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Australia

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.