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Another enterprising university disaster

July 18th, 2004

A few years ago, Monash University was being described as the first global university‘ on the strength of its multiple campuses in Australia, Malaysia, the UK and South Africa. Along with Alan Gilbert of Melbourne, then VC David Robinson[1] was one of the leading promoters of the idea of the ‘enterprising university’. In practice this meant using the public endowment of the university to establish private, for-profit offshoots, an agenda that is still being pushed vigorously by Tim Dodd and the AFR Higher Education Section. Robinson aimed for a campus on every continent, while Gilbert pushed the idea that the Internet could be used to bring academic handloom weavers into the factory age, an idea embodied in U21 Global.

Now Monash’s African operation is described as a money pit. Exactly the same could be said of U21Global[1], a $US50 million enterprise which has so far produced nothing more than a very ordinary online MBA to add to the hundreds already on the market.

The question of why, outside narrowly vocational training, for-profit educational ventures are almost invariably unsuccessful is a complex and difficult one. But the facts speak for themselves. From an Australian perspective,an equally important question is why university managers (mostly former academics with no obvious qualifications for a business career) entrusted with large sums of public money have been allowed to dissipate it in money-losing speculative investments.

fn1. Robinson got sacked a couple of years ago over a plagiarism scandal. As I pointed out in a very early post, this was hypocritical behavior on the part of a University council that backed his anti-academic agenda. “University managers have done their best to suppress the assumptions of free exchange of information in which notions like ‘plagiarism’ make sense. In the brave new world of ‘intellectual property’, you nail down what you can of your own ideas and appropriate anything from the common pool that hasn’t already been grabbed. The former vice-chancellor of Monash seemed entirely suited to the new world, and it was hypocritical to sack him.”

fn2. As with Monash, the term “global” is an aspiration rather than a reality. In practice, U21Global does not even try to compete outside the Asian market, and it seems that it is increasingly focusing on Singapore, its physical location.

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  1. theilliterateones
    July 18th, 2004 at 13:32 | #1

    “From an Australian perspective,an equally important question is why university managers entrusted with large sums of public money have been allowed to dissipate it in money-losing speculative investments.”
    Because people assume that, since university managers are intelligent and competant enough to rise to such a position, they probably have a few financial tricks up their sleeve. Moreover those who appear more intelligent than us will usually gain our trust, allowing this behaviour to continue. Wait, are we making any sense?
    -=the Illiterate Ones=-

  2. Geoff Robinson
    July 18th, 2004 at 14:53 | #2

    As a former University manager myself I would point out that these disasters are not the work of real ‘university managers’, such as Faculty registrars and School administrators but rather of a few senior academics, who become bored with the core business of teaching, learning (and the student administration which supports this) and take up enterpreneurship as a hobby (playing with other people’s money).

  3. John Quiggin
    July 18th, 2004 at 15:25 | #3

    Quite right, Geoff, and I’ve added a parenthetical note to this effect.

  4. Harry Clarke
    July 18th, 2004 at 15:59 | #4

    I also agree with Geoff Robinson’s comment. Too many people are being promoted into academic positions who don’t belong in universities and too many academics are usurping managerial positions where they have no qualifications or skills. There is a general misallocation of talent across the whole modern university.

    And I agree with you John. Our academic leaders talk as if they are corporate high-fliers when they are not. They are playing with public money and it is a scandal. At a time when the universities are starved of funds for teaching and research, when class sizes and teaching loads are becoming excessive, these vandals are wasting fortunes on their fantasies.

    Moreover there is a widespread climate of fear within the universities in commenting on such issues. Almost all academics I speak to privately oppose these entrepreneurial schemes but they will not speak out against them. Presumably they fear being labelled insufficiently entrepreneurial or fear their careers will suffer.

    The only (rather grim) humour I can find in The Age report is the statement “Professor Larkins says Monash South Africa should now be seen as a strategic rather than commercial investment”.

