Our Flawed And Failing Universities

failing unisOn the surface Australia’s universities are flourishing as never before. Student numbers are at their highest ever, as is the number of universities and the amount of money that each spends. Yet if we go below the surface it soon becomes apparent that Australia’s universities are successful in the way that many of the Soviet Union’s enterprises were ‘successful’. The modern Australian university has become a bloated, over-managed bureaucracy that tries to do too many things at the cost of doing none of them well.

Apart from their historic role as the home of scholarship – now sadly devalued – universities are expected to be the focus of a nation’s productive research as well as training a large part of the workforce.[1] Indeed, research and training are now seen by government and business as the main role for universities and the justification for their funding.

To resuscitate our universities we need to move beyond seeing their plight as one redeemable through more money or ‘better’ management. Neither money nor management will improve things; indeed, giving more money to the parasitical class that now runs universities will only make things worse. Rather we need to diagnose what is wrong with our universities, to understand why they are in the state they are in and, finally, to consider concrete proposals for their reform.

What Is Wrong?

In The Pentagon and the Art of War, Edward Luttwak showed how the US military had become an organization that reflected managerial rather than martial attributes. He noted how managerial skills and achievements counted far more than skill or experience in war and how such a culture had helped shape a military that was incredibly powerful but always ill-suited to fighting enemies who had the temerity not to think, plan and fight in the Pentagon’s way.[2] The impending ignominious retreat from Afghanistan in the face of ignorant, poorly armed peasants suggests that it’s business as usual in the Pentagon.

In a similar way Australian universities have lost focus on their historical emphasis on teaching and scholarship in favour of ‘hard-nosed realism’ about the ‘business’ of higher education. Universities are now run, nominally at least, by former academics aping the management style and ethos of corporate management in the private sector. Yet these former academics have no real knowledge or experience of operating in a harsh commercial environment driven and controlled by the profit motive. To make things worse, it appears that the hordes of non-academic staff that now infest university management are the ones who actually run the show. These people owe no allegiance to learning and scholarship yet are now cracking the whip to the academics who do the real work that needs to be done at a university. The effect of former academics pretending to be corporate managers acting through managers who don’t even pretend to be academics has been to promote an inappropriate and damaging culture of bureaucracy, measurement mania and organizational maze-setting in place of what are, after all, the relatively simple, if demanding, tasks of teaching students and carrying out scholarship.

In this section I will give four examples of how the modern university promotes perverse behaviour and standards that not only to do not improve teaching and scholarship but actively harm them: the move away from authority to power in university governance, the drive to ‘improve’ the quality of university teaching, the belief that measurement improves scholarship and research and the constant pressure for academics to network. Needless to say, there are many other ways in which the modern Australian university is dysfunctional but for present purposes these four will illustrate what is wrong today in those institutions.[3]

First, the shift from authority to power in university governance.

For many people authority and power are synonyms. Yet they describe two distinct conceptions of how universities can be governed.

Authority represents a reciprocal relationship where a group assigns executive power to one of its members because it is believed that that person has the skills to lead. Under a system of authority the decisions of a dean of a faculty, for example, would be followed because the majority of his or her peers has decided that the person elected was the best suited to run that faculty and that their particular policies or decisions were worth supporting. Ultimately authority is based on respect. All institutions need executive heads because the rest of the members want to do their job; for academics that means reading, teaching and writing. Authority is peculiarly suited to universities because it recognizes the historical experience of the institutional equality of scholars as well as the necessity for authority to be earned and continually reinforced.

This model of university governance has all but disappeared. Authority has been replaced by the deployment of power by a managerial class that now runs universities. Academics today follow decisions, not because of the authority of the person wielding the power, but solely because that person is in a position to force the academic to do what is wanted. The managers in today’s university do not expect academics to agree with them, whilst the academics do not believe that the managers have the wisdom and knowledge to make sound decisions. Indeed, the relationship between management and academics is usually one where the management sees the academics as impediments to achieving efficiency and where academics see the managers as incompetent philistines. Power is the form of governance normally associated with profit making corporations and hierarchically structured bureaucracies and, while it may be appropriate there, it has almost destroyed our universities.

The results of this transformation have been disastrous for universities and explain much of the unhappiness that is so often expressed by academics and students. University governance by power rather than authority has seen one financial disaster after another, one failed computer system after another and one pointless and ignored strategic review after another imposed on universities. Governance by power fails in universities because it leads to inappropriate decision-making, creates courtiers and encourages irresponsible careerism. Governance by power substitutes the accumulated wisdom of teachers and scholars in favour of the ephemeral strategies of university vice-chancellors and the horde of other ‘senior’ managers that now infest our universities.

