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September 30, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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The McCourt Report

There’s a debate raging on in this university, and you’re in the middle of it. Whether you’re students or staff reading this, you are. It’s the same debate being had by universities across the globe. It’s about to what extent our institution, our community, is led and directed by managers and the goals of new managerialism: minimising risk, maximising funding and promoting management’s values. It’s about whether managerialism
should increasingly dominate our university, at the expense of academics, academic leadership and academic values.

It’s a debate you’re in the middle of, but ironically, you’re not really part of it. That’s because a large part of managerialism is about moving the decision-making away from academic staff and students and to—you guessed it—managers. British sociologist Nikolas Rose offers a pretty unkind definition: “New managerialism is defined as a process whereby the power of knowledge has shifted from academics to policymakers, accountants or financial officers, essentially ‘bean counters’ and ‘positivists’ who have no professional knowledge in teaching or researching in tertiary education”.

The centralisation of decision-making from academics to Senior Management, and upwards to the Beehive under the current Government, has had the effect of deciding for us which way we should be heading in this debate. Part of this is Government. The Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) funding regime, the new Student Achievement Component (five per cent of University per-student funding at risk if retention and competition targets are not met) and the freeze on government funding have all combined to create an environment that is not conducive to the encouragement of academics to pursue their areas of interest free from the pressures of commercialisation and commodification.

So often I hear from people in the baby-boomer generation, particularly academics, say how hard we have it as students nowadays. They speak of a ‘golden age’, where you could work over the summer and be set for the year, where fees were only a few hundred dollars, where there was time to relax and find yourself—and to think. When academics express this nostalgia, of a time before user-pays education, undoubtedly they’re also thinking of their former place in the university, the way it was in their golden age.

In 2013, in the age of outputs, and the funding and necessary targets that come along with them, universities ask how can we maximise their PBRF funding, secure that five per cent SAC, make millions from commercialisable research and cram as many $25,000+ international fee-paying students into a lecture that they can.

But have we reached a point where those outputs, and the Minister’s latest fetish with employability, science, engineering, have eclipsed those
fundamental academic values about this University being a place of the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge? Have we lost sight of what we should be doing with our time and millions of tax and student dollars? Which surely is to produce critical thinkers as graduates, research with impact and academics who lead public debate towards a better society. Critic and conscience, what happened to those? Instead, our fixation on fulfilling the definitions of success given by others has dominated our thinking and at some point must be having an impact on the kind of education students receive at Victoria.

The commodification of education and the new managerialism approach is certainly having an impact on staff. Take for example the current ‘change’ proposal by University Management for the Academic Office, which seeks to disestablish the Associate Vice-Chancellor (Academic) role. A role which, in a remarkable show of solidarity, the Associate Deans from across Vic wrote to Academic Board together to defend, and to raise major issues with the proposal, and the process it’s come through. It has not proactively engaged wider staff or students who deal with that all-important role all the time. I want to pay tribute to the commitment of Associate Dean of Commerce, Colin Jeffcoat, who was brave to speak up last Thursday, and the commitment of all of the Associate Deans to Victoria and academic integrity.

The Associate Deans, who hold significant mana around the University, are concerned about the impact of losing a senior academic from that role and replacing much of their work with a manager. As students, we were concerned about that too. It’s part of this wider question: what are the roles of professional academics, and what are the roles of non-academic managers in leading this University? Perhaps influence has already swung too far in the direction of the non-academics. Perhaps with all the pressures from Government to commodify and produce certain outputs, now is the time to put more academics in key leadership positions to preserve the relationship of the institution to its core mission. At Otago, the Vice-Chancellor teaches a few times a week. If teaching, research and public debate are things that matter at Vic, then shouldn’t we ensure people at the top live them, and stay connected? Perhaps this change proposal is the complete opposite of what we should be doing.

Finally, I want to touch on an upcoming opportunity to change this system. The University Council is reviewing Academic Board. According to legend, this board, once called the Professorial Board, was a place of debate and lively discussion where the future of the University and the values that drove it were hashed out amongst the academic leaders of Victoria. Having frank discussions is vital to any university community that wants to respond to shared challenges in collaborative, effective ways. Today, the board is a mere shadow of its former self. Debate is practically non-existent, with the Vice-Chancellor chairing it, Management dominating it, and all the proceedings wrapped up in an hour or less. If discussion does occur, Management is often too quick to move on, and a culture exists where people may not feel encouraged challenging those in Management. While part of the lack of debate comes from the great work the Academic Committee does to reach university-wide consensus on tricky technical issues, there are nonetheless debates and discussions that should be happening about values, direction and strategy. This is supposed to be the advisory body to Council, to speak up on the issues that matter to our future. With some culture change, it can.

Long story short: it’s never too late to build the University we want with the values we need.

PS Vote for Sonya for President. She gets the importance of this stuff!

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