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October 29th 2014 print

James Allan

Deregulation is Just the Start, Mr Pyne

Take it from an insider, Australia's universities are mudpits of managerialist madness. Infested with bureaucrats and grossly overpaid vice-chancellors, they are cursed with protocols that reward waste and received wisdom while grossly short-changing students

bureaucratMost of us are aware that the Coalition and its Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, are at present trying to push university fee-deregulation through the Senate.  Now I happen to be 100 percent in favour of university fee deregulation.  But even if the proposal were to be approved exactly as proposed, and that is very unlikely, it would do next to nothing to fix the real problem of uber, super, extra, ultra-too-much (pick your favourite adjective) university over-regulation.

To be clear, fee deregulation is a great idea, but it is solely about two things.  Firstly, it’s about middle-class kids no longer having so much of their tuition paid for by far less well-off poor families through the tax system.  The more government – that means all of us taxpayers – pays of the cost of tuition, the more the poor subsidise the middle class.  And then these well-off kids go off and earn big bucks as lawyers and doctors.  The studies are clear.  What we have at present is middle-class welfare, big time.  Hairdressers and tradies pay for far more of their educations than the pampered university student, who will statistically go on to earn more.  Bring on the fees I say!

Secondly, fee deregulation is about a path to the sustainable funding of universities.  Without this money our universities will continue on a downward path – bigger classes, less money per student, terrible undergraduate experiences compared to what they would get in Canada, the US, the UK, even New Zealand.  It is hypocrisy to oppose fee deregulation and, at the same time, say you want a great tertiary sector, unless you can say where the new money will come from.  So I’m in favour of fee deregulation.  Are Labor, the Greens and Palmer in favour of a hefty income-tax rise?  If so, they should say so.

Okay, so that’s me supporting Mr. Pyne.  The rest of this article will not be in that same vein.  You see, in terms of university over-regulation this stuff about fees is chickenfeed.  It’s peripheral white noise.  As I’ve written, again and again, our universities are mudpits of managerialist mania.  Before Gough Whitlam, there was roughly a 6:1 ratio of academics to bureaucrats, people who service the teachers and researchers.  Now I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more bureaucrats than academics, and certainly about half of every university’s wage bill goes to administrators; for some it may be more.  Would you give money to a charity that spent half its money on running itself?  Would you buy shares in a company of that sort?

Those are rhetorical questions. But why our are universities so ‘administration mad’?  I have taught and visited and worked all over the Anglosphere world.  To me it is indisputable that Aussie universities — or  law schools, though I think the point applies more generally — are far worse on the ‘over-regulated’ criterion than those in Canada, the UK, the US or New Zealand.  I tell my old friends at Otago University in New Zealand, one of whom is the Vice-Chancellor, that they would be mad to hire any Australian who has had anything to do with university administration in this country.  The mindset of university bureaucrats here is what one imagines was common in the former East Germany, or maybe General Motors in the 1950s.

In my law school we are told, ordered, when to mark; how to mark (an idiotic ‘criterion-based marking’ regime that might make sense in primary school but not for young adults expected to have a brain and think laterally, creatively, etc); how many times to mark; what credentials the people we hire must have; how many ‘mileposts’ graduate students must pass; what to produce before a class begins each semester (think of a huge ‘electronic course profile’ full of mumbo-jumbo-gooble-degook than no student reads unless he or she is searching for a ground to appeal a bad mark). That is just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg.  Take it from me, Mr. Pyne, there is not one iota of federalist, ‘leave it to a department to decide what works best for it’ decentralist tendency in our Australian universities.  They are the world’s home to ‘one-size-fits-all’ thinking.

And who makes all these rules?  It’s the university managerialist class. You could be forgiven for concluding that much of this class is comprised of failed academics.  People who weren’t all that good at publishing, or teaching.  But the incentives in our uni system are so bizarre that the big salaries all go to the middle- and upper-tier managers.  These people literally fly all over the world, always in business class or first class.  God knows how any cost-benefit analysis could make this worthwhile, unless of course the travel budget is one thing and the ‘we brought in a couple of new students from the Subcontinent’ benefit side of the ledger is another thing.

Plus we have some of the highest paid V-Cs and DV-Cs in the world.  Seven-figure salaries are now not uncommon for VCs.  Are these really warranted?  I may be the most right-wing academic in Australia.  But I figure, and have said in print, that a moderately numerate year 11 student could take charge of an Australian uni and no one would notice a decline for years.  The main parts of the budget are fees and salaries.  They are locked in.  And universities can’t fail, the way a business can.  So why do we pay out top university administrators more here than in Canada, or New Zealand, or Britain, or even much of the US?  Could it be to do with who decides on the salaries?

And do the incentives in our system make empire building and an ever-increasing bureaucracy more likely?  I think they do.