Governing by authority involves transparent decision-making taking into account the views of those who have to live with what has been decided. The number of risky, speculative decisions will be diminished when they have to be explained and justified to one’s equals. Decision by authority is always going to take more time and is inherently biased against sudden, dramatic change. This form of governance sits well with a limited conception of the university, one that sees it as a scholarly institution. The new management class does not want to be shackled in this fashion. The university is now seen as just another corporation and in the hands of management it has become a tool for the most grandiose of schemes. University managers impose decisions on often unwilling academics and do not expect, much less want, those decisions to be questioned or challenged. Decision-making along these lines is speedier and may be necessary in the dog-eat-dog world of the market; it does not belong in universities and creates the added irony that those who wield it have shown no aptitude for success in the harsh environment of the market.

Governing by power also facilitates the rise of a courtier mentality. The exercise of authority requires respect from one’s colleagues and this has to be earned. Power does not need respect. In fact, it inevitably leads to contempt for those who are subjected to it. It certainly does not encourage dissent or blunt challenges to those in charge. One only has to attend meetings of university councils and the like to see how Vice-Chancellors, for example, seem to require abject praise from their management team/courtiers. The problem here is not primarily that such courtiers attract deserved scorn. The problem is that courtiers do not challenge dumb decisions; they justify them. The history of the last 25 years demonstrates the need for blunt and honest advice in university governance, not the flattery which now masquerades as consultation.

The exercise of power in today’s university has evolved into a particularly pernicious form. University managers are forever on the move, always on the lookout for a higher position or a more favoured location. This has worked to remove responsibility for the making of decisions. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that no one is responsible today in a university for any management decision. Managers are rarely in position long enough to be held accountable when their particular chickens come home to roost. No one at my university, for example, has taken responsibility for the costs generated by a futile strategic plan hatched by a previous administration to make the University of Adelaide one of the world’s great universities by 2020, or the ludicrous marketing device of changing the university’s name to Adelaide University (from the University of Adelaide) so that it would appear after AAardvark University in university listings. Rather than actual achievement the imperative behind decision-making is to spice up one’s CV by giving the impression of action and success. It doesn’t matter if the action achieves nothing or is even harmful. After all, by the time that becomes apparent, the author of the action has moved on or has been ‘sacked’, often with a huge payout. University governance based on power is absolutely necessary for today’s peripatetic university managers: one can’t be dramatic and be seen to be doing things if one is continually expected to explain and defend one’s decisions.

Every system for governing universities will reflect the failings of the humans who run them. But, for all its failings, governing by authority at least had the merit of setting an ideal that was consistent with the intellectual and pedagogic aims of a university. Governing solely by power seems to reflect a view that universities are money-making corporations that are no different, in principle, from McDonalds or a chicken processing plant. Giving universities more money won’t change this.

Secondly, teaching and the pernicious myth that we need to worry about the quality of university teaching.

Both governments and university administrations proclaim their desire to improve university teaching. University academics are now pressured to develop teaching portfolios and to acquire teaching skills. Student evaluations are now mandatory although it has never been explained why the opinion of students about the ‘quality’ of their teachers matters, given that students are ignorant about what is going to be taught – after all, that is why they are studying. The absolute nadir of this movement is the belief that university academics should be trained as teachers.  Such a stance assumes that the teaching skills which are so important for school teachers are of equal importance to scholars in universities. Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, I think that requiring university academics to worry about teaching ‘quality’ or, even, to become trained teachers would be bad for university students. One only has to compare the position of school students to that of university students to see why this is so.

Good school teachers inspire students to read, think and learn. Small children and adolescents need to be stimulated and controlled for their own good. School children may, indeed, have a natural inclination to learn but they also have natural inclinations to do many other things as well. As they grow older the calls on their attention will vary but it requires a dedicated, skilful and patient teacher to create an atmosphere and an experience that stimulates them to learn. Good teachers skillfully deploy mixed doses of their own personalities and the results of decades of research into the psychological and pedagogical aspects of learning in a never ending task of engaging with their students in order to make their teaching effective.

School children are not, by definition, adults responsible for their own learning. Our society has decided that all children should be taught to read and count and to be given an exposure to science, history, literature and those other disciplines that make up our civilization. The school teacher’s role is to ensure that to the best of his or her ability students learn these things. Indeed, so important is this role that we expect our teachers to keep up with developments in teaching so that the continuing task of educating our next generation is done as effectively as possible.

I have no doubt that being a good, effective teacher is central to the task of teaching school children. But a concentration on teaching skills misconceives the role of university academics.

