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Reflecting upon difficult times, an impossible situation and next steps: Professor Fran Baum

Distinguished Professor Fran Baum AO writes about the closing of the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University raising questions about the rationale behind managerial decisions and the very functioning of pubic universities. If a world renown, ground breaking public health institute with major grants and outstanding publications is beeing closed-over night, just like that- what is the actual goal behind decisions made by managers governing Australian universities? What is the actual purpose of Flinders University? Read the whole text on Croakey here.

How to corporatise a university (in three steps)

Academics for public universities have been asked by Honi Soit to provide research findings for this piece of investigative journalism. Read an excerpt bellow and find the link to the full article at the end of it.

“[…]Adam Lucas, a staff-elected councillor at the University of Wollongong, told Honi that “in my experience and that of my predecessors, we’ve seen very limited interrogation by members of most matters brought before Council.” Lucas further questioned why, if corporate board appointees were so fiscally competent, universities continued to cut jobs and courses. 

Even when applying their own corporate standards, the lopsided make-up of university governing bodies contravenes a basic principle of governance. Principle no.2 of the ASX’s Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations holds that “The board should…collectively have the skills, commitment and knowledge of the entity and the industry in which it operates, to enable it to discharge its duties effectively and add value.”

For example, 73% of Rio Tinto’s board has experience in the resources and mining sector. Representation is similar across other large mining companies. Likewise, banks’ boards are drawn largely from former bankers, financial industry experts and private equity mavens. Banks and mining companies are ultimately interested in the same goal – increasing profits and shareholder value – yet their governance is tailored to their particular industries. 

By contrast, appointments to the governing bodies of universities – which have radically different structures to private companies, and are interested in entirely different outcomes – are made to fit a generic corporate board profile. Bankers and consultants abound; there are more appointees from Macquarie Group alone than there are from arts backgrounds, and career directors stake their turf. 

Universities are not-for-profit entities, yet their governance ‘skills matrix’ points entirely towards unabashed profit-making. Universities are interested in the production of high-quality public interest research and teaching, yet people with a basic knowledge of higher education and representatives of academic fellows have been pushed out to make way for Fellows of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. 

Alessandro Pelizzon, an academic-elected member of the Southern Cross University council says that there is a “schizophrenic relationship” between governing bodies and universities. He told Honi that “these corporate managers are very effective and very well-functioning corporate managers. But the problem is that universities are not corporations. They might have a corporate structure, but they’re not corporations.” […]”

Read the whole article by Deaundre Espejo and Max Shanahan in Honi Soit here.

MEDIA RELEASE Academics for Public Universities

Ridd Case demonstrates how academic freedom on Australian university campuses is threatened from within.

The High Court’s finding in Ridd v JCU (https://www.hcourt.gov.au/cases/case_b12-2021) has revealed the extent to which Australian university campuses are no longer governed by reference to academic principles such as intellectual freedom. The High Court found that Dr Ridd breached confidentiality with respect to some internal communications but that James Cook University (JCU) had contravened section 50 of the Fair Work Act 2009, and that its Code of Conduct did not override academic freedom protections afforded Dr Ridd under clause 14 of JCU’s Enterprise Agreement. Nevertheless, due to the ‘all-or-nothing’ basis of Dr Ridd’s legal challenge, the High Court found that his dismissal for serious misconduct was lawful.

We do not endorse Dr Ridd’s views about climate change. They are properly a matter for peer scientific scrutiny and assessment. But, as the High Court notes, “Intellectual freedom plays ‘an important ethical role not just in the lives of the few people it protects, but in the life of the community more generally’ to ensure the primacy of individual conviction: ‘not to profess what one believes to be false’ and ‘a duty to speak out for what one believes to be true’.” The handling by JCU of Dr Ridd’s original alleged misconduct suggested, instead, an impoverished intellectual culture that lacked the good sense to engage with dissenting voices in a critically mature and responsible manner.

