Vice-chancellors vs the collegiate: who is right on deregulation?

A vice-chancellor has very different priorities, including the finances of the institution, so should they speak for the academy? Flickr/Ben Shepherd, CC BY-SA

The idea of university collegiality is an old one. Among some working in universities it evokes romantic notions of shared authority, democratic governance and inclusive decision-making. Others recall an era of closed-shop boys’ clubs, self-interested professorial regimes and a way of legitimising knowledge that was inherently conservative.

In recent months, as the Commonwealth government’s unpopular deregulation policy has loomed over higher education, some university staff sought to draw on those older collegial ideals to tender their critique. At Sydney University staff recently used the rather antiquated “convocation” to challenge their Vice-Chancellor’s stance on deregulation. This week, staff from a range of universities have launched a National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU).

Their position is that university executives failed to represent the views of their staff in the deregulation debate. The result, they argue, is that new forms of collegiality need to be developed to ensure the public – and federal politicians – are well informed of the issues at stake.

Members make the university, but don’t have the power

The sudden emergence of new forms of organisation among rank-and-file university staff is noteworthy from a historical perspective. As I was researching university history in Australia, I was surprised that organisations like NAPU had not been created on more occasions. It seemed odd to me that the power latent in university membership was not deployed more often.

This lack of organised activity is especially surprising when we consider how much power university members wield. Two-thirds of Australia’s public universities are membership-based institutions. This means that members define these universities’ existence.

The membership of a university is normally the academic staff, students and graduates of the institution. While no universities in Queensland are structured this way and two or three others are also structured differently, the idea of membership nevertheless underpins the majority of Australian academia.

Universities were founded as membership-based institutions to prevent knowledge from being tainted by vested interests. If those who cared most about money controlled scholars and scholarship, the public could not trust university knowledge. Imagine if pharmaceutical or tobacco companies directed all of Australia’s health research.

The NAPU charter has drawn on this tradition of autonomy. It argues that public universities need to avoid being overly influenced by those with a financial stake in research findings. Such autonomy was not vested in universities to preserve scholarly elitism, but to protect the public who need, if universities are to be useful, to know that scholars and graduates are giving them the best possible information.

Despite the longevity of such claims to scholarly autonomy, for decades the power of university membership has rarely been used. Specific historical circumstances have aligned now to prompt such measures.

What’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander

This is in part a result of changes to the role of the vice-chancellor in the 1980s. Such change separated university leaders from their staff, effectively removing the top layer of the university from the collegiate.

Vice-chancellors were coerced, by changing funding regimes (including marketisation), to prioritise their obligation to the institution. This was a contrast to their “first among equals” role that is implied in universities whose existence was based on collegial membership.

As the sector now debates higher education, the separation between university leadership and the collegiate has been stark. Many vice-chancellors believe that deregulated fee income will benefit their universities financially. Staff, on the other hand, are concerned that deregulation will result in changes to access to higher education and the labour market that will increase inequality in Australian society.

Scholars are no longer able to be confident that their university leaders would share their concern to protect the public’s right to knowledge they can trust. Vice-chancellors now need to prioritise their bottom line. University staff, who do not all share the same constraints, need a new way to organise themselves. NAPU is their most recent approach.

What is a university for?

The importance of university membership was brought out, oddly enough, in an intellectual property case in the Federal Court between Professor Robert Gray - a specialist surgeon who commercialised a treatment for liver cancer, and his employer, the University of Western Australia. The court found that a scholar’s membership of the university was intended to assure their independence from the institution’s financial interests. Why is this? The court found it had to do with the purpose of the university.

Many of us shy away from abstract and contested notions of the purpose of the university, but the UWA Act – which is what enables that institution to exist – was clear. The university is there to protect knowledge for the public’s benefit. The court found that scholars, not managers, must control knowledge in order to achieve this.

When the Federal Court’s surprising judgment was handed down in favour of Gray, some suggested the court had overlooked the commercial character of contemporary universities, drawing instead on outdated ideas about academic freedom. But the court found that, while universities might make money in a variety of ways, scholarly independence was required to fulfil the university’s legal obligation to protect knowledge first. The public needed to know they could trust what universities did and this was how that trust could be achieved.

Vice-chancellors in contemporary universities have been caught in a bind. While public universities are required to protect knowledge, their leaders are charged with a more mundane set of financial obligations. Their separation from their membership has been palpable. And yet, until deregulation was seriously proposed, no group of university staff sought to organise in a way that would draw on the power latent in university membership across the sector to highlight the importance of putting knowledge first.

The proposal to deregulate, connecting university income still closer to the market rather than the public good, has alarmed rank-and-file staff enough to invoke some old-fashioned ideas, in a new way.

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