Ian Marshman and Frank Larkins gave us a depressingly accurate view of the financial cost of COVID-19 for our sector, (CMM Wednesday).  However, their remedies were the usual austerity medicine: the stuff that made us sick in the first place.

Our sector is in the position to bounce back well, but not if the only solutions are cuts, cuts and more cuts. If universities sell anything to students, it’s opportunity to learn and the space to grow into someone new. If I was a parent in China and still had the means and desire to send my kid overseas next year, I would not choose the USA or UK! Australia with its functioning health system would look very attractive, but not if our government keeps treating their kids as disposable cash cows.

How about we support them instead of telling them to go home? Let’s resist the temptation to see online learning as a cheap alternative: it’s not. If MOOCs were going to disrupt our business model it would have happened by now. Students actually want live teachers, not a glorified call centre. Even if those teachers are on-line, they should not be in their homes. So capital expenditure still needs to happen, but what sort? Sure, university students are notorious for not turning up to lectures, but they are sitting in our libraries and the cafes on campus with their laptops watching them.

Canny universities build communal spaces to attract more students – and it works. How about we ask the government to build a new education revolution on campus? While we are at it, we could get rid of that expensive rented office space downtown with its ridiculous on-costs. Break the leases! Build new offices on campus but think about what goes on inside them. The government hates ‘green tape’ – what about the ‘accountability tape’ that ties up so many professional staff? Let us stop soothing government insecurity about whether we are doing our jobs properly. If we stop obsessively counting everything, we can free up people to work on things that create value, like teaching and research.

57 per cent of our costs are people because the university IS its people. Rather than “consolidate”, let us work to keep our people, knowing they are critical to our future prosperity. Here’s a radical thought – let us explore a financial model that’s closer to a co-op than a corporation. We could share the financial pain at this time by taking pay cuts, geared to the ability to defer wages. The university can bank the savings and pay us a bonus in the good times. In a co-op we would be forced to ask: how much do we want to pay a VC to lead us? I bet it’s not $1.2 million. Speaking of pay inequity, let us restructure our workforce and give some casuals proper jobs. We can take a leaf out of the car industry play book by helping others find a better career path. Or employ some in university start-ups, partly funded by the money we put in UniSuper (which can then sell its shares in Sydney airport). Commercial income could support us to write papers and books, but for God’s sake, let’s stop giving our writing for free to journals and paying to get it back!

Enough with the austerity: it’s boring and it’s not going to save us.

Inger Mewburn is an associate professor and ANU’s director of research training. She is the author of How to be an Academic (New South Books) and managing editor of The Thesis Whisperer blog.



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