Academics call for Senate inquiry into university reform

Press/Media: Expert Comment

Description

A new association representing senior academics has called for a Senate inquiry into universities and questioned whether highly paid vice-chancellors have the ­financial acumen required to run their business-oriented institutions in a time of crisis.

Universities Australia has warned that universities could lose nearly $5bn in revenue this year because of travel bans preventing international students coming to Australia, and it is uncertain whether the students will be able to come next year as well.

In an open letter to senators, the Australian Association of University Professors says there is an “acute crisis in the Australian public university system” that has been decades in the making.

“COVID-19 just tipped it over the edge,” the professors write.

“Years of reforms to the Australian higher education sector have shifted focus from equipping our young adults with a profession, pursuing knowledge and advancing society to tertiary education as a product to be traded on the open market.

“Rather than leading academia, university leaders have increasingly had to become CEOs, in many cases without the necessary guidance to be wisely entrepreneurial or to make informed investment decisions.”

Read more: CQU eyes campus closure Unis will pull through | Are we valued? students ask | Into the rhythm of online learning | Digital education here to stay Unis and industry must pull together

The letter calls for the Senate standing committees on education and employment to hold an inquiry into the sustainability of the Australian higher education system that would examine “uni­versity governance arrangements, funding models, risk-taking, local and international student experiences, how research is assessed, education infrastructure and employment conditions”.

“Further, a specific focus must be the commercial models that the Australian public universities have pursued over the last decades and the significant risks they have imposed on the sector concerning the quality of education and research, financial sustainability and protection of our human capital,” the letter says.

AAUP member and Macquarie Business School head of applied ­finance Tom Smith said the evolution of universities into big ­businesses, enrolling large numbers of revenue-generating international students, had led to the vice-­chancellors misunderstanding their highly paid roles — which attract salaries of nearly $1m or more in most universities.

Business chief executives “are paid what they’re being paid because of the strategic options they can generate, particularly in a situation like this”, Professor Smith said. But vice-chancellors were “selected on an entirely different basis, after ­rising through the ranks as a good academic”.

He questioned whether any of the public university vice-chancellors had “the financial acumen that’s needed to be a CEO of a corporation, to come up with strategic options that are necessary to make the university more sustainable”.

The letter also warns that if universities respond to the crisis by firing “as many as 100,000 casual, part-time administrative and executive staff” then this will “irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community”.

Professor Smith said casual ­academics were typically higher degree candidates who were destined to become researchers and university leaders. If they were no longer employed, “you’ll miss a whole generation of academics”, he said.

The letter argues that the universities’ push for international students has resulted in the export of “much-needed skills as the international students … graduate and return home”, leaving Australia “vulnerable in an increasingly nationalistic world”.

“The long-term value proposition of this exchange is questionable,” the letter says.

Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi said the time was right for a comprehensive reassessment of tertiary education after decades of underfunding, and a Senate inquiry would be a good way to address this.

Period21 Apr 2020

Media contributions

1

Media contributions

  • TitleAcademics call for Senate inquiry into university reform
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletThe Australian
    Media typeWeb
    CountryAustralia
    Date21/04/20
    DescriptionA new association representing senior academics has called for a Senate inquiry into universities and questioned whether highly paid vice-chancellors have the ­financial acumen required to run their business-oriented institutions in a time of crisis.

    Universities Australia has warned that universities could lose nearly $5bn in revenue this year because of travel bans preventing international students coming to Australia, and it is uncertain whether the students will be able to come next year as well.

    In an open letter to senators, the Australian Association of University Professors says there is an “acute crisis in the Australian public university system” that has been decades in the making.

    “COVID-19 just tipped it over the edge,” the professors write.

    “Years of reforms to the Australian higher education sector have shifted focus from equipping our young adults with a profession, pursuing knowledge and advancing society to tertiary education as a product to be traded on the open market.

    “Rather than leading academia, university leaders have increasingly had to become CEOs, in many cases without the necessary guidance to be wisely entrepreneurial or to make informed investment decisions.”

    Read more: CQU eyes campus closure | Unis will pull through | Are we valued? students ask | Into the rhythm of online learning | Digital education here to stay | Unis and industry must pull together

    The letter calls for the Senate standing committees on education and employment to hold an inquiry into the sustainability of the Australian higher education system that would examine “uni­versity governance arrangements, funding models, risk-taking, local and international student experiences, how research is assessed, education infrastructure and employment conditions”.

    “Further, a specific focus must be the commercial models that the Australian public universities have pursued over the last decades and the significant risks they have imposed on the sector concerning the quality of education and research, financial sustainability and protection of our human capital,” the letter says.

    AAUP member and Macquarie Business School head of applied ­finance Tom Smith said the evolution of universities into big ­businesses, enrolling large numbers of revenue-generating international students, had led to the vice-­chancellors misunderstanding their highly paid roles — which attract salaries of nearly $1m or more in most universities.

    Business chief executives “are paid what they’re being paid because of the strategic options they can generate, particularly in a situation like this”, Professor Smith said. But vice-chancellors were “selected on an entirely different basis, after ­rising through the ranks as a good academic”.

    He questioned whether any of the public university vice-chancellors had “the financial acumen that’s needed to be a CEO of a corporation, to come up with strategic options that are necessary to make the university more sustainable”.

    The letter also warns that if universities respond to the crisis by firing “as many as 100,000 casual, part-time administrative and executive staff” then this will “irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community”.

    Professor Smith said casual ­academics were typically higher degree candidates who were destined to become researchers and university leaders. If they were no longer employed, “you’ll miss a whole generation of academics”, he said.

    The letter argues that the universities’ push for international students has resulted in the export of “much-needed skills as the international students … graduate and return home”, leaving Australia “vulnerable in an increasingly nationalistic world”.

    “The long-term value proposition of this exchange is questionable,” the letter says.

    Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi said the time was right for a comprehensive reassessment of tertiary education after decades of underfunding, and a Senate inquiry would be a good way to address this.
    Producer/AuthorJill Rowbotham
    URLhttps://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/academics-call-for-senate-inquiry-into-university-reform/news-story/3e6b5aaf8597a1b7869fa98458168fcf?btr=fe6e673940f9143bbedb6df0f0cd43ae
    PersonsTom Smith