The University of Sydney recently posted an operating surplus of $1 billion, reflecting what in any other type of organization would be hailed as nearly half a billion in underlying profit. The results of other Australian universities were less spectacular but still posted substantial surpluses.
The managerial class that presides over this success – let’s call it that, for now – is nevertheless relentless in its quest for more funds for universities.
Certainly, there are reasons to wish for more. Precariousness got so out of control that a large army of highly qualified university teachers faced dire poverty as universities dumped their meager, often underpaid, workforce to keep surpluses under the Covid slowdown.
Even before the pandemic, casual contracts across the industry were based on piecework rates, particularly for tagging, which kept management’s army flexible on what are, frankly, starvation wages. Several Australian universities are now facing pay theft reimbursements for a widely recognized and too long ignored form of exploitation.
Other members of our universities also need more. Most academics and a growing percentage of professional staff have nearly impossible workloads. Increasing administrative and other workloads make working from home necessary, not only to flatten the curve of the pandemic, but also to give universities almost every moment of our time. Only then can we get into what Australians call “cooee” to get the job done.
These conditions, although aggravating since 2020, have been recognized for years. Yet successive governments have been reluctant to invest more in Australian higher education. Why? Because neither politicians nor the public really trust universities to do with money what the public expects.
This decline in confidence has been a long time coming. A key moment came in 2014 when all but one of the Vice Chancellors backed proposals by the Liberal government, led by then Education Minister Christopher Pyne, to deregulate tuition fees for domestic students . It was reasonable to expect that universities would charge fees as high as the market could bear. In an environment where most decent jobs require a degree, this would hold generations of young people hostage.
The reforms also needed to incorporate even higher levels of inequality between graduates of more and less expensive universities and between graduates and those who could not study at university at all. For this reason, the only way for such an ideologically driven reform to pass through parliament was if these inevitably massive costs were secured by government loans. The proposal failed largely because under these conditions it risked bankrupting the federal treasury.
University leaders knew the proposal was bad for the country. They knew it would steal future income from generations of students to support their own institutions, contributing to intergenerational inequality. Yet they said they had no choice but to support him. It was, they said, their “fiduciary responsibility”. That is, their defense of the institution mattered more than whatever the institution was for. Unsurprisingly, public confidence in their motives has been shaken.
Far-right conservatives currently claim that “cancellation culture” is the biggest threat to higher education. But such a thing, if it existed, would hardly affect most university activities, such as the education of engineers and physiotherapists. Arguably, our greatest threat, however, is this leadership failure.
Who would give more money to these so-called rulers now? After decades of growth and millions, now billions, of surpluses, annual reports show that typically less than a third of spending has gone to what institutions do, teaching and research work. It’s not that other expenses, such as libraries and labs, are illegitimate, but universities are remarkably careful about the details, so it’s hard to be sure the money is well spent.
In this context, it was surely not Sydney management’s plan to record a billion dollar surplus in the same year as they also had to negotiate wages and working conditions via a new company agreement. . Because if there’s one thing we know from university principals, it’s that for them, reinvestment literally means spending on anything but improving basic working conditions.
Universities probably need more funding, largely to undo business models that we certainly can no longer call successful. The new government’s priority should be to fix these problems while dismantling the Liberal government’s deceptive work-ready graduate scheme: a sort of Pyne-lite package of higher fees applied to courses the Minister did not like .
Many are looking to the new Secretary to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office, Glyn Davis. But as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Davis sought in vain for reforms, focused on diversifying the types of institutions, which were unlikely to improve teaching and research conditions. And he supported the Pyne reforms.
Sequel to Raewyn Connell’s excellent book The Good University, I suspect that more democratic changes will be needed. We need effective but inclusive decision-making structures. And we need terms and conditions of employment that nurture and support work that is authentically rooted in the community and not dependent on further plunder of our students’ future earnings.
Yet university leaderships, at least as currently constituted, show little evidence that they can do the work needed. Whatever reform we undertake, it probably has to start at the top.
Hannah Forsyth is a senior lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University.