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Aug 28, 2014

The greatest threat to unis comes from their own leadership

University vice-chancellors have singularly failed to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity they so frequently profess, writes Nick Riemer, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney and a member of the NTEU Sydney University branch committee.


In poll after poll, the public has demonstrated its overwhelming opposition to the deregulation of university fees, as to the other austerity measures in the budget. But university vice-chancellors don’t seem to share this opposition — and if they get what they want, it will change Australian society forever.

In yet another illustration of the gulf typically separating leaders from the mainstream view in their organisations, VCs have sided with Education Minister Christopher Pyne in supporting deregulation and the further marketisation of higher education. In doing so, they have supported a key plank of a regressive political agenda that, if implemented, will comprehensively dismantle social protections in this country.

Deregulation’s effect is clear: it will deepen the entrenchment of educational disadvantage and the enclosure of knowledge in our society. The government and its supporters say deregulation is the only way to safeguard “quality”. “Quality”, however, has a nasty habit of lining up with privilege — and there’s a simple analogy that shows why the “quality” argument for deregulation is so wrong.

In a food shortage, it would be unconscionable to argue that the rich should be allowed adequate nourishment while everyone else gets by, or not, on iron rations. Like food-resources, education is a human right that should be equally available to everyone. No one should receive a worse education just because they lack socio-economic clout or — what is often the same thing — high exam results

In essence, deregulation will ensure that only students who can afford to assume substantial debt will get something approaching an adequate education, whereas the poor will be fobbed off with a low-cost, casually taught, overcrowded alternative — if, that is, they make it to university at all.

Group of Eight vice-chancellors in particular have disguised their opposition to educational equity with progressive-sounding cavils about accessibility to university. Speaking on Lateline, Sydney’s Michael Spence described the choice facing the University of Sydney after deregulation as between giving a “lot” of financial support to a small number of scholarship holders, or a “little” support to a lot of them. Either way, it’s clear that Spence doesn’t envisage any significant relief from higher fees for most students. A 2013 Brookings paper demonstrates that the vast majority of poor but high-achieving students do not even apply to selective American universities.

“Vice-chancellors have singularly failed to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity they so frequently profess.”

It is unacceptable that the leaders of institutions that profess to be committed to the public good are barracking for the educational dispossession of substantial sectors of the community. Melbourne VC Glyn Davis is effectively encouraging Labor to side with the Coalition to guarantee deregulation passes the Senate.

Deregulation will inevitably create winners and losers, both in terms of institutions and of students. But there is nothing about supposedly “elite” institutions like the ANU or the Universities of Melbourne or Sydney that justifies their flourishing at the expense of universities like Wollongong or Canberra. And even if deregulation would allow those universities to climb up the — deeply problematic — league tables, from the perspective of social justice, mediocre standards for all is far preferable to the educational disadvantage of the many for the benefit of the few.

In a just world, free public education would be funded through higher taxes — particularly on wealthy CEOs like the leaders of Australia’s universities.

Spence met with Pyne this week for further lobbying, but university leaders should be using their positions to publicly argue against funding cuts. Perhaps if vice-chancellors had forcefully defended educational equity in public, over the long term, deregulation wouldn’t now even be being suggested.

Instead, VCs’ market tunnel vision, weakness in advocacy for their own institutions, and subservience to the agenda of the main parties have helped create a political climate in which higher education has become an easy target for budget savings.

It is not too much to ask of the VC of the country’s oldest university that he defend higher education from cuts, not recommend to the government the optimal way of making them. But that is exactly what Michael Spence did on Tuesday, advising that a 14% cut would be more palatable to the crossbench than the original figure of 20%: “If we delay the onset of the Commonwealth grant scheme to private providers, then Mr Pyne will only have to pass on 14% in funding cuts, not 20% as planned — and he’ll have an easier time selling this to the crossbenchers.”

Vice-chancellors have singularly failed to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity they so frequently profess. It is a dark day when universities’ greatest threat comes from their own leadership.

Fortunately, what happens in higher education funding isn’t just up to VCs. Despite its own VC’s support for deregulation, a heated public meeting on Monday night at the University of Sydney voted overwhelmingly against it. This should give confidence to the ALP, Palmer United and Greens to hold the line: the public is against deregulation, whatever university leaders think.

The community must continue to speak out and mobilise opposition to these deeply inequitable reforms in universities and elsewhere. In the face of our leaders’ negligence, it’s up to ordinary people to act in the interests of a fairer society.


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20 thoughts on “The greatest threat to unis comes from their own leadership

  1. Ulor Boxo

    Does not deregulation allow for yet higher pay to VCs?

    Some appear to receive more than the US President. No doubt the VC positions are more onerous

  2. klewso

    If vice-chancellors spoke out – what would happen to them and their funding?

  3. Dr Dagg

    As an ex-Uni lecturer I commend Dr Reimer for his comments – both for their logic and the likely impact on him personally.