It is wrong, I think, to see our role as being one of inspiring students to learn. Unlike school children, university students are adults who have chosen to come to university. University teaching should be based on the assumption that students are already motivated to learn. We are not necessarily smarter than our students but we are better read and have thought more than they have about our areas of expertise. That is what we can offer them. To the extent that we conduct our teaching in ways that are designed to attract their attention, to involve ‘quiet’ students, to grade their ‘participation’, etc, we are wasting their time and our own. Indeed, by teaching in a way that is designed to attract the attention of those who are not engaged, we are, effectively, dumbing down our teaching. What we should be doing instead is forgetting about the motivation of the students, a matter which is rightly their concern, and doing what we can to impart knowledge, challenge preconceptions and open up alternative ways of thinking about the matter at hand.

‘But surely being a “good teacher” can’t be a bad thing?’ might be the ready response. I think that such an aspiration is a bad thing. As university academics we should aim to go into a class having read and thought as much as possible about our areas of expertise. We should expect our students to have read and thought about the materials and issues to be dealt with in a particular class. We shouldn’t waste our time trying to encourage them to do this. Instead, we should aim to take our knowledge to the very brink, to stimulate, indeed to offend our students, if necessary, so that they can take advantage of what we can offer – our years of thinking about what we know and don’t know. A preoccupation with teaching skills would disadvantage our students by taking away valuable time that we need for reading and thinking about what we teach. We must keep up to date, but it should be with our areas of expertise and not with superfluous teaching skills.

This preoccupation with teaching skills also patronises our students for no good reason. It is up to university students, who are adults after all, to determine if and when they want to learn. Whether or not they are inspired to learn is a matter for them to decide, and not a duty that attaches to us as university academics.

This is not a call for laziness or an excuse to hide away in one’s room and write ever more unnecessary articles. I, like every other university academic, want to do the best by my students. I am convinced that this will not be achieved by being a ‘good teacher’ but, rather, by devoting my energy and skill to conveying the knowledge and experience that I have and by spending as much time as I can to increase both. In fact, one’s passion about ideas is probably the best motivation for student learning in and outside the classroom.

Neither is it a call to ignore students or to treat them as second-class citizens. Basic good manners should apply everywhere, of course. I treat my students with respect if I accept that it is their choice to be interested or not and that my role is solely one of giving them the benefit of my knowledge and skills about matters of intellectual substance.

In recent years there has been much concern expressed by well-meaning people about the quality of teaching in our universities. There is also much noise made by university bureaucrats who don’t know what good university teaching is but who just want to look good and to appear to be doing ‘something’. But, good intentions don’t always equate with good outcomes – and cynicism rarely does.  The amount of time, money and effort that would be involved in turning university academics into trained teachers or to ‘improve’ teaching would not only be wasted; it would be harmful to our students.

The third example deals with university scholarship and research and the measurement mania.

The problem with measurement of research is not just that current metrics are too restrictive; the problem is deeper than this. It is that measuring research is futile and counter-productive.

In Australia we have the quite bizarre combination of academics being expected to publish at extraordinary rates and to ensure that their work is published in (arbitrarily chosen) ‘quality’ journals. In addition there is intense pressure to obtain a competitive grant even though the funding allocated to these grants means that only a small proportion of applicants can win awards. So, not only is the quantity of scholarship decoupled from any connection to the wide reading, thought and discussion necessary to engage in good scholarship; there is also a demand that all academics publish in journals when the limited number of such outlets means that they cannot publish all the output that is created, and to apply for grants that most applicants cannot receive. Just how these competing demands are supposed to improve scholarship and research is never explained but always only assumed and asserted.

What is clear is that perverse consequences follow measurement. Modern Australian universities are not structured to reward academics who favour the disinterested pursuit of scholarship. The norm, as we have seen, is ever higher benchmarks in productivity in the publication of articles in arbitrarily designated ‘quality’ journals and the winning of competitive research grants. Academics who want to be hired or promoted know that they will have to publish or perish. This is especially bad for new academics for whom no time is given to the wide reading, deep thinking and discussion of their ideas with their colleagues which is necessary for academic development. Instead, they are expected to fend for themselves from the start. No leeway is allowed for the fact that they will be finding their way in the world of learning. Of course, this is an encouragement to pick up the apparatus of, preferably, a safe and trendy topic and flog it for what it is worth – normally through the publication of a PhD and several articles emanating from it. However, this is only the beginning of the treadmill for an academic. To keep a job, let alone progress up the career ladder, one must publish still more (as well as win grants) at rates that would daunt Aristotle. Since our universities are not full of Aristotles, the pressure leads many to repeatedly rehash a topic or to write articles because they have to, not because they have something to say. Not all thoughts deserve to be published but in the perverse world of Australian universities they had better be.

