By Damien Barry

Is governance of Australia’s higher education system and its public universities still fit for purpose?

I asked 45 representatives from the sector, including current and former chancellors and vice chancellors from city and regional universities, university council secretaries, senior academic governance researchers and practitioners and higher education researchers.

I concluded our current approach to governing higher education needs re-engineering at the system and university level to better meet the demands and expectations of its many stakeholders in this knowledge-driven world.

The issue is not new but despite many formal government reviews over the decades, fundamental changes in the approach to governance and existing governance arrangements have not occurred, only tweaks driven by short term political and policy concerns.

The preferred outcome is best attained by key players – governments, (particularly the Commonwealth) and universities – debating and collaborating in a meaningful way.

Leadership is required from the Commonwealth Government, in its role as primary funder, regulator and policy developer of our higher education system. Universities also need to unite to drive fundamental change.

Several common themes emerged from the interviews:

* there is no agreed national vision of the purpose(s) of higher education in Australia, the role of universities nor a long-term strategy to deliver an effective and sustainable higher education system;

* there no real collaborative governance at the national level;

* trust is lost between the Commonwealth Government and the sector;

* the current financial model is not sustainable;

* real diversity is lacking – all universities look the same and do the same, with some tweaking;

* there is neither mechanism nor leadership to create stakeholder consultation of these issues

People interviewed expressed strong views that the starting point for good governance arrangements is a nationally agreed purpose or mission and a forum to drive effective engagement with key stakeholders. These include state and federal governments, current and future staff and students, industry, professions, plus the general public, government agencies, the market and civil society.

There were significant differences among people interviewed on the “fitness for purpose” of current institutional governance. These tended to reflect the history and financial resources of universities as well as distinctions between city and regional institutions. However, common themes emerged.

* Universities are big and complex organisations, accountable for the effective and efficient use of public and private funds. It is a challenge to get the right people on board due to the workload demands and, to a lesser extent, the limitations on remuneration;

* State government mandated representatives on university councils (most state legislation has these mandates) is an anachronism and no longer reflects the role of states in higher education;

* The current university legislative and regulatory framework is a barrier to developing diversity, flexibility and innovation in the sector;

* Shifting to a national legislative framework is a logical (but politically unlikely) step;

* Current academic governance and supporting structures are based on traditional philosophies that are not delivering effective and efficient governance. A more policy driven approach can provide a more effective and efficient set of arrangements;

* Academic staff need to re-engage, and be encouraged to re-engage, in governance where their expertise best fits.

Research and empirical evidence indicates current policy, regulatory and legislative structures underpinning governance at system and institutional levels no longer enable universities (and the higher education system more broadly) to achieve excellence and sustainability in their mission or purpose.

Higher education and universities are steered by a national government “one size fits all approach” to policy, regulation and funding. This has created a strikingly homogenous environment, where universities are competing for the same students, staff and connections.

The external environment where these approaches were originally determined ceased to exist decades ago. Governance arrangements also reflect this outdated approach.  The issue is not new.

Many questions about the limitations of these arrangements are raised but very few answers seriously considered. History, culture and an inherent defensiveness of institutions and governments to seriously design and implement fundamental governance change are significant hurdles.

Simply generating sufficient income to remain in business or to strongly assert in the public domain what they do are not sufficient for our universities.  They need to prove themselves to their many stakeholders. Much of the current public commentary indicates that the system and the universities are struggling to do this, even though there are areas of university activity that attract acclaim.

Over the decades many researchers have identified inherent weaknesses and inefficiencies in the traditional governance structures of universities and concluded they are not conducive to cross-discipline activity, achievement of purpose(s) or operational efficiency in the modern environment. For example, when looking at Canada’s universities (which have many similarities to our own), the Canadian sociologist and academic administrator Murray Ross in his book The University: the anatomy of academe (1976, 273) observed, the “central problems within the university,” will revolve around “defining its role in society and finding a structure of government that will permit it to function effectively.” These observations are still pertinent today.

To improve our overall system and institutional governance requires political will from all stakeholders. The starting point is to address what is seen as a lack of an agreed purpose or purposes of higher education in this new knowledge-driven, globalised world and what is the role and function of universities in that system.

Without clarity of purpose, the system has no direction or end-game. Without a clear purpose, governance has no foundation.  It is now time for a national forum that brings together the key higher education stakeholders to have this discussion and develop and make recommendations as to the purpose and place of Australia’s higher education system and its universities.

This article is based on findings in Dr Barry’s recent University of Melbourne doctoral thesis. It is bought to you by the Association for Tertiary Education Management


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education