Press release: Current financial crisis for universities and rebuilding the sector

* the current financial state of universities and what is needed to turn it around

AAUP Council:

The current crisis offers the opportunity for a fundamental rethink and a fresh start. AAUP is above any party politics and interested in supporting the government as per AAUP constitution.

Governments come and go but universities need a long-term vision.

The current threat to employment and the financial misery in the higher education sector is the result of the wrong belief that universities are just another source of income that can fuel the economy. In reality, universities are at the centre of a knowledge society today where they have an increasingly vital role to play.

There is no better way to protect a democratic society against misinformation in social media, the lure of demagogy, non-democratic foreign influences and abuse of AI than to “vaccinate” all members of society through education.

Good university education also lays the groundwork for the innovation that is required to deal with global problems such as climate change, poverty as well as the current and anticipated future pandemics to name a few.

There needs to be a revival of academic principles in Australia and beyond. The current commercialisation and associated degeneration of the higher education sector which represents a high risk for Australian society must stop.

This is from a recent AAUP publication.

* many of the VCs and highly paid executives have taken a 20-25% pay cut – is this enough?

AAUP Council:

No, but it is also not enough to think short-term. Without criticizing any VC personally, and there are a few laudable exceptions, a leader in a university setting should also be a moral leader which excludes demands for excessive personal remuneration in our view.

* is it time to reassess some of the high salaries paid to VCs?

AAUP Council:

Yes, please see above. In addition, we have asked our AAUP membership (currently ~500 professors nationwide) the following question a short while ago and within one day almost 130 colleagues responded:

“How much a VC should be paid is a matter of interest for a number of reasons. There are two opposing views: Million-dollar salaries are required because that’s what the market demands for the best of the best to lead a university, especially in a corporate environment. vs. Greed is a serious character weakness, but we need a moral elite that leads our universities. Advertising the position at much less than one million will solve many of the current problems because the wrong people simply will not apply. Please indicate below what salary range you find appropriate.”

A screenshot of a cell phone

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As you can see the consensus is: a VC should earn around two times a professorial salary. Importantly, and with reference to your previous question, this is not about left- or right-wing politics but about the most important leadership principles. Universities need academic peers as “leaders” who know the research and teaching work by heart and who consider running the university a privilege, i.e. not someone who is interested in a highly paid stint as a manager. Conventional business metrics including market capitalization are irrelevant and even dangerous considerations in a university context: universities are simply too important for Society to be measured like that (also see the attached Pillars document).

* what would you like to see achieved by a Senate enquiry?

AAUP Council:

Proper funding for universities. There needs to be a “bailout” (see below).

Safeguards to ensure that academic freedom remains a key pillar of an effective democracy.

The strongest whistle-blower protections because they are of increasing importance for the democratic evolution of a knowledge-based society.

A sustainable funding model that recognizes the core role that universities play in maintaining a strong and healthy democracy, that is not reliant on fickle sources of foreign income from a limited number of countries.

Currently $4 out of $5 received is for teaching. Teaching has to subsidise research and this means a reliance on sessional teaching staff. Real costs of research are not funded. When student numbers fall, research funding is put in jeopardy. This is not viable and highly counterproductive.

Government needs to make sure the politisation of research funding (e.g. NHMRC) is reduced and the funding decisions are left to academics who know how research works so that they can build a primarily merit-based funding system. Research needs to be sustainable and following fashions is not how it works in reality.

Quoting a colleague:

“I think that the situation is quite difficult because there is simply not enough money for basic research. I particularly deplore that many funding agencies have shifted their support from basic to translational research. I as a taxpayer would always insist that my money goes to basic rather than translational research, because in a capitalist Western system, as soon as there is something to translate, as soon as there is a product that can be brought to market, there are mechanisms to take care of that. Basic research has historically provided the most valuable ­insights – valuable not only in the intellectual sense but also in the economic sense. That tends to get lost at the moment. There is also a tendency of some funding agencies to force conglomerates of researchers into collaboration. Innovative science is ultimately a grass roots enterprise driven by individuals – it’s people being allowed to follow their ideas, and that needs to be protected.”

We need to remind the Government that they are essentially the only source of basic research funding and it is more important than ever that this continue.

* would there be a better way of saving money than cutting staff?

AAUP Council:

An across the board salary ‘sacrifice’ scaled as a proportion of salary, for a defined period of time, might be sensible – but this cannot solve the problem long-term.

We think there needs to be a “bailout” because losing especially the research potential would be fatal. Maintaining the latter truly is in the national interest rather than government interference in individual funding decisions which hinders research progress that is international.

Given their most important  role as a protector of society, universities should be funded at least as well as conventional defence. This will be the most effective way to ‘vaccinate’ society against non-democratic (incl. misleading social media and foreign) influences and to educate future generations that are capable of controlling and making the best use of artificial intelligence capabilities.

* any suggestions you have on the way forward for this sector

AAUP Council:

Yes, we would like to refer to the attached “Pillars of a University” document which has been agreed by fellow professors at all Australian universities.

It is time to accept that top-down corporate style decision making has failed our universities. While the old collegial model is long gone, we need to shift to a more shared model of university governance. Academic staff need a much stronger voice over academic matters within their institutions, especially in regards to decisions that will impact on teaching and research.  We need to acknowledge that the self-managed and intrinsically motivated nature of academic work is fundamental to open enquiry and critique inherent in academic freedom and the search for truth.

AAUP Council, 5 June 2020

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