Some are reduced to dishonourable tricks, such as writing the same paper over and over with minor updates, stretching one idea as thinly as possible over a number of publications. And, citation counts are susceptible to network effects where citation has more to do with one’s network and friends than any objective standard of impact. Holding aside such cynical aspects of modern scholarship, it is clear that for the overwhelming majority of academics the perverse result of expecting all scholars to publish at a rate that would have embarrassed Aristotle is that it lowers overall standards. Most of us need time to think and read yet the publication standards are so demanding that we don’t have time to do that reading and thinking.

The result is more articles of less value. Valuable colleagues who, for whatever reason, eg. a genuine belief that they do not have anything original to say or are slow writers, are either forced to write or face the personal and public shame of being seen as ‘deadwood’. Yet we all know that a well-read and thoughtful colleague, even if he or she never writes anything, is valuable for helping create and sustain an intellectually vibrant intellectual community within an academic institution. And it is vibrant intellectual cultures with universities that are the best way to ensure excellence. High publication rates stop such people from doing what they do well and force them to do what they do badly. What is the gain here?

However the fundamental problem with measurement goes beyond such perverse outcomes. As with many other important things in life, scholarship and research cannot truly be measured and that attempts to do so to try to improve performance or output will harm, not help to achieve quality. It wasn’t because of KPIs or quality measurements that Renaissance Florence, with a population of about 60,000, was able to produce artists of the stature of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. They flourished because Florence had developed a culture that attracted and developed artistic talent at a rarefied level. Or, to move closer to home, Oxford and Yale and Harvard and Cambridge did not attain the eminence that they have through a measurement regime. As with Florence, these institutions developed a culture of excellence that aimed to attract the best and then left them alone with the expectation, usually attained, that they would work at the highest level possible. Our present management class in universities are so obtuse that they would like to see an Australian Cambridge or Yale but refuse to accept the culture that allowed these universities to flourish. This class just won’t accept that it is not measurement but the conditions and culture within which academics operate that have produced academic greatness.

The fourth and last example of the distortions caused by the managerial ethos and culture now pervading universities is one of inappropriate behaviour. The modern university pressures academics to network and this is described as an unalloyed good. Nothing could be more wrong. Networking is a now a pervasive feature of academic life. Indeed, academics are strongly encouraged to network by university administrators and grants bodies. We all know that networking in academia helps get job interviews and promotions and eases the path for publications and research funding. But networking threatens the basic goals of academic life and academics should not network.

Networkers consciously cultivate a group of contacts in the hope that this will help open doors and provide support in their chosen careers. Of course, the obligations so created are mutual – nothing comes for free in this world. Now, networking isn’t intrinsically bad and in many areas of life it’s extremely useful. In politics, for example, the ability to network is central to a successful political career. To get ahead and to get things done, which often amount to the same thing, one needs to rely on one’s connections as much as one’s abilities, determination and ideas. Politics is inescapably a joint enterprise, especially in representative democracies. To rise in a political party, for example, one needs allies. These don’t just magically appear; they have to be garnered, with the price being compromise and a quid pro quo.

Business also demands networking. A network of friends, acquaintances and trading partners is almost by definition what business is about. Of course, even businesspeople may find that establishing and maintaining a network is time-consuming and sometimes socially awkward. But the profit imperative renders it as necessary and inevitable as the alarm clock and all the other disagreeable features of work.

Even with these costs networking in politics and business does not challenge the ultimate goals of these activities; rather, networking helps better achieve them.

In academia and intellectual life more generally the opposite is true. If we define the goal of academic life as the pursuit of truth through intellectual endeavour, it becomes clear that networking retards the achievement of this goal. Unlike politics where the higher the political position the more likely it is that one will be able to change things, in academia there is no necessary correlation between academic position and intellectual achievement.

Sadly, we may have to accept that for some areas in university life networking is necessary for achieving academic goals. In the sciences and some of the social sciences funding is vital to academic work, indeed to academic survival. In those disciplines networking, with all its costs, may be inevitable. But in subjects like law, my own area, and the humanities it can only be harmful.

To pursue truth one has to be intellectually honest. Networking threatens honesty in several ways. To establish a network one has to be willing to compromise one’s beliefs in order to attract friends and avoid scaring them away. This might even involve being all things to all people, a wonderful skill in a politician or market player but hardly a sound academic attribute. To establish and maintain a network one must compromise with and help the members of one’s network. A network will not be very useful if its members don’t prefer each other when it comes to accepting articles for publication, assessing grant applications, writing references and deciding on job and promotion applications.

Of course, networking does not always require such obvious compromises. In a more subtle way networking operates as an internal censor, ensuring that one’s opinions and decisions will accord with the needs of the network. Practice makes perfect and the continual effort devoted to maintaining and improving one’s network ensures that one’s thoughts and behaviour do not threaten that network.