    The Uni VC’s are a coterie with admittance based on willingness to toe their own party line. An example is Colin Stirling who has cut a swathe of unsustainable staffing cuts through Murdoch and Curtin to now wreak his special brand of havoc at Flinders. Demands for historically impossible research targets together with increased teaching loads were based on selective interpretation of data that defied all common sense. Anyone disagreeing with the intepretation was moved on as Stirling personally oversaw every redundancy so that selection criteria could be ignored.

    At Curtin, the gap between management and staff widened further when public pronouncements bore no relationship to what was occurring within the University.

    Stirling like the other VC’s has no accountability other than short-term profitably which feeds directly into their salaries and bonuses. Moving on to Flinders, he avoids all accountability for when it all begins to fall apart.

  4. Bob's Uncle

    There is a certain harsh truth to the claims that deregulation would allow for (a select few) Unis to increase resourcing and climb the international league tables that seems to be the sole goal of the University sector according to some commentators.

    The resulting inequality is simply a price that we have to pay for such a system, and the advantages/disadvantages should be weighed up in these circumstances.

    However this is not the way that the argument is being framed. Pyne argues that the changes are “equitable” on the basis that University students will earn more money throughout their lives and therefore can afford to pay more up-front for their degrees.

    Leaving aside the generalisation of this comment, isn’t this what progressive taxation is for? High income earners will automatically refund a greater portion of their education costs at something approaching a 50% marginal rate, while those who choose to stay in lower-paid sectors (eg community sector or NFP’s) aren’t slugged with a $200K debt.

    Or maybe Pyne knows the Government has other plans for getting rid of progressive taxation?

  5. Dogs breakfast

    Fully agree with this article. V-C’s of the top universities should be lining up to fight these changes, not siding with the government.

    If the government policy is legislated, and I hope that is still a big if, the V-C’s are likely to rush headlong into this, ratcheting up costs of degrees that will see tertiary education become more inequitable, less available, than it has been for decades. This is counter-productive in so many ways.

    Where is the brave V-C who will stand up now and say that they will not support this, and that they will keep course costs at current rates into the foreseeable future, for the good of the nation rather than the short term gain of their own institution.

    The universities gain substantially by the increased quality of students they get because the field is open. The dumbing down of institutions as only the wealthy can afford to enrol will lead to their demise by other means.

    Where is our far-sighted leader rather than the short-term gain-artists.

  6. Russ Hunter

    “In the face of our leaders’ negligence, it’s up to ordinary people to act in the interests of a fairer society.”

    The same could be said for a whole host of Abbott government policies; most of them, I would say.

    I’m surprised the rest of the Uni staff and affiliates aren’t taking on the VCs, calling for resignations, etc.

  7. Stephen

    Agree, one can only be appalled at these million-dollar VCs, trained for free at public expense, and now writing the Tories’ lines for them.

    Speaking of the threat coming from ‘their own leadership’, let’s also focus on Michael Gallagher, long-term head of Go8, and only too happy to clock in for this destructive agenda.

    He learnt his trade as the head of DEET Higher Education Division, under the Hawke-Keating Government. Even back then, you soon learned that you couldn’t trust him at all.

  8. Mish Singh

    Excellent (and brave) article, Nick Riemer. Thank you 🙂

  9. Gavin Moodie

    This article’s main premise is wrong. It is not true that ‘deregulation will ensure that only students who can afford to assume substantial debt will get something approaching an adequate education’ since fees will continue to be backed by unlimited, unconditional and universal income contingent loans.

    There is nothing to stop any student of whatever background incurring a debt of whatever size. Sure, they will have loan repayments of a small part of their income if it is > $51,000 p.a., but this is just like another Medicare levy. Since unlike almost all other loans the HELP debt is not recovered from deceased estates, there is no disadvantage from incurring a substantial unpaid debt.

  10. Dr Dagg

    Gavin, you have missed the point. Is it deliberate? Perhaps you are actually Andrew Norton using a pseudonym.

    If the point was phrased as only students who are “willing” to assume a substantial debt burden….

    There is no argument that higher fees will prejudice the less well off.

  11. Gavin Moodie

    Higher fees will not prejudice the less well off, since all students will be expected to pay the same fees and there is as yet no evidence that any group of Australian prospective students is deterred by a HELP debt.

    A higher interest rate would be regressive, but no one is arguing for that now.

  12. CML

    In the last day or two, I read an article in one of the newspapers on-line, where the author had asked a mathematician at the ANU to ‘model’ Pissy Cryin’s student debt, using the new improved formula that the government wants to introduce.
    The upshot of that exercise showed that Pissy would still be paying back his student loan until he was >64 years old! It would cost him 50% more than the actual cost of his degrees, and would leave very little dosh for buying a house/raising a family/retirement.
    The model assumed that since Pissy has a Law degree, he would work as a solicitor, not a politician. Of course, Pissy didn’t have to pay for his undergraduate degree in real life, because he was a beneficiary of the Whitlam scheme. What a bloody hypocrite our Minister for Education is.
    If you think that scenario is okay Gavin, then you are just another talking head for this the worst government in Australian history! Or perhaps you would like to argue with the maths guru from the ANU???

