by JAMES GUTHRIE
With the elections around the corner. The members and supporters of Public Universities Australia (PUA)* have produced a declaration regarding what should happen to the Australian public higher education system. The complete statement is here.
The following is a summary of the principles and structures that should be put in place
The governance of Australian public universities must be collegial, transparent and accountable
The governing bodies of Australian public universities must be accountable to the entities they govern and the public they serve. To do so, these governing bodies must be composed of a majority of active members of the academic community and individuals (including alumni of the university) who represent the broader community. Financial, commercial and community expertise must be maintained but must not dominate the composition of any university’s governing bodies.
Chancellors and vice-chancellors must be democratically elected in order to be legitimised by the entire university community (including students, graduates and academic and professional staff).
All decisions made by the governance bodies of Australian public universities must be transparent and visible to the entire community they serve. For this to happen, all discussions by governing bodies (unless they concern matters of a personal nature or else are commercial in confidence) must be open to the public, and detailed minutes of those discussions must be made publicly available promptly.
All academic decisions must be made collegially by the academic community and not exclusively by individual managers or a hierarchical managerial structure
All non-academic governance over academic matters about the core university teaching and research activities must be curtailed – or, where possible, removed – and decisions within particular faculties, schools, or disciplines must involve the entire faculty, school or discipline following academic and democratic principles.
Furthermore, management – be it recruited or elected from within or outside the academic community – cannot have absolute discretionary authority by virtue of the offices they may hold. In particular, to maintain the fundamental principle of academic freedom of inquiry, it cannot have any authority to shape the horizon of allowable opinions that constitute the inherently pluralistic nature of public universities or to censor or penalise the open discussion of ideas and expression of reasonable opinions. In short, management has to serve the academic mission.
The academic scholarly community must be preserved and, where necessary, re-established. Any targeted, intentional reduction of such community and all consequential harm to academics and the scholarship they produce must be prevented and, where necessary, undone.
All salaries of the executive officers of Australian public universities – including, but not limited to, vice-chancellors – must be aligned with those of other office-bearers of public institutions and capped at twice a professorial salary
The hiring or electoral process for the appointment of all senior executive officers must be overseen by a committee representative of the whole university community.
To maintain their public function, universities have to guarantee and defend the principle of “academic freedom.” Such a principle is fundamental for the public good and not, as it may appear at first, the privilege of an academic minority.
Australian public universities must provide secure, safe, non-exploitative, and tenured employment. Tenure is a necessary means to achieve the following:
* freedom to undertake unrestrained and creative research, teaching and extramural activities
* a sufficient degree of economic security to make an academic career sufficiently attractive
Intellectual freedom and economic security – hence, tenure – are indispensable to the success of any academic institution in fulfilling its public obligations toward both its students and society at large.
Casual employment must be limited as much as possible. Ideally, no more than 20 per cent of positions should be filled on a casual or fixed-term basis.
Universities should provide adequate career development opportunities for doctoral candidates.
All academic staff should have the opportunity to undertake both research and teaching activities. Research and teaching are inseparable at the edge of knowledge.
Maximum academic workloads must be standardised to ensure that appropriate time is dedicated to research and other scholarly pursuits, teaching activities, regular updates of disciplinary expertise, and community engagement
The misleading and counterproductive metrification of academic work – including performance measures grounded in numerical values derived from funding, specific quanta of publications, student evaluations, etc. – must be removed.
A more potent independent prudential advisory body should be established at the national level to oversee Australian public universities’ operations
This new body, composed of independent members, should safeguard and promote Australian universities’ public nature and autonomous role. It should also set minimum national standards for academic teaching quality, student and staff safety and well-being, and research autonomy, while overseeing core course content and research ethics across all discipline areas following evolving and transparent standards and principles.
Appropriate funding must be guaranteed for Australian public sector universities to pursue their goals and mandates. Such funding, however, may be rationalised and targeted to ensure that;
* the body of knowledge represented by a sufficiently wide range of disciplines are maintained among an appropriately diverse range of universities. While not all universities may be able to maintain and pursue all disciplines, funding may be rationalised to ensure that all relevant disciplines are maintained and represented in a sufficient number of Australian universities across a sufficiently diverse geographical range.
* an appropriate number of academic positions is secured to maintain the knowledge and teaching related to the above disciplines
* an appropriate number of research positions is secured to advance knowledge. Such knowledge can be both theoretical and abstract and practical and commercial. The pursuit of abstract knowledge must be preserved and protected against political interference to ensure the public good of otherwise ignored foundational and transformative “blue-sky” research.
The government should subside fees to ensure that higher education is free for all domestic students.
All university finances and salaries (including all bonuses) must be fully transparent and made available for public scrutiny. This includes clear and consistent reporting standards for all cash-in and cash-out.
National standards for reporting employment figures must be established. These reporting figures must account for all permanent and casual positions clearly and consistently.
Emeritus Professor James Guthrie AM, Professor of Accounting, Macquarie Business School
*Organisations that come together to instigate broad and urgent changes in the Australian university sector.
Australian Association of University Professors (AAUP)
Academics for Public Universities (APU)
Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA)
Casualised, Unemployed & Precarious Uni Workers (CUPUW)
National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)
National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA)
National Union of Students (NUS)