Jim Barber is a former deputy vice-chancellor at RMIT University. He was brought in by Margaret Gardner to be her right hand man when she became VC in the mid-noughties. Jim is quietly spoken. He was also a very, very effective administrator. With that assessment in the background, I want to point to a very powerful op-ed that he has published in The Australian:
The problem is that governments tired of hearing universities complain about underfunding long before the coronavirus arrived. The federal government and for that matter much of the Australian public either don’t care or don’t believe them.
This is because everyone except the universities themselves realise that radical reform is long overdue. The universities’ business model is outdated and expensive and if any good can come of this coronavirus disaster for universities, maybe it is that they will finally embrace change.
That second paragraph is both damning and true.
Jim Barber makes 5 points:
- There are too many universities in Australia.
- People need to realise that education is now a marketplace.
- Universities should stop spending so much money on buildings.
- Universities need to change their employment practices.
- Universities need to stop obstruction innovation.
Yep – those points are all more or less true. I do want to quibble slightly on point 3. One of Margaret Gardner’s finest achievements (she has many and I’m a huge fan of hers) was refurbishing those ghastly brutalist concrete blocks that were an eye-sore at the bottom of Swanston Street.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Australia had a globalised university sector that served a global market. As I’ve been arguing the size of the global market has collapsed. Industries that serve a large global market are now mis-sized. The Australian university sector is too big relative to the size of the global economy, let alone the size of the Australian economy. Downsizing is painful. Not only should some institutions exit the market, I suspect all universities will have to shrink in size.
Jim Barber has this to say:
Australian universities have been churning out research publications at an average annual increase of around three per cent per annum for the last decade or so. Universities are also teaching more students per academic staff member than they used to.
All this growth has been taken out of the hides of an army of casually employed tutors and lecturers who endure sweat shop conditions in order to generate revenue that is diverted into research and the lifestyles of their tenured colleagues.
There are many sides to every story and horror-stories (for and against casuals) abound. But I think that perspective is about right. A large part of this relates to an unwillingness to engage in labour savings reforms. There is a hostility to using multiple choice questions for testing and examination purposes. Then for many years people used to hand mark multiple choice question tests and exams! A couple of years ago I suggested looking at AI to grade exams and tests and people carried on like I was a mass-murderer. But people – casuals – get paid (extra) to mark exams.
What Jim Barber doesn’t touch on – is the growth in administration. When the minions have minions there is a problem. It is worse than it looks. Already more than half of university employees are administrators and are employed as administrators. But there is also a growing number of nominally academic staff who are increasingly engaged in administrative work.
Anyway I could probably rant for hours on this topic. Read Jim Barber’s piece. It is the most sensible thing you’ll have read on Australian universities in a long time.