Regressive changes to university governance introduced by both Labor and Coalition governments over the last few decades have resulted in all of Australia’s public universities evolving in a similar way. A cursory glance at the composition of their governing bodies shows just how little control Australian academics now have over the mission and manner of operation of university campuses. There is growing evidence that this corporate governance model has a deleterious effect on the character and shape of academic teaching and research, and -as the Ridd case shows – on upholding basic tenets of academic freedom.

The facts of the Ridd case also exposed some of the powerful measures that senior university administrators can now take to discipline academics and the work they undertake. Those administrators have become in effect the ultimate determiners of educational and research priorities in our universities.

Academic freedom, including the freedom to criticise the way a university is run, is foundational to a university’s public mission. As the High Court ultimately stated, it is also not an unlimited right: it comes with specific responsibilities and sanctions. But in revealing how this freedom has been downplayed or undermined on campus, the Ridd case is yet another demonstration of the urgent need for reform of the way Australian universities are now constituted and controlled. It is time for that call to be heeded and action to be taken to restore public confidence in the public mission of Australia’s universities.

Academics for Public Universities​
​www.publicuniversities.org
academicsforpublicuniversities@gmail.com

For further enquiries and interview requests:


T: 0449 058 933 Dr Alessandro Pelizzon

0419 608 624 ​P​rof Peter Tregear

Australian Universities Are Finance Investors With a Side Hustle in Education

Australian universities increasingly operate outside their core business: research and education. In the search of lucrative and “stable” investments, managers see staff, the workers who do the teaching and research as not really worth investing in. “By his own admission, Davis did not value or invest in university staff. Melbourne University alone employed some 10,000 workers in 2019. As Davis explained to the Age, “What you do not want to do is load up the institution with expensive permanent staff . . . later this will be a significant problem.”

Read the whole article by Ben Kunkler here.

What goes wrong when uni students mark their teachers

Our members and collaborators have provided research for The Sydney Morning Herald. See more bellow.

“James Guthrie, distinguished professor of accounting at Macquarie University, says there are clear reasons Australian university students are disgruntled. “Staff-student ratios are very high in Australian universities, some of the highest in the world. This impacts student evaluations.”

Internationally the acceptable ratio is around one academic to 15 students. In Australia there are institutions with about one to 70. Between 2000 and last year, Guthrie says, the staff-to-student ratio significantly increased. Staff numbers have not kept up.

“All these efficiency measures would impact the student experience and would then be reflected in the evaluations of academics by students,” he says. “That’s the only evaluation on offer.”

Southern Cross University’s Alessandro Pelizzon, of lobby group Academics for Public Universities, argues there should be a comprehensive analysis of the skills of the people who make up university councils. He asks: how many have the expertise to run a university?

As Guthrie points out, there is little public evaluation of senior university executives including vice-chancellors, a shame for both students and the academics who teach them.”

Read the whole article by Jenna Price in the Sydney Morning Herald here.

A three part series of new research has just been added to our website!

New substantial research has just been added to our website. Find it here.

The titles of the documents are:

COVID cuts highlight intellectual bankruptcy of Coalition higher education policies. (Part 1)

Coalition policies and corporatization of universities are premised on shifting costs to students and staff. (Part 2)

The authoritarian academy: corporate governance of Australia’s universities exploits staff and students and degrades academic standards. (Part 3)

These three articles are the product of many discussions, comments and feedback from colleagues at more than a dozen universities over the last several years. They are intended to provide background for a national campaign for reform of Australia’s higher education system involving Academics for Public Universities, the Australian Association of University Professors, the National Higher Education Action Network and the National Tertiary Education Union. Please feel free to contact any of these organizations if you are interested in becoming involved.

Dear Mark McGowan, you wouldn’t ask this of a mining company

West Australian universities are in the thick of a crisis that the McGowan government should address right away and ensure universities live up to noble expectations set out for them under state law, writes one of WA’s most reputed academics.

“A mining company or a hospital would never have a board without solid industry-specific expertise. Universities shouldn’t either – but many do.

Each of the WA university senates have 17 members, of which only a small minority have any professional experience in higher education, let alone as an academic.”

Read the whole article by Gerd Schröder-Turk here.