Three cheers for Stephen Parker

The last time I heard news of Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, he was standing up to the Oz and its editor Chris Mitchell who had threatened to sue journalist and UC academic Julie Posetti for accurately reporting remarks made by a former Oz journalist in a public conference. That episode is worth remembering any time anyone suggests that the Oz is a newspaper (in the traditional sense of the term), let alone an advocate for free speech. It is, as I’ve said many times, a dysfunctional blog that is, for some reason, printed on broadsheet paper.

In this instance, Parker was doing exactly what you would expect of a university leader: defending an academic doing her job from outside interference. Sadly, in Australia these days, that can’t be taken for granted. The rise of managerialism has thrown up a number of VCs (or now, in the US mode, Presidents) who would instinctively side with Chris Mitchell in such a dispute.

That kind of outright betrayal of university values is still not the norm. On the other hand, given the financial pressure under which all universities have been operating for years, it is unsurprising that most VCs have been keen to support proposals for “deregulation” of fees, even though, as is inevitable with this government, they are poorly thought out and certain to be inequitable in practice. The lead, as I mentioned, has been taken by Ian Young of ANU. Others have their doubts, I think, but have kept quiet.

I’m happy to say that Parker has been the first to break ranks on this issue, writing in The Age that

An earlier generation of vice-chancellors would have stood up for students. I say, reject the whole set of proposals, on their behalf, and then let’s talk.

I hope his bravery leads others to follow.

35 thoughts on “Three cheers for Stephen Parker

  1. Another interpretation of Young and Parker’s positions is that fee deregulation is good for G8 universities (such as ANU) and bad for non G8 universities (such as the University of Canberra).

    Where you stand depends on where you sit.

  2. I saw Parker talk in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, and came away very disappointed. While he opposes fee deregulation, he remains an advocate of a market-driven approach to education and an opponent of the traditional university. He argued that the way forward was replacing the majority of full-time academics with short-term contract staff. His vision is no more palatable than Pyne’s.

  3. In case anyone is interested, a podcast of Parker’s remarks (as well as those of the other speakers) is available at the website of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. The relevant date is 24 July.

  4. @Neil

    No doubt Parker is aware that U of C equivalent universities in the United States are staffed largely by short term contractors and perhaps he has concluded that this is the future, at least for universities like his. The name of the game is to replace overheads with variable costs. That way, as student numbers and hence fee revenues go up and down, which they might, especially in a deregulated system, his costs go up and down with them. That is very attractive for any university management. It’s not so good for the research side of a university, which is why a research based university won’t do it, but a teaching based university will.

  5. @Uncle Milton

    Yes, it works out great for everyone except the staff, students and employers who want people with actual skills. Parker also argued that course design should be separated from course delivery. I wonder to what extent his background in law influenced his view: teach the textbook. It doesn’t work like that in the humanities at all, and by third year – at the latest – it doesn’t work like that in the natural or social sciences.

  6. @Neil

    If you’re going to separate course design from delivery, you might as well go the whole way and deliver exclusively on line by computer-generated voice and image.

  7. If we could have just one Caltech (or Stanford or MIT maybe) it would be great but let’s hope that we don’t acquire the full American admissions distortions for affirmative action and fund-raising. As one prof at a top US public university, who had served on the main admissions committee told me she objected on the one hand to having to include in her prized course run in Rome a minority student who not only had a GPA [?terminology] 10 per cent below the acceptable minimum for her course but had got an exemption from the foreign language part of the course (though it was part of the core) but also to the funding oriented admission decisions. Thus the child of a high powered professional couple would get in over an equally – or better qualified child of a Bishop and a professor. Think of all those professorships with names attached that Phillip Adams always asks about.

  8. @Uncle Milton

    As I argued last time, fee deregulation will see increases across the board. If there’s a limit, everyone will raise their fees to the limit. If not, they’ll probably set the domestic fee at a small discount to the international.

    Given that enrolments at the Go8 unis will shrink I don’t think even the bottom tier will have any trouble filling their quota.

    So, if you think of “good for universities” being “good for VCs”, I’d say deregulation will be good for all of them.

  9. @John Quiggin

    In the alternative, only the G8 will have the brand name market power to raise their fees a lot, while the others will have be only able to raise the fees a little, while also having their government funding cut. So the bottom tier will, as you say, fill their quotas, but with less revenue.

    I suggest that this scenario is motivating Stephen Parker at least as much solidarity with students.

  10. It seems to me, that is, I would argue Uncle Milton’s approach is managerialist in nature.
    The idea of taking a statement by a VC at face value and discussing its merrits is ruled out by means of imputing a motivation for the statement which happens to fit the ‘naive market economics-naive stretegic game theory framework’ or, more simply, economic rationalist cost accountants.