Academic work in law and the humanities is essentially solitary. Of course we have to work with colleagues and sometimes this can be intellectually intimate. But the pursuit of truth is a matter of conscience and it sometimes demands unpopular thoughts and decisions. A true intellectual has to be prepared to disagree with, indeed offend, the closest of colleagues. The obligations of a network will always work against one’s intellectual conscience.

Networking also denies true academic collegiality. The compromises of networking encourage a superficially harmonious academic relationship that never reaches true academic collegiality which demands brutal honesty among colleagues. A networker is rarely going to say to a colleague that their work is poor or that their ideas are wrong.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of networking is that it makes for boring academics. Networkers tend to talk to and read similarly minded academics. Interesting academics read and argue with those that they disagree with in the hope of convincing them (or being convinced by them). Truth is best found amongst one’s academic enemies and strangers, not among friends. But for a networker, this is wasted activity – you are unlikely to make useful contacts among those who disagree with you.

Networking may be good for an academic career but it’s bad for academic endeavour. It’s yet one more example of how the managerial culture and ethos that now dominates Australian universities has distorted our horizons by foisting inappropriate activities on us.

These four examples deal only with some of the many problems facing our universities. But they are indicative of something rotten at the very heart of Australian universities. How did we get to this state?

Why Has This Happened?

It might be thought that this change to universities was inevitable when government funding to universities was steadily reduced from the 1980s. This, so it might be suggested, made money-making and the whole managerial revolution necessary and rendered obsolete the older ways of understanding the university’s role. However, if Australia’s universities had taken the simple, if painful, step of living within their means and maintaining the traditional values of university governance, teaching and scholarship we would not be in the morass that we are in now.


Of course, this would have meant smaller universities, larger class sizes and less money for study leave, the attendance of conferences and the like. But, it would not have meant the useless grind of publish or perish or the soul destroying commercialization of teaching and scholarship that we see and suffer now. Sooner or later political parties and the public would have come around again to the view that education mattered for its own sake. In fact, had the universities maintained their integrity it might have happened by now. Their reputation in the community might have been higher if we had not devalued the only thing that made universities distinctive – that they were organizations devoted to teaching and scholarship and were not just money-making corporations. Instead, the universities took the corporate path, or, to be more accurate, attempted to do so in a ham-fisted way. This meant that the objective standards of a money making organization became the norm, irrespective of their suitability to universities.

Allied to this strategic miscalculation by the universities has been the unremitting and ever-increasing government control of universities. Governments from both sides of the political spectrum have imposed an enormous number of reporting demands on universities in areas of governance, teaching, research, international students; the list goes on. Paradoxically they have been able to do this despite the fact that government support of universities has been decreasing steadily as a proportion of their total income. One has to suspect that the increased bureaucratic demands of the government sit easily with the new management class in universities. After all, it justifies their existence. Coupled with the inherent tendency of the managerial class to create make-work schemes for themselves and their retinues, this has meant that yet more managers have had to be employed to satisfy the demand for reports and strategic plans that now symbolize the Australian university.

Why has this happened? In a recent book Margaret Thornton argues that it is a result of the hegemony of neo-liberalism in Australian public life.[4] According to Thornton Australian universities were overwhelmed by a rightwing push to change their nature, goals and practices. There is some truth in this. But such an analysis is misleading because it fails to account for the dramatic and speedy transformation of academia. Why did neo-liberalism so easily conquer Australia’s universities? The parasitical management class that now runs universities and which openly espouses tenets of the neo-liberalism which Thornton so despises won because there was no one to fight against. No one, with a very small number of honourable exceptions, fought against the transformation of Australia’s universities because there was no constituency within them that valued scholarship and learning or, if they did they did not value them enough to fight for them.

The Left within universities has always been troubled by scholarship, seeing it as an elite preoccupation at best, and as a mask hiding domination at worst. The preference for this group has always been to see the university in instrumental terms, so that universities could be used as a vehicle for promoting its favoured social causes and for social transformation more generally. The Left was never going to defend the traditional idea of the university because the values that were associated with it have never been on the Left’s agenda. But the Right was no better. It may have been more comfortable with the elite nature of scholarship, but it was so seduced by the Free Market ideologues’ emphasis on the economy and on accountability that it failed to put up any worthwhile defence of the traditional university.

As with the Left, the Right has failed to accept the value of traditional conceptions of learning and scholarship that once were embodied in our universities. This is especially puzzling given that one component of the Right, the Burkean conservatives, would have seemed to be have been the natural defender of longstanding institutions. But they, too, seem to have forsaken old values in the headlong rush to ‘accountability’ and the transformation of universities into the simulacra of businesses.[5]

Our universities may have been greatly affected by outside forces but the sad, indeed, dispiriting, reality is that there was little resistance to these forces from within.

What Can Be Done?