Mr. Pyne, why not mandate that all universities in Australia publish their top 25 salaries and specify exactly what those people do?  It might be a bit embarrassing if hardly any are in the classroom.  And why not mandate that each university declare each year what percentage of its wage spending goes to bureaucrats (or call them administrators or people not at the coal face)? Sure, universities will try to game this. But if you want to go down the deregulation path this would be a good start, as I’ve said in the past.

Then, Mr. Pyne, you might focus on all the reporting requirements you impose on universities.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think universities are bureaucratic partly on their own initiatives.  But Canberra doesn’t help.  And I reckon any hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis would show most of these reporting mandates a waste, or worse than a waste.  Is the Liberal Party the party of deregulation or not?  When it comes to our universities the evidence is pretty clear what the answer is.

Then there is the world’s stupidest ‘Excellence for Research in Australia’ (‘ERA’) exercise.  The second round of this East German-style and incredibly expensive folly is coming up soon.  For my sins I was involved in the first round.  It purportedly aims to measure the quality of research in Australia.  In Canada and the US privately owned magazines do this for free, as in no cost to the taxpayer.  Here it is run by an arm of government, the Australian Research Council or ARC, at a huge cost of tens-and-tens-and-tens of millions of dollars.  That is the price if you count the cost of the academics and university bureaucrats as a free good.  (Maybe the latter actually is the case, but I’ll pass over that in silence.)  Models are built up; publications are perused and analysed; data-bases are built; endless meetings are held; people are seconded to work on this full-time; all to make submissions that are then ‘judged’.

Okay, not really judged.  The end result in terms of which university department is assessed as being of what quality is literally no better, not one whit better, than what a Canadian magazine does for a fraction of the cost with its own money (no taxpayer dosh at all) with a rough rule of thumb procedure.  The ‘no cost to taxpayers’ Canadian magazine process looks better to me.

What is the Australian process?  It is bureaucracy run wild and it produces, in my view, basically meaningless mush.  I say that as someone involved last time.  The ARC made us sign a waiver not to reveal how it worked.  I’ve been begging Tony Abbott or Christopher Pyne to release me from that waiver for some time.  Or how about, Mr. Minister, if you reveal specifically how this $30 million or $40 million exercise is going work?  You know, the specifics of how the publications get assessed and quality is supposedly measured, because I’m prepared to debate you anywhere, anytime, that the process is a joke.  Meantime all I can say is that the process is a giant waste of taxpayers’ money.  Come on, Coalition, end it now!  You might make a few friends in the universities.  Even the standard left-of-centre academic hates this garbage.  Only the bureaucrats like it.

Of course one gets the feeling that Mr. Pyne is taking a fair bit of advice from university V-Cs.  I go out on a limb on this but if that is the source of his advice I suspect hell will freeze over before the managerialist mania that has swept Australian universities comes to an end.

Did I mention that in the world of the ARC, and indeed in all Australian universities, research’s worth is partly measured in terms of how many grants (preferably ARC grants) someone gets.  In blunt terms, inputs count as outputs.  The academic who publishes four world-class papers in leading journals, but does so without a penny of ARC (or any other) grant money, is considered and treated as far less worthy – as producing ‘less quality research’ than the person who spends eons getting an ARC grant (and  lots of taxpayer money) to produce the exact same four world-class papers in the same journals.  In other words, the academic who needs all sorts of taxpayer money to do the same thing as the academic who takes not a penny will be the one promoted, and feted. This is bureaucracy run mad.  It pervades the Australian university system.  It benefits central planners, no one else.  It is as though we judged Olympic athletes by how much taxpayer money they needed to do what they did.  Or as though General Motors was in part a good car maker because it received loads of taxpayer money,  grants if you will.

Frankly, it is bizarre that the Coalition allows this state of affairs to continue.  Are you listening, Mr. Pyne?

I have made this entire point without so far once mentioning that in the social sciences (broadly construed) the ARC grants overwhelmingly go to academics ‘researching’ positions with which no Coalition voter would be overly sympathetic.  Want to bet whether the grants go to those sympathetic to ‘stopping the boats’ or not?  Same bet as regards the outlook to same-sex marriage?  To the carbon tax?  To a stern line against terrorists (though they wouldn’t be called that in the research grant-application or no money would be forthcoming)?  And so on ad nauseum.

It’s bureaucracy run mad, and on top of that, it is the same bureaucracy that rewards projects overwhelmingly at odds with this government’s outlook.  Can’t we just cut this crap?

When and if Pyne and Abbott get their fee deregulation through the Senate, the main job of deregulating the universities remains to be done.  But if you are looking for confirmation of what I’m saying, don’t look for it from the mouth of one of our million-dollar-a-year vice-chancellors.  From their vantage, this is the best of all possible worlds.

James Allan, the author of Democracy in Decline, is  Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland