Universities and the pandemic

As I foreshadowed a while ago, the financial effects of the pandemic have been reflected in an agreement for university staff to take temporary pay cuts in order to save the jobs of casual workers. Lots of people are unhappy about this, but it’s hard to see an alternative, and the deal seems to be the best that can be reached, with the requirement that senior management take the biggest cuts and (I think) the cuts for academic staff being scaled to protect the lowest paid.

The primary cause of all this is the big reduction in overseas student numbers arising from travel restrictions and the pandemic. But the more immediate cause is the federal governments decision to exclude universities from the JobKeeper scheme, even though they would qualify under the loss of revenue .

This decision is due in large measure to the government’s culture war hostility to the university sector. It’s disappointing to see them pursue this kind of vendetta at a time when we ought to be looking for national unity. But given that this is the case, there is no serious alternative for universities but to share the pain as evenly as possible.

The fundamental problem is the quasi-NGO (quango) status of universities. Even though they are mostly funded by the federal government, universities are (mostly) organized as independent statutory bodies under state legislation. As a result, they engage in wasteful competition among themselves. Indeed, the ACCC watches for signs of anti-competitive behavior, a concept that would immediately be recognised as nonsensical in the case of schools and universities.

Education is a fundamental responsibility of government, and universities ought to be organized as a unified national system, with the responsibility of providing education to all students who can benefit from it. If that were the case, the government would have had to meet the gap in funding just as has happened in public transport and other services where revenue has fallen.

Coming back to the cuts, the NTEU-universities deal ought to be a model for the economy as a whole in important respects. Dealing with the pandemic is going to be hugely costly, and those at the top of the income distribution, in both private and public sectors, should bear most of that cost.

30 thoughts on “Universities and the pandemic

  1. Gotta say that’s good work by the NTEU to force the cuts in that way. I remember my union in the health sector used to always organize pay rises so that they were an absolute amount for the lowest paid, and a percentage for everyone else, ensuring that the lower paid got a larger percentage increase than the better off.

    Still incredibly stupid that these cuts had to happen!

  2. It’s a bit rich that the government (and not just this government) encouraged the universities to expand their revenues by taking on all these international students yet when the brown stuff hit the air conditioner it says tough titties it’s your problem. But if they won’t pay, they won’t pay.

    Hopefully the universities will learn the lesson that depending on the eggs in one basket gold mine of foreign students was fraught with risk. They are now badly bitten in the arse. The sector will take a decade to recover from this disaster. It won’t be pretty.

  3. With good reason on this occasion, the universities are crying poor. But the universities waste huge amounts of money on administrators who thwart rather than foster quality educational outcomes.

    How many “Education Officers” does a university need? How many “Research Officers”, “How many industry collaboration officers” etc etc. How many Acting Deputy Assistant Vice Chancellors for “blah, blah blah” are required? What has happened in universities is that administrative staff who did support the academic mission (those close to the coal face who helped students and teaching staff) have been cut to negligible levels. They were typically not well paid. But the expensive level of useless administration has grown without bound – now Deans are paid $400,000+, Vice-Chancellors $1m+ for managing businesses with government-supported demand. Moreover, they complain their salaries are not competitive with those of industry!

    How about the older model where professors took a turn at running schools and departments every decade or so and occasionally took the role of Dean? In my old university, the entire central administration originally occupied one floor of one building on campus. Now they occupy the largest building on campus. In addition, each Faculty office now occupies at least one floor of a large building – Deans, Assistant Deans, Deputy Assistant Deans each with dedicated secretarial support and none of whom in any way assisted my work as an academic.

    Managerialism has triumphed in the universities with universities designing “demand-driven” content for students who know little or nothing about the subjects they are supposed to be demanding. Hence watered-down economics courses are labeled “tourism”, “business” or “finance”. Course in general business management, personnel management and financial management are taught to students whose work experience is restricted to the local KFC. Not only are resources being wasted they are being misdirected by these overly bureaucratic managerial structures.

    OK, these sorts of reforms won’t come close to eliminating the current cash flow problems but the universities cannot complain that they are cash-starved if they waste so much. How about a serious trimming and rethink in the universities?

  4. >How about a serious trimming and rethink in the universities

    This is what will happen. The foreign student rivers of gold era is over. The 2020s will be like the 1980s. But it won’t just be the overpaid DVCs who will be surplus to requirements. Many academics will also lose their jobs.

  5. Even before coronavirus, I saw depressing reports of impoverished non-tenured academics in the USA living in cars and tents. I hope we don’t go that way. I really liked most of my old uni teachers.

  6. Hugo, The bulk of teaching work in many universities is now done by “sessionals” who get low rates of pay. Many of these people have now lost their low-paid jobs – they are dispensable.

    The universities have become driven by accounting rates of return irrespective of quality and in the pursuit of growth.

  7. The failure of the “education for profit” model is the empirical evidence of the failure of the market fundamentalist economics taught in their own schools of bowdlerized economics. It’s a sweet irony for critics of the system but a bitter pill for academic workers low on the totem pole.

  8. I think Harry Clarke has a point. Managerialism has taken over the sector (much of it pointless administration dressed up as management). The data from the Department shows that admin roles now make up 57% of FTE jobs on the sector (https://www.education.gov.au/selected-higher-education-statistics-2018-staff-data). And in the latest 10 years of data, FTE admin numbers increased 25% (faster than student numbers), while teaching and research FTEs only increased by 15%. All this in a period where administration and management tasks are increasingly automated or pushed onto academics and consumers (i.e. the students themselves).

    Perhaps the university sector should use the current situation to have a rethink of their staffing mix. Time to trim down the administration perhaps?

  9. I agree with Harry Clarke’s two posts. According to his description managerialism and corporatism has become even worse in the recent past.

    The best university administration I have experienced was at UNSW during the 1980s up to the very early 1990s. The University was run by applied scientists (VC and DVCs), Deans and Heads of School. It is perhaps incomprehensible for the currently young academics to hear that any academic could ask to see the VC or a DVC (it did not require a special memorandum for academics to know the first call was the HoS, then the Dean).

    Each Faculty had one administrative officer, who knew all the administrative rules and anybody could ask for advice. I don’t know if it was common practice but I do know that HoS sent academics to the admin officer to get information about the admin rules.This structure provided equal access to information. I believe this avoided a lot of ‘disputes’ and saved time for everybody.

    The HR department was a place one would go on the first day of employment and thereafter one could go there if one was short of a headache pill.

    Due to being in a new School, my work load was very high. I often worked from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm. But I was not exhausted and I don’t believe it was entirely due to my age at the time. In my experience, productive work is not as tiresome as dealing with contradictory instructions from so called managers.

  10. “It’s disappointing to see them pursue this kind of vendetta at a time when we ought to be looking for national unity.”

  11. Does anyone have any hard, practical advice on how to swim against the managerialising trend in universities? Everyone complains about it, but I can’t see how you can convince the managerial class to thin themselves out for the greater good of the sector

  12. The solution to managerialism is simple: eliminate all appointed roles to all University Senates and then give the Senate unchallenged power to hire and fire any administrator over the rank of X at a moment’s notice without compensation or warning. If the administrator decides to (for instance) close the entire ANU music school in order to increase administrative overhead, the Senate would simply fire administrators until it found one who chose not to do so.

  13. Ok Lt.Fred, but (I mean this sincerely) how do we get there from here?

    (Also — firing without compensation or warning does not sound very like a just labour policy!)

  14. On managerialism, there are two issues. One is a general trend, not specific to universities, which can’t easily be stopped (I plan a big post on this some day). The other is the quasi-independent status of the universities, which means that they have, in effect, the bureaucracy of a government department and the marketing and other overheads of a commercial business, including highly paid CEOs and middle managers.

  15. I think it’s completely reasonable that very high-ranking well-paid administrative positions might come with additional accountability and scrutiny.

  16. “The other is the quasi-independent status of the universities, which means that they have, in effect, the bureaucracy of a government department and the marketing and other overheads of a commercial business, including highly paid CEOs and middle managers.”