As we have seen the paradoxical environment faced by universities over the last 25 years has been one of ever increasing Commonwealth government interference coupled with ever decreasing Commonwealth government funding. The results have been unhappy indeed. Universities have been bureaucratized through a massive influx of ‘middle management’. There has been continual and increasing pressure on academics to publish unnecessary articles and to waste time satisfying ‘quality’ and other ‘output’ measurements.  Perhaps most disturbing is widely held perceptions of poorer teaching and falling standards. Can anything be done to change this or are universities inextricably bound to a disastrous Commonwealth government regulatory and funding regime?

As argued above, universities could have responded to cuts in government funding by downsizing and maintaining their institutional integrity. As satisfying as this is as a counterfactual ‘solution’ the reality is that they did not. So, can anything be done to make things better? One way, a minimal response, would be for some universities to declare independence. Maybe it is time to accept that the price to be paid for continued Commonwealth funding is just too great. And it may be that the risks tied to becoming free are not as daunting as might appear at first glance.

What advantages would flow from independence?

For too long universities have been victims of the ideological whims of governments of both persuasions. Recent examples are the campaigns to get rid of student unions and to use universities as the pace setters for new industrial relations standards. Over a longer period universities have been forced to reflect government-designed efforts to train and re-skill the work force and to carry out research in government-mandated areas. Universities should not be tools to achieve governmental goals. They should, instead, be society’s haven for the free and fearless pursuit of ideas and scholarship.  A truly independent university would be the ideal place for this to occur.

An independent university would also give academics the freedom to be teachers and scholars. The Commonwealth’s mania for accountability means we are drowning in increasing amounts of paperwork. Actually, university academic life is relatively simple – we read and think (some experiment) and we teach and we write. It’s not a particularly complicated life but it’s not one that is easily measurable either. How do we, for example, show that we have had sufficient ideas or that we have read or experimented enough? Yet the Commonwealth and the management class in universities are busily dreaming up new (and often bizarre) ways to measure our ‘output’. Scientists apart,[6] what we need most of all is time to be teachers and scholars. Wasting time filling in the equivalent of time sheets is not going to help us get there.

Freedom from Commonwealth controls and expectations would also allow us to go back to basics in teaching. The increasing use of technology and ‘virtual teaching’ has been driven by the belief that PowerPoint presentations or computers are, somehow, magically superior forms of teaching. Most of us know that that is nonsense and that the use of this technology is designed to save money by using fewer teachers (even if it often fails to do so). If we ran our own show we could rediscover the benefits of proper, old-fashioned teaching. And, given the cost of computers and other ‘teaching aids’, this might save a lot of money as well.

How would an independent university work?

If we remember that the tasks of a university are fairly simple (teaching and scholarship), and that much of the ‘management’ in a modern university has been created to satisfy unnecessary government regulations or to present a vigorous corporate image, it becomes obvious that we do not need most of the management associated with the modern university. If universities did not, inappropriately, see themselves as hustling corporations and if they did not have to satisfy pointless government regulations it would not be much of an exaggeration to argue that a staff-elected Vice-Chancellor and some accountants to check our spending would be all the ‘management’ necessary to run a university. Right now most universities have more bureaucrats than the British needed for several centuries to run an empire. Apart from freeing us to go back to basics, the elimination of the whole management class in the university would save many millions of dollars annually.

Can universities afford independence? I think that at least some can if they adopted the following three strategies.

First, once free of government regulation and rid of grandiose corporate goals a university could rationalize its governing style and save a lot of money by removing unnecessary ‘management’. We could also be a lot smarter about how we run ourselves. For example, a simpler governing style should free us of the need to pay many millions of dollars for commercial computer systems that never have seemed to work that well anyway. Couldn’t our brightest computing students and lecturers design workable systems for us?

Second, an independent university will have to introduce full fees for its students. This would be controversial but I think that students would be better off paying for a decent education than the alternative now on offer.  Would it be at all bad if our students were forced to work a couple of years to save money so that when they went to university they would be committed to their studies? Getting more mature and committed students would only be good for us and for them. And there is no reason why an independent university could not use the current system whereby payment of fees is made through the taxation system.

Third, an independent university will need to create and maintain an endowment fund like many of the better US universities. A fund could be started by striking a deal with Commonwealth. In return for agreeing to stop being a financial dependent in, say, 10 years, the Commonwealth would continue funding the putative independent university at its existing rate plus a 30% premium to be put into our endowment fund. The money saved by a leaner governing style would also be placed in the fund. Ultimately this would mean that the university would then have to live off the income derived from its endowment fund plus its tuition fees.

It should be noted that this is not a call for universities aiming for independence to become a business selling education to customers, although, perhaps, some Australian universities would take this path. Rather, as with Harvard and many other illustrious US universities, this proposal recognizes that universities are essentially high-class beggars that raise money to provide an education to students. Our aim should be to create at least some slimmed down universities that concentrate on teaching, scholarship and research but do not see themselves as profit making businesses.

