I read with interest Don Watson’s crie de coeur from 2012 from the archives of The Monthly, which posted it on Twitter recently, about the horrors of managerialism in Australian universities. By this he means the imposition of a powerful management body led by a Vice Chancellor who is effectively a CEO, that overrides academic skills and knowledge, keeps discipline under tight control and is driven by efficiency, external accountability and monitoring, and an emphasis on standards measured by metrics. It replaces a system of collegiate governance, where academics themselves made the major decisions in the university, the Vice Chancellor being essentially the first among equals. I would have read Watson’s article anyway, but I was particularly interested because I lived through the changes he is discussing from collegial governance to the current managerial model, and experienced some of the pros and cons of both systems. And while I find much to agree with in Watson’s critique, there are important things he leaves out. And could he ever have imagined how much worse things could get?
I was, like Watson, at La Trobe University in its early days in the 1960s, though as a post graduate student, not an undergraduate as he was. I also remember the academic he mentions as even then warning against the power of the university administration; he was for a time technically my PhD supervisor. He was a lovely man, but I can’t remember that he made any contribution at all to my thesis; it wasn’t his field, and I rarely saw him. It was sink or swim back in those days for higher degree candidates, and the academic staff couldn’t have cared less. I’m not sure it’s any different today, but it was certainly no golden age then for students – as Watson would surely agree. For a time I was also a tutor at La Trobe, and as clueless about teaching as I was about the topics I was meant to be tutoring in. No one thought that teaching was something you needed to learn about; more sinking or swimming, but this time with implications for the poor undergraduates in my tutorials. I wonder if Watson was one of them? I think I got better in time, but little thanks to the senior academic staff.
Having struggled through the PhD, I became a tutor in another university. After five years, I had to leave, simply because that was the rule in those days. You couldn’t go on tutoring unless the department found the money for a senior tutorship. And this raises an issue that Watson doesn’t mention; the old collegial system was run by men for men. The rule allowing tutorships to last only five years was inherently sexist. Women were not free to move around the country chasing jobs if, like me, they had a partner whose job couldn’t just be picked up and taken somewhere else. And a man’s job nearly always came first. The senior tutorship role, where it existed, was almost universally filled by women, who organised a lot of the undergraduate teaching, and were often the main point of student contact, leaving the men to get on with their research, to get promoted, and to perpetuate the system. An awful lot of female talent got wasted.
I’m not arguing that increasing managerialism was a good way to fix discrimination. But the imposition of some limits to the collegial system was needed in order to make change happen. To most male academics – or at least the ones I came into contact with – administration was ‘housework’ – and I’m quoting here – ie something lesser, done by women. They deeply resented the requirements of the Affirmative Action Act (1986) by which a member of the administrative staff could question their appointment processes – a central pillar of collegial governance and also of the informal boys’ club that so effectively reproduced itself. I know, because I was that member of the administrative staff; I know, because I had stopped being an academic and had gone over to the dark side to be one of those awful administrators. It was bureaucratic nonsense, the thin end of the wedge, they cried … It wasn’t really. I couldn’t affect who they chose to appoint; I could only ask them to face up to their own prejudices. And why shouldn’t heads of department be responsible for the behaviour of their staff in areas like sexual harassment and discrimination? Someone had to hold staff members to account.
Looking back, I can see that the movement for equal opportunity for women probably suffered from being tied to the increasingly managerial functioning of university administration. Seeking legitimacy, it tied itself to the catch cries of efficiency and effectiveness, for example, when it might have been better off sticking with social justice. But would university administrations have cooperated – whatever the legal requirements – if they didn’t see it serving their agenda as well?
Watson is certainly aware that abuses existed alongside the freedoms academics enjoyed. And I agree with him that an unduly bureaucratic world view overwhelmed the participatory system of governance. I remember in particular being lectured by executives of the State Bank on the virtues of amalgamation of institutions, which was excruciating at the time and funny in retrospect, given the debacle of the State Bank collapse. I also remember being told that only the psychologically damaged oppose change – irrespective of the nature of that change. What rubbish!
Maybe something could have been saved from the wreck of collegial governance if academics and administrative staff of good will had been able to treat each other as equal partners in the enterprise. The people on the ground doing the housework might have appreciated not being condescended to by the academic staff, and might have fought to preserve the best features of the old system.
But maybe not. For the biggest challenge for universities in those years is one Watson doesn’t specifically mention. And that is the expansion in student numbers. In 1970, only 3% of Australians held bachelor degrees. Today, almost 37% do. And universities, as everyone knows, haven’t been funded properly to deal with the increase. Collegial governance, where academics took the major decisions relating to the academic directions of the university, was pretty well inevitably overwhelmed by the need to attract fee-paying overseas students, to be accountable for time and money spent, to attract increased research funding, and to report all this to the commonwealth funding body. And with so many more students – some of which, as Watson asserts, are poorly prepared – to say nothing of the pressure to publish, what academic has time to contribute to running an increasingly specialised administration?
It may be that if the Abbott government’s higher education ‘reforms’ are passed by the Senate, the old days of fewer students and more money for at least some universities will return. Some may be able to regain the elitist position they once held. Others will be forced into offering only cheaper courses, probably of poor quality to more students. Others still may close, or become regional campuses of city universities. Fear of indebtedness will keep many students away, especially the older ones who often contribute most to tutorial discussion, and the poorer ones. But I doubt this will usher in a new era of excellence; fewer doesn’t mean brighter. And I doubt whether academics will ever again enjoy collegial governance; the likely outcome of Abbott’s changes is greater corporatisation, not less. And the picture for Australian universities looks even bleaker than it did on 2012.