    Sounds like ozpost

  17. The solution to managerialism is simple: eliminate all appointed roles to all University Senates and then give the Senate unchallenged power to hire and fire any administrator over the rank of X at a moment’s notice without compensation or warning. If the administrator decides to (for instance) close the entire ANU music school in order to increase administrative overhead, the Senate would simply fire administrators until it found one who chose not to do so.

    I’m guessing you’re not aware that most universities don’t have Senates. It’s an old-fashioned name only used, if memory serves me, by the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia, and Murdoch University. All the rest, if memory serves me, have University Councils, except that Western Sydney University has a Board of Governors.

    I know that seems a petty quibble, but it’s possible for this kind of thing to be an indicator of a more generally limited background knowledge, and knowing a good deal about how things operate is usually helpful in suggesting improvements. For one thing …

    Ok Lt.Fred, but (I mean this sincerely) how do we get there from here?

    … the chance of State Parliaments amending university legislation to have them governed by University Councils (or Senates) made up entirely of elected representatives of staff and students is nil. No matter how good an idea it seems to you or to me, that kind of legislative change isn’t going to happen. The idea (right or wrong) that it’s important to have independent external people on university governing bodies is too well entrenched.

    On the other hand, it is important that governing bodies should have a genuinely effective power to remove the chief executive and be prepared to use it. But university governing bodies do have this power. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales was forced out of his position in 2004 by a breakdown in his relationship with the University Council; and the founding chief executive was effectively forced from that position in 1952 when he was defeated by a rival candidate in an election held by the governing body.

  18. The best university administration I have experienced was at UNSW during the 1980s up to the very early 1990s. The University was run by applied scientists (VC and DVCs) …

    I’m not sure whether the disciplines they came from are supposed to make a difference, or why they would. The present VC and DVCs of the University also have backgrounds of research in science, engineering, and medicine, except that one of them has a background of research in criminology and social policy instead–would that be less suitable in some way?

  19. J-D, you provide a selective partial quote from my historical account of an administrative structure for a university which at the time was renowned for its applied science faculties. I suggest you find an answer to the question you ask, if you believe it is an important question.

  20. John, I’m disappointed to read that you think we should accept the framework negotiated with the vice chancellors. Among other things, the deal is a nonsense. Just about every substantial component of the agreement is qualified with phrases like “unless no suitable staff are currently employed” and “unless no work exists”, so that it offers absolutely no guarantees to any staff. We will end up with both pay cuts and job losses and the NTEU will shrink yet further.

    The one thing that won’t be touched is superannuation. Even if staff take a pay and/or hours cut, they will continue to receive the full pre-cut amount of their super. Apart from the obvious stupidity of putting money into a vault just when people need it most, this is the equivalent of raising taxes in a recession to pay for pensions in thirty years time.

    We are living in torrid times and the notion that we should all politely come to the table and wait it out until the crisis passes is nonsense. In the good times no one has much interest in changing things because they seem to be working. Any sensible government would see universities as the perfect opportunity for stimulus and we should force the government into action, or at the least make them sweat a bit.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that universities will be something of an industrial relations beachhead for this recession. If we roll over and accede to the cuts, then why shouldn’t teachers, nurses, childcare workers, retail workers, etc. do the same?

  21. Historyintime and seqaugur, what alternative course of action do you think is available to the NTEU and university staff in the present circumstances, and what probability would you say that your preferred alternative has of succeeding?

  22. The alternative course of action is to fight the cuts and fight back with every (limited) weapon available.

    The outcome will be identical, regardless of whether the framework is accepted, so what is the point of the framework? I think for the NTEU leadership, the point is to be able to claim victory because they have endorsed the framework and the loss of pay and conditions it concedes. They will then describe any job losses as inevitable and boast that they stopped any further job losses with their pragmatism.

    Given that the outcome will be identical, what is the point of fighting? Because a union that stood strong and correctly argued that concessions would do nothing will attract more members in the future. I think it’s telling that casual networks across the country have rejected the framework while the gentleman’s club of tenured academics seems to endorse it. The future of the union must lie with those who now make up a large part of the sector – casuals and fixed-term staff. Fighting also puts the government on notice that workers in universities won’t simply roll over every time their pay, conditions and purpose is cut. If we date the start of the war on universities to Howard’s election in 1996, it’s clear that it has almost been won by the right. Universities have almost become vocational training colleges, applied research factories and privileged networking hubs. If we keep making the concessions we’ve been making for the last 25 years, that’s where they’ll end up. Fighting now promises that our rearguard will fight like we’re cornered, not like we’re exhausted.