It is undoubtedly true that it is not the norm now in Australia for people to give to universities. Consequently fundraising in the past has not been particularly successful. But, if a university is seen to belong to the people of a city or region rather than being perceived as a quasi-governmental department, it is more likely that an endowing culture will develop. It is also more likely to happen if our students take away the experience of being treated as students and provided with a challenging and stimulating education, rather than experiencing the present demoralizing emphasis on being treating as customers. Creating an endowing culture is obviously going to a challenge but I would be surprised if the Australian people, when presented with the chance of supporting a traditional and not a corporate university, wouldn’t give generously to fund it.

A declaration of independence by any Australian university would certainly be a bold and imaginative step. And, of course, it would be risky. It would need good planning and creative decision-making. But it is a step that should be considered.

An alternative option is more revolutionary but, in opinion, also better designed to improve higher education, vocational training and research in Australia. I suspect that until we radically restructure universities by recognising that there are fundamental differences between education, training and economically-driven research the crisis in our universities will only get worse.

Central to any restructuring is an appreciation of the intrinsic value of education. A university education should expose students to the wonders of the world and the achievements of civilization, good and bad, and do this at the highest possible level. This is not what our students get today. While we have to recognise that not everyone will want this form of education, we should not underestimate how many will come to desire it. University education should be open to all when they feel ready to experience it at whatever age, be it 18 or 80.

Education has another, forgotten, role – it also helps make citizens. It promotes egalitarianism by equipping citizens with knowledge about the past and the world today and by providing them with the confidence to respond to the powerful in our society. Education itself cannot guarantee freedom and equality: political liberty, a free press, the rule of law and limits on economic disparities are also necessary. Nazi Germany shows that sometimes even all these will not be enough. But education is a sure way of helping inoculate our citizens against tyranny.

To reanimate education universities should be stripped of their training and economically-driven research responsibilities, as well as grossly overpaid vice-chancellors and their retinues of strategic planners, deputies and other courtiers. They should concentrate, instead, on giving their students the opportunity to broaden their minds. University scholars should engage with the great minds of the past and contribute thoughtfully to a continuing conversation with our intellectual ancestors. Universities should follow Michael Oakeshott’s plea to maintain and improve the intellectual capital of this and other civilizations.[7] Students have to be introduced to this material and be given the skills to distinguish between contemporary contributions to learning and the merely faddish.

Of course, scholarship involves not only the traditional subjects such as history or literature. Any facet of human life and creation can be and should be studied and this ranges from traditional subjects such as religion and theology, to engineering, accounting, marketing and sport – the list is as endless as human endeavour and interests. But, to study marketing, for example, to see how it works and what effects, benign and malign that it might have, is not to train someone to be a marketing consultant. That is best left to vocational training as suggested below. The same goes for law, medicine, accountancy and engineering. They can and should be studied at universities, if not necessarily in all universities, but the training of lawyers, doctors, etc should take place in vocational institutes, not universities.

Education understood this way cannot be evaluated in economic terms and is valuable for its own sake and not because it trains someone to do something or other. Assuming that we ever had it, and that might be a heroic assumption, it is clear that Australians today have lost faith in the value of education. Universities should appeal to people of all ages who want an education, instead of being a necessary rite of passage for the young into a well-paying job.

Of course, we need a trained workforce as well as an educated citizenry. But this cannot and should not be created by universities – they are places for education, not training. Hence we need to separate the two. Too often, the vocational training that now takes place in universities is diluted because it is, rightly, not seen as properly academic. Similarly, time and effort is wasted in unnecessary research by those who are really vocational teachers, because this is seen as the best way of getting ahead in a university. A vocational training institute would recognise the craft skills of its teachers and reward the teaching and maintenance of those skills.

Vocational training should be valued for its own merits.[8] Pretending it is something that it is not won’t help matters. We have to learn and accept that training is not second-rate if it does not happen in a university. The truth is that it will be second-rate if it is carried out there. Perhaps we should reconstitute the old Colleges of Advanced Education into advanced training institutes, ensuring that proper resources and respect are given to them. Perhaps each could be named after a famous Australian craftsperson. Certainly the funds given to them, the built environment in which they operate and the salaries and status of those who teach there should be the equivalent of what is offered and experienced in universities. Why shouldn’t bricklayers and miners, carpenters and mechanics, to name a few, study in facilities with the same cachet (and physical attractiveness) as do lawyers and doctors?

