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Voracious VCs must be curbed

28 April 2008 3,936 views No Comment

OUR existing system of university governance was designed to support academic freedom and excellence, but as universities have corporatised themselves, vice-chancellors are no longer primarily guardians of academic standards but rather see themselves as chief executives. Yet, with a number of conspicuous exceptions, too often our VCs seem to behave as naive and gullible amateurs.

Universities Australia (the “industry” peak body) appears content with the status quo under which chief executive authority rests with the vice-chancellor (increasingly also called the president), who is supposedly accountable to a council, senate or board of governors. Yet too often university councils and chancellors see their primary role as supporting their vice-chancellor, rather than objectively assessing the academic and fiscal functioning of the institution.

Recently Griffith University and its vice-chancellor, Ian O’Connor, were revealed by this newspaper approving secret monetary deals with the Saudi Government. These deals present a publicly funded and supposedly liberal Australian university as seemingly willing to give support to anti-liberal Islamist ideology, which discriminates against women and freedom of expression, in order to gain funding for the university’s Islamic Research Unit.

Griffith’s VC argues that such funding dollars are required to develop his university under the changed funding mix. The VC’s actions have not been effectively questioned by the chancellor, Leneen Forde – who is also vice-president of Scouts Australia and a former governor of Queensland – or by the university council, which she chairs. Yesterday Forde issued a press release totally supporting the VC’s actions.

Without the intervention of this newspaper, Griffith University’s attempted underhand deal with the Saudi Government may have evaded public scrutiny.

This is as important as the debate about effective governance of health professions. Griffith sponsored a conference on that topic but appears not to look at its own “system” with the same concern.

Another Queensland university seems to be in difficulty in the area of governance. Despite its difficult financial position, it is rumored that Central Queensland University is spending $5million on marketing, advertising and on rebranding.

At CQU, vice-chancellor and president John Rickard apparently reigns supreme. The university council continues to approve his salary as the second highest-paid VC in Queensland, without Rickard having an outstanding track record, of academic or administrative success. Indeed, the Australian Universities Quality Audit review was unhappy about CQU’s academic standards. Moreover CQU has experienced a dramatic decline in international student numbers following last year’s hunger strike by international students at its privatised Melbourne shop-front campus. In response, the university has painfully downsized its permanent and contract staff.

To make matters worse, CQU’s failure to consult employees or their representatives about the job losses was ruled by the Federal Court of Australia this month to be a serious failure of senior management that led to a breach of the university’s collective agreement. The CQU council response has not been to censure the vice-chancellor and his senior management team but to change the university’s name and logo, despite the fact research shows little evidence that university rebranding can positively affect university rankings and increase either student numbers or the recruitment of high-quality staff.

The generously paid marketing consultants wanted to rebrand CQU as either Central University Queensland or, even better, as Central University Australia, in part due to the resonance of the term “central” in China and elsewhere in Asia. This may give the impression that the university is Queensland’s, or Australia’s, main higher-education facility. Rickard’s team was rumoured to have rejected this because they knew they would need to change the university charter and would not get approval for this change from the state Government, and may even expose the university to charges of misleading advertising.

During the past five years, CQU has done little advertising. Since 2002, in addition to a huge loss of international students, it has experienced a decline of more than 1500 domestic student enrolments.

Insiders say the state and federal governments are planning to conduct a viability audit of the university’s finances.

It is time for an overloaded Julia Gillard to implement a radical Rudd Government higher education policy that supports academic freedom but which does not license publicly funded universities to behave as if they had been privatised.

This quasi-privatisation, one of the Howard legacies, has produced the absurd situation of Australian universities competing against each other for students and for international funding, whatever the cost to Australia’s reputation. A primary task for government is to provide our universities with a contemporary framework of governance so they can take a leading role in building and maintaining intellectual advancement and social capital, as well as the professional skills base Australia so urgently needs.