By JAMES GUTHRIE
With a federal election looming, those working in and with public sector universities in Australia are urging changes in how public sector universities are governed[i] and how their public accountability should be achieved.
One such group, Public Universities Australia (PUA),[ii] has issued a Declaration of the principles, practices, and protocols that should guide Australian public universities’ governance, funding regimes, and praxis. The Declaration urges that the governance of Australian public universities, like that of the rest of their OECD counterparts, be collegial, transparent and accountable. Furthermore, PUA has summarised these principles in a series of actionable points, which have also been translated into a hypothetical “model act” to re-establish Australian public universities as statutory bodies owned by and acting for “the public.” [iii]
In recently published research, Pelizzon et al. (2022)[iv] examined the governance of Australian public universities and empirically establish the way they are dominated by business leaders and consultants, arguing that this points to a failure of governance. They examine this failure of leadership through the lens of Australian public universities’ statutory nature and governance structures, cast against contemporary rhetoric in which universities are metaphorically equated with commercial corporations. They sought to determine the extent to which this metaphor is accurate and ultimately (they contend) detrimental to an effective and efficient university sector.
Pelizzon et al. conclude that Australia’s public universities today’s main problem today is not a lack of revenue or disposable assets to withstand the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, the main problem is a governance regime that has progressively reduced the ability to fulfil universities’ statutory mandates (and centuries-old purpose).
In other words, universities have been corporatised but without the checks and balances of a corporation. Today, Australian public universities’ governance is neither accountable nor transparent, and the oversight of senior managerial behaviour is tenuous at best.
Nearly all public universities in Australia are governed by state legislation, and therefore any changes to governance structures must be via the various state governments. PUA’s Model Act aims to reform existing governance arrangements, with the central part of its proposed changes as follows:
“STATE LEGISLATIVE CHANGES (UNIFORM LEGISLATION/MODEL ACT)
- GOVERNANCE: the governance of Australian public universities must be collegial, transparent and accountable.
- the governing bodies of Australian public universities must be composed of a majority of active members of the academic community, as well as individuals (including alumni of the university) who represent the broader communities that universities serve. Financial, commercial and community expertise must be maintained, but must not dominate the composition of any university’s governing bodies
- the majority, and desirably two thirds of all members of governing bodies should be elected by and from within the university community (representing academic staff, non-academic staff, students and alumni)
- university chancellors and vice chancellors should be selected or elected from among the most trusted academics after wide consultation with all members of the university. Where selected, the selection committee should be drawn from the university community (including academic staff, non-academic staff, students and alumni) and should include representation from a wide range of discipline areas
- to ensure transparency, wherever possible, meetings of the governing body of all universities should be open for members of the public to attend as observers. Furthermore, detailed minutes should be made publicly available in a timely manner, and both the agenda and agenda papers, wherever possible, should not be confidential and should be made available prior to the meeting to both the university community and to the public.”
At the federal level, as most public universities are funded from the federal budget, PUA suggests that there should be a body to oversee the financial performance of Australian public universities. Part of the mechanism would be to set up an independent prudential advisory body:
“FEDERAL LEGISLATIVE CHANGES
In order to institutionalise appropriate reforms that will enhance the national and international reputation of the AHES, we also believe that it will be necessary to create two new national higher education bodies:
- a) an independent prudential advisory body, similar to the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, to oversee the financial performance of Australian public universities from a management and public policy perspective;
- b) an independent tertiary funding and standards body, similar to the former Australian Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (1977-1988), to oversee and make determinations concerning national funding, education standards, research priorities and planning for the whole tertiary education system, including TAFEs, universities and private providers.”
The role of the Prudential Authority for Higher Education in Australia (PAHEA) would be to assure accountability and transparency concerning the financial operations of Australian public universities, with a focus on their use of public funds and assets. It would oversee and make determinations concerning appropriate levels of funds held by universities as financial assets to be used for purchasing university infrastructure and equipment (e.g. laboratories, instruments, equipment, and software), as well as the upgrading and maintenance of existing facilities and the construction of new buildings and facilities. This body would also advise the prudential management of enrolments by fee-paying overseas students and benchmarks relating to salaries and remuneration for vice-chancellors, senior executives and senior management.
A new Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC) should be established that would include safeguarding staff and student well-being, guaranteeing research autonomy from political interference, maintaining minimum national standards for academic teaching quality, and overseeing core course content and research ethics across all discipline areas following the development of transparent standards and principles[v]. It would absorb the current role performed by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency and oversee the operations of all Australian public universities, following publicly established standards and principles. This would include the ability to review and make recommendations concerning any financial and regulatory issues that affect these activities, including the allocation of research funding by individual universities and planning for national academic and professional skills and training needs.
Both PAHEA and ATEC would draw their executive committee members from a wide range of representative bodies in the tertiary education and research sectors. The mechanisms by which those members are selected should be open to public debate. However, the emphasis should be on diversity and openness, with membership broadly representative of gender, ethnicity, age, regional knowledge and disciplinary expertise. Both bodies would be responsible for advising state and federal ministers of education and be responsible for reviewing the justification for ministerial decisions.”
These two mechanisms aimed at state and federal governments should deliver what is urgently needed in the public universities of Australia ‒ improved governance and public accountability. PUA’s work[vi] is based on the stated belief that a public university’s role is to form and protect a safe space for the preservation, dissemination and generation of knowledge for the benefit of civil society. To do so meaningfully, the exchange of ideas must be both pluralistic and free, and the indispensable safeguards of academic autonomy are the protections of academic freedom and a determining influence on the university’s governance.
Emeritus Professor James Guthrie AM, Professor of Accounting, Macquarie Business School
[ii] Public Universities Australia group defines itself as follows “We represent the broadest range of voices constituting the Australian university sector. Never before have so many of the key organisations come together for the purpose of instigating broad and urgent changes in the Australian university sector.”
[iv] See Pelizzon et al. (2022), “Australian Public Universities: A crisis of governance”, Social Alternatives
[vi] PUA has documented the nature, the impact, and the perverse effects of the reforms that have led to the current predicament in a special issue of the journal Social Alternatives, which is available via open access here