Universities have been further compromised by being co-opted by governments as the sites for economically-driven research. This has harmed the universities by diverting attention away from teaching and scholarship and has harmed research by loading unwanted teaching on researchers. Why should leading researchers waste their time teaching undergraduates? The inefficiency of stop-start research interrupted by teaching and the bureaucratically-driven research now required of all university teachers consumes money which would be far better spent on dedicated research institutes. As argued above research is not the same as scholarship and it is best if they are carried out in separate institutions. We could call these research institutes Bragg Research Institutes after the father and son Nobel prize-winning Australian physicists. Given the efficiencies that would attend the creation of such specialist places of research it is not difficult to imagine that they would be more attractive to public and private funding than is the case today.

A tripartite system such as this need not have watertight, internal barriers. For example, in law, the area with which I am most familiar, the following scenario could develop. Law certainly belongs in a university. Law is one of the main ways in which we try to govern and regulate ourselves and an appreciation of how law has worked in the past should be part of an educated person’s armoury. At the same time lawyers are practising professionals and it would make sense to relocate many of our law schools to vocational training institutes, where those who want to acquire the craft skills of a practitioner can do so. We should be willing to accept that some students will want to be educated in law, to participate in the continuing conversation with our ancestors about the role of law in society, but also that many others, probably most, will want to be practising lawyers first and foremost. And, of course, in some areas, human rights or a study of the effect of law on behaviour in crime or competition policy or transacting in the marketplace, for example, it would be appropriate for research to be conducted at research institutes. One could imagine similar scenarios for other professional disciplines such as medicine, accounting and engineering, all of which would be suited to being located in a vocational institute.

There would also be a flow of personnel across the three types of institutions. To go back to the law example for a moment; one could imagine a scholar at a university moving to a research institute to concentrate on research or to a training institute if he or she decided to move into practice. There would be some informal barriers, of course. A dedicated scholar is unlikely to have the craft skills of a practitioner but one could imagine cases where a university teacher went into practice and, after a time, moved to training.

More will be gained from this drastic form of institutional surgery than the merely negative results of cutting waste and inefficiency. Students who receive a satisfying education, rather than the hodgepodge given now, are more likely to endow universities. Similarly, once vocational training is freed from the control of the universities and located in specialised institutions, they will be infinitely more attractive for financial support from industry and the professions. Finally, dedicated research institutions will be seen to be better at research and should find it much easier to attract funding from business and the government than today’s universities.

The bitterest opponents of such measures will be, inevitably, the parasitical management class that now runs universities. They have become addicted to their self image of being high-flying executives mixing with the movers and shakers and to grandiose schemes of creating mega-universities with budgets bigger than many small countries. A radical reshaping of higher education, along the lines suggested above, will remove the need for this class, allowing those who dare the opportunity to make it in the real world of corporate management. Some might even want to return to what they might once have been good at, teaching, scholarship or research.

At a time when more money is devoted to universities than ever before it seems ludicrous to believe that even more money will resolve the crisis we are in. Unless we have the courage and capacity to re-think the values underpinning education and the institutional separations necessary to allow education, training and research to flourish, things will only get worse.

Conclusion – Is it too late?

It is a gloomy picture that I have painted above. It is also valid to ask whether it’s all too late and that universities, as traditionally understood, are doomed.

The Australian sub-species of Homo Academicus has shown itself to be a timid beast, much given to fads but showing no inclination to fight for, let alone value, the traditional role, ethos and practices of the university. Given this one has to be pessimistic about the chances of universities being reformed along the lines that I have suggested because the impetus for change will have to come from outside and there is precious indication that there is any will in governments, political parties or the general public to save our universities. I fear that the future of Australian universities will be bleak indeed.

John Gava is reader in law at the University of Adelaide law school


[1] In this chapter, as will be seen below, I argue that scholarship and research are different things and that research would be best carried out in dedicated research institutions and not in universities.

[2] Edward Luttwak, The Pentagon and the Art of War (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

[3] In general terms it might be argued that Australian universities display the problems of having grown beyond their optimal level so that much of their activities are focussed on the complexity of their internal organizations rather than fulfilling their roles as storehouses and conveyors of civilizations’ knowledge. See, for example, Leopold Kohr, The Overdeveloped Nations: The Diseconomies of Scale (Christopher Davies, 1976). For a recent and scathing analysis of Australian universities see, James Allan, “Why Australian Universities Are Just Not Good Enough”, Quadrant, March, 2014.


[4] Thornton, Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (Routledge, London, 2011).

[5] For the suggestion that even Burkean conservatives have always been attracted to revolutionary change, see Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

[6] And, in any event, as argued below, research is best carried out in dedicated research institutes and not in universities.

[7] Michael Oakeshott, “The Study of ‘Politics’ in a University”, in Timothy Fuller (ed), Rationalism in Politics and other Essays (Liberty Press, 1991), pp?

[8] On the whole issue of the devaluing of craft work and manual labour more generally see, Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin, New York, 2009).


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