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A summit to solve Australia’s university crisis

03 June 2022

Regardless of the upcoming federal election results, the Minister for Education and Youth must call an urgent stakeholder national summit in Canberra once the election is decided to discuss why Australian public universities are in crisis and how to reform them.

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James Guthrie

Regardless of the upcoming federal election results, the Minister for Education and Youth must call an urgent stakeholder national summit in Canberra once the election is decided to discuss why Australian public universities are in crisis and how to reform them.[i]

The many stakeholder voices of Australian public universities have been silenced, with a sole group – Universities Australia – speaking for the sector. However, this group consists entirely of university executives and cannot claim to be a voice for all stakeholders.

As an alternative, a collaboration has been formed by various organisations and individuals, from students to professors, to create a space for all voices in Australian public universities today. This group is Public Universities Australia, which is supported by the Australian Association of University Professors, Academics for Public Universities, the National Union of Students, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association and the Casualised, Unemployed & Precarious Uni Workers.[ii] In what is probably a historic first, this collaboration represents an almost complete sector-wide consensus.

In a recently published article, Stephen Lake et al. (2022)[iii] provides an outline history of universities in Australia from 1850 to the present, highlighting, by way of examples, consistent patterns and failures and the sources of challenges now facing the system. They highlight that Australian universities have been neglected for more than three decades by our nation’s leaders. This failure of political leadership has resulted in increased corporatisation of universities.[iv] Today, Australian public universities’ governance is neither truly accountable nor transparent, and the oversight of senior managerial behaviour is tenuous at best.

The results are there for all to see. More than 40,000 public university staff have lost their jobs over the last two years ‒ more than all the jobs that would be lost if the thermal coal industry closed overnight. Student choice has decreased accordingly, with students increasingly forced to study on-line, despite paying the same fees.  Further, Australia’s position as a world leader in research is under threat, with programmes that led to inventions such as wi-fi, the electric pacemaker and the medical application of penicillin now under-funded and under-valued.

Senior university managers frequently blame these changes on the impact of COVID-19 and the decrease in international student revenue. However, at the end of 2020, Australian universities had combined liquid cash and investments of $24.6 billion.[v] Moreover, while staff were sacked, courses slashed, and student opportunities decimated, Australian public universities continued to employ increasing numbers of managers, pay considerable sums to consultants, and maintain vice chancellors’ salaries at an average of $1m per year ‒ significantly more than any minister, or even the prime minister. Indeed, a staggering figure for any Australian public servant.

PUA argues that public universities bring vast social, economic and health benefits to society, produce and attract significant intellectual capital, and generate blue-sky and applied knowledge that creates opportunities for all. Public universities are central to the well-being of the urban and regional communities they serve.[vi] However, the capacity to continue contributing is now under threat because of policy reforms that have had a profound and irrevocable impact on teaching and research over the past 30 years.

Here, we provide a list of priorities for an incoming minister for education and youth that we believe will counter the Australian public universities’ crisis. Given the depth and breadth of the sector’s structural and ethical problems, the incoming government’s priority should be to hold a national summit on higher education within its first six months in office.[vii]

The Australian Universities Summit 2022 would include all the stakeholder groups that currently have a prominent voice in the policy debate, including Universities Australia, the University Chancellors Council, Australian Technology Network, Group of Eight, Innovative Research Universities, Regional Universities Network, the National Tertiary Education Union and the Community and Public Sector Union. However, it should also include other groups, including the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the Australian Association of University Professors and research centres, academic groups and professional staff involved in the TAFE, VET and for-profit sectors who have an interest in reform.

The proposed national summit should have a broad remit and include discussion of a wide range of pertinent issues, such as:

* reining in the unchecked, opaque and unaccountable powers of vice-chancellors and senior management

* reintroducing democratic accountability and transparency to financial expenditures by public universities

* reinstating democratic governance of academic research and teaching by academics

* placing caps on the ability of universities to casualise their workforces

* questioning the trend towards commercial outcomes from research and instead make a clear differentiation between research that seeks to advance human knowledge and that which is focused on commercial and “national benefit”

* creating a universal basic research fund that sequesters a significant proportion of current Australian Research Council funding for distribution in smaller amounts to a broader group of researchers with less onerous application and compliance processes to encourage a much broader range of low-cost research;

* providing adequate financial support for full-time domestic students and support structures for international students

* creating adequate opportunities for professional and career development for all university staff and higher degree research students

eliminating “gag clauses” in termination contracts

* setting national employment and education targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that are legally enforceable at an institutional level

* coordinating the educational and research priorities of the VET and university sectors and providing them with sufficient funding to meet national benchmarks while acknowledging the different roles and functions of the institutions concerned.

To achieve the kinds of broad-ranging reforms required, we believe that an inquiry should be held into the behaviour of the governing councils of public universities. The terms of reference would focus on their undemocratic structures, lack of transparency and accountability, profligate expenditure on non-core activities (including profit-making), opaque relationships with senior management, external consultancies, and the Big Four accountancy firms and transnational corporations. This inquiry should be a Royal Commission ‒ only with such powers will we know the true extent of the crisis in universities. Moreover, how we can fix it.