The collaborative spirit once embraced by universities in the pursuit of community service is giving way to confidentiality and secrecy as top-down managerialism takes hold, a conference on higher education has heard.
In the new, corporatised version of the university, collegiality and consultation are seen as counterproductive, said Professor Margaret Thornton, from the Australian National University College of Law.
“Collegiality, a concept inherited from Oxbridge, involves academics making decisions collectively. Imperfect though it might have been … collegiality contrasts sharply with the top-down managerialism associated with the corporatised university.
“More insidiously, collegiality is believed to tolerate and even foster dissent; docility is therefore favoured on the part of academics as the new managed class.”
Academics who speak out face ostracism, disciplinary action and possibly redundancy, Professor Thornton told the Future of Higher Education Conference, hosted by the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney. Universities were now ruled by corrosive leadership - “or bullying by another name”. The university’s traditional role as critic and conscience of society clashed with this new market model.
Professor Thornton said that although staff and students were now referred to as “stakeholders”, the absence of a proprietary interest on their part ensured that they occupied a lower status than shareholders in a for-profit company.
In the past, there was a tendency to appoint judges or other prominent citizens who were conscious of procedural regularity and less likely to defer to the vice-chancellor. But “turn of the century neoliberalism favoured lean and mean councils with a majority of external members, supposedly independent from the university - unlike the internal stakeholders - and frequently connected to business.
“Indeed, the prevailing governance protocols specify that one member should have substantial business experience, according scant regard as to whether they are familiar with universities or higher education.
“Some councils may now have a majority of members with business experience. They tend to accept the word of the vice-chancellor and senior management as gospel. A few years ago when I was a member of a university council, I was shocked to hear the chair of the finance committee say: "Whatever the VC says is good enough for me”."
Corporatisation, the increase in power of vice-chancellors and the changed composition of council had led to more decisions being made by senior management behind closed doors. In the absence of consultation, university councils had become no more than rubber stamps, Professor Thornton said.