure procedural fairness in line with “community expectations”. It cannot be right that an employer can tell staff one thing one minute, then something completely different the next, and propose to sack them for not doing something they had no reason to realise they should have done.

Again, though, the ramifications are much wider. Recall the remark attributed to Albert Einstein: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. “Spence’s razor” risks creating perverse incentives. With dozens more allegedly “under-performing” academics being forced to choose between job loss, and accepting a “teaching-focused” contract, students may end up being taught by lecturers who are not active in research, while the “stars” spend all their time out of the classroom.

Then, does society at large really want academics to concentrate on stacking up journal articles for each other to read, for fear of losing their jobs? A decent public-interest definition of academics’ work would make us responsible for enabling a society where theory and practice are more attuned than they often appear.

Indeed, nostrums familiar from political and media discourses have attained currency despite, not because of, what relevant scholarship has to say about them, especially in the social sciences. The “war on terrorism”, for example, or the notion of asylum seekers as a “threat”, constitute an affront to social science, just as global warming denialism affronts climate science, or creationism insults evolutionary biology.

We can bring scholarly insights to bear in the public sphere through a host of intangible means: from guiding students to an insight that transforms awareness of a particular issue, to the germination and slow flowering of a new idea, given time to mature so it can be presented authoritatively to different audiences. There are no “points” in the system for public writing, even though it reaches a much larger audience. To impose arbitrary “targets” is to risk crowding out some of the most important aspects of our work.

Sydney University needs new buildings, just perhaps more humble ones than the soaring edifices, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, presently planned. And of course universities need to move with the times, and that entails some staff leaving as others arrive. But that can be achieved through evolutionary means: planned retirements and voluntary redundancies.

Serving on a university board is not, perhaps, a pastime of high excitement. But Fellows are there to represent the interests of society at large, with a crucial role to play in what one of my distinguished colleagues, political scientist Professor John Keane, calls “monitory democracy”. And in the public interest, the intangible values underpinning academic life need to be restored to their rightful place.

*Associate Professor Jake Lynch is the Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney