Margaret Thornton: Universities: The governance trap and what to do about it

Margaret Thornton: Universities: The governance trap and what to do about it

Introduction: The Changing Face of Higher Education

Higher education in Australia is undergoing a transformation which has thrown university governance into disarray. I argue that the dilemmas around governance arise from the push towards the privatisation of what was once regarded as a fundamental public good. It is in response to the market turn that universities have been corporatised which has resulted in the inversion of the traditional norms of governance. Instead of collegiality, in which decisions were made by the academic community as a whole, we now have a system of top-down managerialism whereby university decision-making has become the prerogative of administrators, government officials and business representatives.

As a dimension of Australia's move away from primary industry and manufacturing to the production of knowledge, there has been a vast increase in the number of students entering universities. This is the phenomenon of 'massification'. The aim is to increase the proportion of 'new knowledge workers' in order to make Australia competitive in the global economy. As Lyotard points out, it is knowledge not land that is now the basis of the struggle between nation states.[i] Government policy in support of this shift is underpinned by the Dawkins Reforms of 1988. With a stroke of the pen, the number of universities in Australia more than doubled, a change that is mirrored in the rapid increase in the number of graduates. In what the ABS now terms Measures of a Knowledge-based Economy and Society, reflecting the new productivity base, 18 per cent of the Australian population between 15 and 64 possessed a bachelor degree or above in 2003, compared with only 10 per cent a decade earlier.[ii] The impetus to harness the production of new knowledge and new knowledge workers has been pursued with a vengeance by the Howard Government.

Despite the dramatic increase in the number of students under Dawkins, government funding did not increase to a commensurate degree. In accordance with prevailing neoliberal philosophy, public institutions had begun to be viewed as a drain on the state. Accordingly, universities were expected to look elsewhere to make up the shortfall. The government initiated a shift in responsibility for funding from the public purse to the consumers of higher education - that is, the students - which has irrevocably altered the landscape of higher education. Instead of higher education being regarded as a public good, which is provided by the state, we have moved to a quasi-private user pays system. I say 'quasi-private', because it is the state that is orchestrating the change and transforming education into a commodity; there is no invisible hand at work here.

In arguing that the funding shortfall is the linchpin of the governance trap, I will show how the neoliberal state is inexorably moving towards the privatisation of higher education. I suggest that the various constituent elements, now termed 'stakeholders' - students, Vice-Chancellors and managers, academics and the public have been co-opted into acceptance of the revolutionary change, a factor that militates against the possibility of providing a simple blueprint for change.


‘Wednesday Night at the New International Bookshop’, Australian Fabian Society, Association for the Public University/Akademos. Melbourne, 16 March 2005

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