Should we Bailout or Restructure our Universities?

A spokeswoman for the Vice Chancellors of our major Universities said that they had advised the Minister, Dan Tehan, that unless they got extra funding soon, they would have to retrench academic staff and hence curtail valuable research work.

However, the Vice Chancellors have decided not to fly to Canberra in their private jets seeking government bailouts. Making some arcane reference to automotive CEOs from Detroit, their PR departments advised them it would not be a good look. (Yes, our Universities do have PR and marketing departments. They are businesses you know.)

Explaining the PR advice, the spokeswoman paraphrased Marlene Dietrich:

It's not because they wouldn't. It's not because they shouldn't. And you know that it's not because they couldn't. It's simply because they are the laziest guys in town.

She was joking of course, but she does have a point. The reason one can say that they are lazy is that there are alternatives if they put their minds to it. After all they are very well paid. They all get around $1 million per annum and Dr Spence gets $1.5 million as Vice Chancellor of Sydney University. They should be able to analyse problems and devise appropriate managerial solutions if they make the effort.

Rather than asking for a handout, they could review their organisation structures and reduce the proportion of administrative staff to academic staff.

Peter Murphy in Universities and Innovation Economies has pointed out that the cost of an Arts degree has increased four-fold since 1956 due to the bureaucratisation of the Universities. “The price of a degree in real terms today costs Australian society four times what it did in 1956 and students twice (or more) what it did in 1956. Yet the nature of the degree and the nature of departmental teaching and research are virtually unchanged in those 60 years.” (p.188)

Our Universities now spend 70% on administration and only 30% on academic teaching and research. “From 1972 to 2012 the number of students in Australian Universities (compared to the total Australian population) grew four-fold, while the number of non-casual academic staff grew two-fold and the non-academic administrative workforce grew nearly six-fold.” (p.130)

It is administration where the fat is. Not research. Eliminating administrative work is where to look for cost savings. Less administrative activity would also free the academic staff to teach and undertake research instead of wasting their time filling in forms so that administrative staff can do their unproductive analyses.

The Vice Chancellors could also address the salary levels of Administrative staff. If one were to start at the top and knock 20% off the Vice Chancellor`s salary, one could continue down the ranks in similar fashion knocking 20% off everyone else. There really is no need for secure public sector jobs to attract salaries at a premium to similar ones in the private sector. If some staff were upset and resigned, then that might simply add to a good result.

As an additional benefit, such a change might restore more appropriate salary differentials. If a University is to fulfil its function, then it is the academic staff who should be well paid and secure in their employment.

When Vice Chancellors do come calling, I urge Dan Tehan to “tell `em they're dreaming,” and to encourage them to fix their own problems and not rely on the taxpayer for help.

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Peter Francis Fenwick       Writer      Melbourne     Australia