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. 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.

  2. @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.

  3. @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?

  4. 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?

  5. @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.

  6. 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.

  7. @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.

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