  13. C R

    Perhaps the Maths guru needs to also do the same for each of these V-C’s – a dose of reality might be the best remedy ever. They appear to be too self serving to care about the true consequences of their actions (Pyne is just too thick to understand & like most ideologues has had a common sense bypass). Has anyone heard what Pyne’s reaction has been to what his own degree would cost? Since they believe so sincerely students are “leaners”, then perhaps these guys would all like to volunteer to pay Australian Taxpayers back for their education. The ANU Maths guru can supply them with the total amount due.
    As others have asked, I too want to know why these V-C’s have not come under pressure to resign given their failure to represent what is in the best interest of education rather than their own ideology.

  14. GideonPolya

    Excellent article by Nick Riemer. A non-researching, non-teaching, academic-sacking, parasitic “refugee from scholarship” VC on $1 million pa earns 100 times more pre-tax than a casual (sessional, part-time) teaching and researching academic doing a useful coal-face job.

    Australia is a look-the-other-way society as revealed by the flawed public discussion over universities. Four absolutely fundamental issues that are missing from public discussion about “university deregulation” are put below (key arguments in parentheses):

    1. Australia needs a top quality scholarly and scientific research complement (respect for intellectual pursuits; postgraduate researcher training; national environmental, agricultural, economic and health security e.g. water experts to advise on the water crisis; climate change experts to advise on the climate crisis; health experts to implement the latest life-saving protocols etc etc ).

    2. Impoverished undergraduate students should not have to pay for the national scholarly and scientific research complement (no more than they should be singled out for paying for Health, Defence etc).

    3. Top quality undergraduate tuition can be provided for 10% of the current cost (by casual academics doing the job in 10% of the time for 10% of the money – I know, I have done both full-time and part-time university and tertiary level teaching over 40 years) and for 1% of the current cost (by expert academics and researchers on a part-time, user-pats basis providing rigorous examination of students doing the top quality courses (MOOCs) put on-line for free by top universities like 152-Nobel- Laureate Harvard and 83- Nobel-Laureate MIT) (for discussion see “Accredited Remote Learning”: http://accreditedremotelearning.blogspot.com.au/ and “Crisis in our universities”, ABC Radio National “Ockham’s Razor”: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/crisis-in-our-universities/3490214 ).

    4. All education can and should be free. Indeed Australia should be paying students (and not vice versa) to be technically trained and learn how to think rationally in the interests of a safe and prosperous nation.

    Informed Australians who care for the young and Australia’s future will reject the anti-science, anti-intellectual, neoliberal pro-One Percenter Coalition’s dishonest and philistine attack on tertiary education, vote 1 Green and put the Coalition last.

  15. Wayne Cusick

    Gavin Moodie, given that fee dergulation will likely substantially increase course fees, one would think it would also mean an increase in unrecovered debts for the government. Which can’t be good.

    I suppose that’s where Pyne’s other thought bubble from last year comes in – selling HECS/HELP debt to private enterprise.

    Still, for the life of me, can’t see where deregulated fees will give a better outcome for Australian Students and Australia.

    Universities in the UK, like Oxford and Cambridge, have long done well in the uni ranking system, and they have only recently been allowed to increase their fees susbtantially.

  16. Gavin Moodie

    Removing fee caps would indeed increase fees and unpaid debts substantially, which is 1 of the reasons why it is such bad policy. But it is still not true that ‘deregulation will ensure that only students who can afford to assume substantial debt will get something approaching an adequate education’.

    Oxford and Cambridge are indeed ranked highly, but they have long been funded by the UK government at a far higher rate than other UK universities.

  17. David Bond

    Gavin Moodie, to say that there is no disadvantage to incurring a substantial unpaid debt is actually incorrect. Research is starting to provide evidence that there are links between debt held by individuals and mental and physical health.


  18. C R

    Oxford and Cambridge “have indeed done well”……because they are selective.
    There are no guaranteed outcomes from merely having an excellent degree from an internationally recognised University (ie one of the top 50). Financial hurdles should never be allowed to stand in the way of ambitious academic excellence.

    We need those capable and willing to take on multiple degrees across different disciplines, but with technological changes moving so fast we don’t even know if current highly prized degrees will even be relevant in the coming decades.
    For years we have been hearing that our children will have to be more flexible as they will have many career changes over their lives – just how much debt can these kids take? Surely as a society it is in our own interest to encourage further education.
    I believe the balance between cost sharing is about right now, although current students will qualify with substantial debts that will take many years to pay off. Current fee levels mean tertiary education is not cheap, and current students may well have reached debt saturation already.

    Education is not an end user product. We all benefit. Ideological nonsense should never trump intelligent discussion over the value of an educated society. We need to share the burden of cost.

  19. CML

    Good onya, Gideon – some very savvy ideas. But you will have to talk to Turdbull first. Apparently he doesn’t think we need a proper NBN, so all those on-line courses will have to wait for the upgrade in about ten years time!
    Then in 2024, we will be ten years behind the rest of the world, and the story just keeps getting worse……??!!

  20. Gavin Moodie

    The links between individuals’ debt and their mental and physical health were reported for the US, which I keep reminding readers is substantially different from Australian student debt in salient respects. For a start, US former students can be bankrupted for unpaid student debts, unlike in Australia.


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