  23. The alternative course of action is to fight the cuts and fight back with every (limited) weapon available.

    Surely if you knew of any such weapons you would name them? So if you name none, doesn’t that suggest that you know of none?

    The outcome will be identical, regardless of whether the framework is accepted, so what is the point of the framework? … Fighting also puts the government on notice that workers in universities won’t simply roll over every time their pay, conditions and purpose is cut.

    If the outcome of fighting is the same as the outcome of not fighting, then how will the effect of putting the government on notice that workers will fight be any different?

    Universities have almost become vocational training colleges, applied research factories and privileged networking hubs. If we keep making the concessions we’ve been making for the last 25 years, that’s where they’ll end up.

    Almost become? End up? There was never a time when that wasn’t what they were.

  24. Taking your questions in order. No, it’s a comment on a blog post, not a manifesto. Of course there are methods of fighting back I haven’t mentioned. And even if the outcome of a fight is the same, the effect on both combatants can be very different depending on how they conduct themselves. If someone walks away from a fight bruised, they will think twice before picking the fight again.

    Almost become? End up? There was never a time when that wasn’t what they were.

    Of course there was. I have just this morning found out that the course I was expecting to tutor in semester 2 has been canned. It was one of only two courses in first year economics that allowed students to challenge the neoclassical model of economics as a technical profession and engage in some critical thinking. I would even flatter myself and suggest that it helped students learn critical thinking. The other course in the same mode has also been removed for semester 2. Looking at the course list for the Bachelor of Economics now, there are four subjects in the whole degree which could offer the opportunity to question what they are being taught. As far as I can tell from the teaching staff and course outlines, only one of them actually gives students that opportunity. They are all electives. That’s a stark contrast from the degree which I started at UQ in 2011 in which there was one core subject which involved critical thinking and at least five electives which did. So over the course of a decade, the degree has become more vocational. Other schools would tell the same story about research.

  25. Of course there are methods of fighting back I haven’t mentioned.

    What ‘of course’? There’s no ‘of course’ about it.

    If someone walks away from a fight bruised, they will think twice before picking the fight again.

    I’d be happy to see this government bruised, but I don’t believe you know how to bruise it.

    (I don’t know either, I’m not kidding myself about that.)

    So over the course of a decade, the degree has become more vocational.

    I’ve got no reason to doubt you about that. It’s never been the case that the prospect of improved employment prospects has been the only motive for people to study at university; but it’s always been the predominant motive. If people didn’t believe university degrees improved their employment prospects, the universities would never get enough students to keep them open, and that’s always been true.

  26. If people didn’t believe university degrees improved their employment prospects, the universities would never get enough students to keep them open, and that’s always been true

    I don’t think it is true, though. Historically there have been a lot of upper class types who went to university and even became scholars despite not needing a job or the money. Prince Charles graduated from Cambridge… is he really going to get a better job as a result? He’d have been better off at the local Assassin’s Guild if he wanted a promotion. Or you could go back to the likes of Newton (didn’t want to be a farmer), Descartes (was a bum), Brahe (was heir to enough nobility that it’s not surprising he retreated into astronomy), and I think it’s hard to argue that someone like Curie was ever going to be anything but a scientist.

    This slightly random link seems to only list living (now, anyway) rich Cambridge alumni:
    https://www.businessinsider.com/cambridges-most-successful-alumni-of-all-time-2016-11?op=1&r=AU&IR=T#prince-zeid-bin-raad-christs-college-1993-14

  27. Historically there have been a lot of upper class types who went to university and even became scholars despite not needing a job or the money.

    Historically there have always been some. As I observed above, the prospect of improved employment opportunities has never been the only motive. There are people who would study at a university even if it had no effect on their employment opportunities, and there always have been: but not enough of them to keep the universities open just for them.

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