    Uncle Milton, I’d be most interested in your prediction as the VCs (across the rankings) opinion if the government were to propose freedom of fee increases provided the personal income of VC’s is reduced by 10%, that of all other university managers (in the centre) is reduced by 9% and that of Deans and Heads of School is frozen.

  11. @Uncle Milton

    Look at the UK case. The government policymakers made the same assumptions as you, setting a maximum at 9000 stg, which is just a bit below the average rate for international students. AFAICT every university in the country chose the maximum rate.

    It’s obviously poltiically impossible to charge domestic students more than international students for the same course at the same uni, which puts a cap on what the Go8 can do. In fact, I think there would be huge problems if domestic students paid at Go8s paid more than domestics at lower-tier places.

    In any case, the gap between international fees over the status hierarchy isn’t great. UQ charges 25-35, while Uni of Western Sydney charges 20-30.

  12. yuri :
    If we could have just one Caltech (or Stanford or MIT maybe) it would be great

    Why ? I don’t get the obsession with having a “world class university”. You could argue that for those three institutions mentioned, CSIRO provides an equivalent research focus (think wi-fi), but of course, the LNP doesn’t think the CSIRO is worth funding.

  13. @zoot

    “We” can’t “put VCs on short term contracts”. Setting this point aside, most, if not all VC are already on short term contracts (5 years, sometimes with the possibility of renewal). Short term contracts with KPIs may be part of the problem.

  14. > AFAICT every university in the country chose the maximum rate.

    I’m very much not an expert at the economics of pricing, but isn’t signalling by others known to be a big part of how prices are set in ignorance of demand elasticity?

    [this being how ebay sniping works and all that.]

  15. Students at my institution got a ‘this is not an ideal world’ email 😦

    I think one thing that hasn’t been mentioned so far in the higher ed discussions here (or I’ve missed it – sorry) is that the newer unis were at least originally a lot more socially progressive/radical/freer than the older unis. The older ones have some nicer architecture though if you like old buildings.

    Another thing is that the more accessible unis provide a more average cohort experience for students. When I first took classes at a sandstone it was awfully intimidating to be in classes on Asian history where discussions on patronage relations included students whose families were great patrons of villages, or where discussions on s/e Asian pacific women having to work abroad included students whose families had s/e Asian pacific maids. If I had been 18 and just graduated from a low ses state school I can imagine this might have been even more intimidating.

  16. I haven’t been following it because it’s almost too depressing. But at Monash, it’s so enormous, it’s almost like the vice chancellor inhabits another dimension than lowly PhD students/ sessional staff like me – so please keep us updated.

  17. At the university department where I work, the position of Head of School will be vacant next year. And as far as I know, all the candidates who could actually do the job don’t want it.

    The same does not seem to be true of the VC position.

    So just where is the cut off point? When do you have to pay the money to get the very best, and when does someone reluctantly take on the responsibility because they care about the well-being of their workplace?

  18. I am not up on some of the things discussed on the thread, but wonder if the case Prof. Quiggin presents does not have parallels in events in other realms of civil society.

    I am wondering perhaps, the cowardly sacking of a well known columnists for doing no more than attempting to do his job of telling truth and a whistleblower now persecuted for revealing irregularities in the bestowing of scholarships outside of criteria based on merit.

  19. Stephen Parker has put himself out on a limb and even now hear the sound of a chainsaw behind him. Sad but at least he has put himself on the public record as being a human among a nest of vipers.

  20. @John Quiggin

    9000 STG is only A$14000 at market exchange rates and much less on a PPP basis. Australian universities probably could fill their quotas at that price. Whether the lesser unis could fill themselves up charging $20000 is another matter. That they can attract international students at that price is not very relevant. There is effectively an infinite supply of rich (enough) and qualified Chinese and Indian students for the Australian unis. All they have to do set their price at the world price and they can sell as many international places as desired.

  21. @bjb
    I’m not sure why you quoted me and omitted my “but….” after the quoted passage.

    Forget about obsessions which may or may not exist and which I do not, in any event, share. How could anyone not be pleased if we had a Caltech – America’s most meritocratic university?

    And what has the CSIRO got to do with institutions which teach and charge fees to undergraduate students?

  22. Prof JQ: shouldn’t we work into the analysis the possibility that a lot of potential university students of modest ability will be pushe to make a decision which is in their interests and that of their fellow citizens, namely to seek trade training or similar skills acquisition rather than a degree from a third choice “university”?

