What you should know about the changing face of university management

What's to be done about the corporatisation of our educational institutions?

1443: The Statutes of King’s College Cambridge are amended to prohibit students from keeping bears in their rooms. Universities are regulated at the bare (and bear) minimum.

2018: Universities care little about the endemic issue of bear-keeping on college grounds, and instead concern themselves with keeping another creature on a tight leash: The academic.

Corporatisation, managerialism, and bears. Oh my! Between studying, swiping right, working, making two-minute noodles, and depression naps, the average student has plenty to worry about.  However, we haven’t generally had to worry about lions or tigers, and in Cambridge certainly not about bears. But there is a more visceral threat to the academic institutions we attend: the changing face of university management.

To understand what is wrong with universities today, we need to understand what they used to be. Medieval universities were normally governed following either the Paris or Bologna model. To make this topic more exciting, let’s inject a bit of NSFW fun. Under the Bologna model, the students were the doms, and the professors their obedient subs. The students elected their professors, paid their salaries and blithely dismissed them when necessary. Under the Paris model, students were subject to the discipline of the university. The masters formed a congregation which made rules about the behaviour of students, which were strictly observed. Kinky.

Universities are corporations masquerading as academic nirvana.

The Australian slide into corporate fetishism started with the 2003 Nelson Report. Like the first tap of a whip on the body of a BDSM newbie, the report signalled more intense action to come: The report asserted that ‘Universities are not businesses but nevertheless manage multi-million-dollar budgets. As such, they need to be run in a business-like fashion.’

There is something of a non-sequitur here: The body manages a large budget, therefore it must be a corporation? There are many high-net worth individuals and bodies that manage large amounts of money, and yet are not regulated in the same manner as corporations.

Like many things – work, family, sex – the Nelson Report and Government intervention in the management of universities is a matter of power dynamics. By legislating to change the edifice of the modern university, successive governments have sought to increase executive leadership, and weaken the tradition of collegial decision-making, in a devious attempt to establish complete control over the tertiary education sector and the knowledge flowing from it. To tie them up, so to speak.

Education is not a Commonwealth legislative power, so Australian universities are established by the States and Territories. The States in turn are financially dependant on the Commonwealth for over 60% of their revenue. Thus, universities are almost entirely reliant on Commonwealth grants to the states for their funding. (Talk about a sugar daddy, right?)

The Commonwealth benefits from providing funding in this way, in that it can attach conditions to the grants. For students, the most immediate effect of this is the capping of HECS-supported places in each degree. But it also has the run-on effect that where academics are constrained by the demands of their university to keep the Commonwealth happy, they must toe the line.

This leads to further pressures on universities to be financially stable and fruitful bodies. The result is the commodification of research, whereby academics are increasingly only given university funding for research if it can be supported by external funding (e.g. an interested corporate sponsor) or by one of the research areas currently endorsed by the Government.

This turns academics into scavengers: Post-9/11, many academics pitched their research areas with a terrorism-related twist in order to tap into the wave of funding released by the Commonwealth. More relevantly to students, the average university attendee can attest that while many of their lecturers are well informed, they are simply bad teachers – usually, such figures are employed because their research brings in the big bucks, regardless of their teaching ability.

What we are beginning to see is a battle between substance and form: Universities are corporations masquerading as academic nirvana. The ‘branding’ of universities is plainly directed towards attracting funding: As an ANU student myself, I can say it’s pretty clear that some ANU graduates will be thought followers and not ‘Thought Leaders’.

Branding can, I suppose be a fun game, but only in a context where there is pleasure to be derived; I get very little pleasure from seeing my tuition fees flowing into ANU’s marketing department, which promotes my university more like it’s one of those amorphous companies you never quite understand the purpose of, rather than an academic community.

I get very little pleasure from seeing my tuition fees flowing into ANU’s marketing department

Three can be a crowd, and in a relationship that should be between students and the university alone, the increasing dominance of external members is a significant concern. A considerable number of external members of university councils are government appointees.

The effect of this is that councils are increasingly divorced from the communities they are meant to be governing. What does this mean for students? There are members of the councils governing the institutions to which we contribute time, money and allegiance, who have not even an iota of concern for our wellbeing. Only the financial implications of university decision-making.

Instead of pursuing truth and learning – concepts with considerable social pay-offs in the long run – universities are made to pursue the instant gratification of a slow drip of candle wax onto their skin from the Commonwealth. They are always left wanting more and aren’t quite sure whether they want to submit themselves to the power. They’re told it’s part of the game they need to play, but at the end of the day, they’re still at the mercy of the Government. And what is the reward for the fee-paying student? No pleasure, just pain, and a research driven education led by dispassionate teachers.

So maybe it’s time to take back the power, change the dynamic, and take the Federal government over the knee this time. Much like sex, university governance must be based on consent. Whose consent? That of students and academics. Legislative change is required first at a Commonwealth level, and then at a State level, to require that the majority of members on university councils be academics and students.

As with people, it’s rare for governments to give up power once they have it. Yet, the above suggested changes were achieved in 2013 by the French – apparently as liberal with their universities as with their love lives. The Minister for Education, Geneviève Fioraso, damned the reduction in academic and student representatives on university councils, emphasising the need for collegiality over corporatisation. Endorsing the true university spirit, Francois Hollande’s government went on to enact a law increasing the size of university councils, along with the proportion of members elected by academic staff. In an incredible feat of role play and role reversal, students and academics obtained dominance and whipped their universities into shape.

Kink-shaming isn’t my style but this obsession with corporatisation, like BDSM taken too far, has got to go. It’s choking academic freedom and suffocating the student voice under a mountain of regulation. And not in a good way.

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