  5. July 18th, 2004 at 20:23 | #5

    I have somewhere heard that Keynes was no exception to the hypothesis about academia finding work for idle hands. Apparently he only made a fortune for King’s after first learning via an apprenticeship which involved him losing a fortune for King’s and having to be bailed out by college funds. Si no e vero e ben’ trovato.

    More seriously, I would dispute that teaching/learning are the core businesses of academia, indeed that one can preserve the purpose of a university by thinking in that way. Rather, they evolved from the mediaeval practice of roaming gangs of itinerant scholars (practised to this day by Peter Dixon’s mob), who gradually found endowments and lands from patrons and settled down to a less active existence, much as barnacles do after their larval stage (when they lose their youthful nervous systems). Seen in this light, scholarship is the purpose, and all the teaching and learning are paying hobbies that they can use to supplement their lifestyle – all the more necessary with the atrophy of private patrons and greater dependence on the state, servile state fashion. When there is a general debate on the purposes of higher education, whether it should be vocational training or broadening education, it is like asking whether the purpose of cows is for milk or meat; yet if one must think in such terms, the only meaningful answer must be that the purpose of cows is little cows. Similarly, if it is meaningful to ask what the core business of a university is at all, it must be the maintenance of learning, incarnated in lots of little dons – not necessarily as measured by its broader inculcation but by its continuing life and existence. There must be a self perpetuating fire of some sort, no matter how large or how small; the warmth it gives is incidental, and to attribute purpose to a fire is to impose ourselves on its inherent features and focus instead on its mere incidental side effects.

  6. Dave Ricardo
    July 18th, 2004 at 21:44 | #6

    I’ll bet Professor Larkins would be none too pleased if the managers of his superannuation money made strategic rather than commercial investments.

  7. July 19th, 2004 at 17:01 | #7

    the stupid thing is how did they think they could compete with local universities who know the marketplace far better than some melbourne academics.

    i mean come on! they were from melbourne!

  8. Anthony
    July 20th, 2004 at 10:57 | #8

    John, thanks for the link to Gilbert’s ‘handloom weavers’ lecture. Despite him being my vice chancellor for many years, I’d never felt compelled to read his public ravings. Reading that remarkable lecture now I’m struck by its paean to Manchester, a city which he says ‘cashed in on the very innovations which the Luddites were bent on destroying’. So where did Gilbert take himself off to when the carping Luddites like myself here at Melbourne Uni obviously got too much? Manchester, of course!

  9. Michael Stanley
    July 20th, 2004 at 20:17 | #9

    It’s interesting to note that the amount that Monash loses every year on that South African campus was more than what they will gain from yanking up HECS

    * – disclaimer, I’m a presently enrolled final year undergrad at Clayton

  10. Mark Bahnisch
    July 20th, 2004 at 23:56 | #10

    PML, I heard an American prof say at a conference once that academia was the last feudal vocation, apart from the priesthood, which I quite liked. The other thing about University “academic managers” worth remarking on is the monumentalism. The penultimate VC of UQ, Brian Wilson, was quite a nice bloke, but not of sufficient merit I don’t think to warrant the expenditure of commonwealth capital funds on a new “Brian Wilson Chancellery”. It’s all of a piece with the cv-building practice of changing everything for no particular purpose. UQ had quite an adequate Faculty of Arts, but we now have “super” faculties of Arts and Social and Behavioural Sciences, the latter (for whom I’ve worked on contract twice) having its own degree to administer and sucking EFTSU directly into the Faculty Office. One of the frustrations of my job when I was running a major in the BA was liasing with two Faculties – most students in many SBS schools (such as Social Science and Politics & International Affairs) were enrolled in a BA but SBS had the money. Then there was the abolition of the laudable practice of electing the Dean of Arts – UQ Deans now carry the odd title “Executive Dean” and are appointed on contract. What universities need is more old fashioned administration and less change management.

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