  23. All this figures. I’ve had offspring graduate from both Canberra and ANU universities – their dealings with the bureaucracies of both is revealing. The administration of Canberra seems to think they exist to help the students to learn. The ANU administration seems to think students exist to fund the administration.

    The best argument for deregulated fees (actually, the only good one) is that it means student opinions on these things matter more. The ANU may be in for a rude shock if it charges too much.

  24. @Uncle Milton
    I think you’ve missed the point. The exchange rate isn’t really relevant here, the point is that there’s no evidence the smaller universities will have any trouble filling their domestic numbers even if they increase their fees in exactly the same way as the top tier. To the contrary, the UK case seems to indicate they can do so with impunity.

  25. @John Quiggin

    If the Vice-Chancellorial idea of ‘good for universities’ is really just ‘good for VCs’ what counts as good for VCs? What motivates them? Are we talking about changes that will put their salaries up? Or changes that will make their own work more satisfying or at least less onerous? Or what?

  26. Does anyone remember when Vice Chancellor’s became so important, or have they always been important?
    Looking at the structure I would think the Provost, the Chancellor, and the Visitor were higher up formally?

  27. @ZM

    Provost is not a standard position in the structure of Australian universities, so I don’t know what structure you’re looking at there.

    The relationship between the positions of Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor has some similarities to the relationship between the positions of Chair of the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officer (or Managing Director, as it used more often to be called). The Chair of the Board may outrank the CEO as a matter of protocol, but generally speaking not otherwise.

    Originally the position of Visitor was one that had some similarities to the one we’re now familiar with as Ombudsman — an external person with the standing to make inquiries into complaints or allegations of irregularities. As a range of other mechanisms (like the Ombudsman, for example) have developed for this purpose, the role of Visitors has contracted. In universities in New South Wales the position has been retained for reasons that are unclear to me, but the relevant statutes explicitly exclude Visitors from playing any but a ceremonial role.

    But this is all a little beside the point. Whether the title ‘Chief Executive’ is used or not, an organisation like a modern university does have to have a position that holds the principal executive responsibility. Somebody has to be at the head of the organisation (in the sense of being in charge of running it), and whether the position is designated ‘Chancellor’, ‘Vice-Chancellor’, ‘Visitor’, ‘Provost’, ‘Master’, ‘President’, ‘Captain’, or ‘Panjandrum’ doesn’t change that.

  28. J-D,
    Thank you.

    The Provost is the very head of all teaching, head to the deans, and bears responsibility for all the academic content the university teaches its students. Melbourne uni, ACU, Monash uni all have Provosts, I couldn’t find one for Deakin and Latrobe but I didn’t want to spend more than a few seconds googling.

    As I read it our Visitor has the upmost responsibility for the university. in his ceremonial role he is responsible for the university fulfilling its ritual obligations – eg. he is responsible for the university keeping the pledge on the foundation stone and the striving to uphold the shield and the motto , there are probably other ceremonial responsibilities he is responsible for as well, like awarding academic titles after graduating, etc – but most obvious are these three.

    I still don’t really understand why the Vice-Chancellor happens to be so often thought more important than the Chancellor, or when this took place, supposing it has not always been that way.

  29. @ZM

    I took a little look at the history of Australia’s oldest university, the University of Sydney.

    Originally responsibility for governance of the university was vested in a Senate which elected one of its members as ‘Provost’ and another as ‘Vice-Provost’, the Vice-Provost being responsible for presiding over Senate in the absence of the Provost. Very early in the history, the titles were changed to ‘Chancellor’ and ‘Vice-Chancellor’.

    Then, in the 1920s, the university’s legislation was amended. The position of ‘Vice-Chancellor’ was renamed ‘Deputy Chancellor’, and a new position of ‘Vice-Chancellor’ was created, appointed rather than elected by Senate and for an extended term rather than just one year. The new position was designed to provide a full-time executive head for the university, the other members of Senate working (as they had done before and still do now) in a part-time honorary capacity.

    If this is a common pattern, it would explain the curious relationship between the titles and actual functions of Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors generally. In the early days of universities, when they were small, it would have been feasible to entrust actual responsibility for management to a board or council or whatever it might be called made up of people of suitable distinction working in a part-time honorary capacity. The growth of universities, and therefore the growth of the workload of managing them, would have provided the motive for appointment of full-time executive heads of management. Retention of the original part-time governing bodies, with their heads still retaining the distinguished title of Chancellor and its nominal precedence, would explain why the actual executive heads were left with the apparently subordinate title of Vice-Chancellor. Did something similar happen in Britain, too — perhaps earlier? The executive head of a British university is also normally titled Vice-Chancellor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s