The impetus for the creation of a group such as the Australian Association of University Professors (AAUP) is the recognition that universities are not achieving their objectives, or that there is some confusion about what these objectives are.

Over the last thirty years Australian universities have been transformed from educational institutions – places of learning – into education businesses. This has been the direct result of government policy to reduce funding thereby forcing the nation’s universities to become self-funding mainly through charging student fees, but also through the generation of intellectual property revenue. Most of this transformation has been achieved by charging exorbitant fees to overseas students.

The prime function of a university is to prepare tomorrow’s citizens to discharge the obligations that attend membership of an open democratic society, whether it be in government, professional life, or industry and the commercial world. The prime responsibility of universities is to their own nation or jurisdiction. Australian universities need to produce the next generation of leaders for Australia. 

Funding education is a responsibility of government. The conversion of the Australian universities into education businesses has been an initiative of government seeking to tie the university to the national economy. The initial architects were people of limited vision; those who have simply extended the business model based squarely on economic criteria to the neglect of the social in continued abnegation of their moral responsibility to Australian society. The administration of Australian universities is currently undertaken by a combined group of academics, bureaucrats and technocrats who operate under a corporate managerial model. The main goal has become to administer the universities efficiently in line with externally imposed policy gauged through multiple accountabilities and measurable outcomes. In this model, academic staff have little control over key decisions. While universities claim to have become more efficient, they have become less effective. The AAUP seeks to see Australian universities adopt a governance model that re-empowers the academics as key members of the decision-making process in their institutions. This will be a crucial step to ensuring our universities operate in line with social, cultural, economic, scientific and technological criteria that are in the best interest of the nation and the preparation of young Australians to become capable, critical, creative and responsible citizens in a robust democracy.

AAUP was created because Australian academics felt that time was nigh. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing the collapse of the current system of funding universities through the fees paid by overseas students. It is revealing the harm done by the casualisation of teaching, the unpaid overtime of academics, the disintegration of the tenure-based system of employment and advancement. Alongside this collapse in employment conditions has been the longitudinal underfunding of research, limiting and curtailing knowledge generation. Many academics in Australia have also been witness to the erosion of academic standards and the principle of academic freedom over the last decades, enabled by government policy and driven by a headlong chase for every dollar at any price.

We should regard the current COVID-19 pandemic as a singular opportunity to show the limitations of the policies of the last decades, and the way that the strengths of Australian universities have been eroded. It is our best chance to show beyond doubt that these policies are fundamentally erroneous.

The task for the AAUP is to develop strategies that will improve the dire situation our universities are currently in. It will also require change from within. Our strategies need to recognise that unnecessary confrontation is unlikely to be a viable way forward. We might look, for example, to ensuring that appointees to University councils are people who share our vision as formulated in the nationally agreed Pillars of what a University should be. We must avoid being labelled as a group of reactionaries seeking to restore a Utopia that has ceased to exist through economic necessity. This idea would be far from the truth. Instead, we need to develop a set of strategies that will lead to action. We must not be dismissed as a group of disenchanted critics who are noisy but ineffective. There are similar concerns among academics regarding the role of universities in Europe and the USA, and a range of alternative modes of governance which need to be explored.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that fundamental change can occur quickly, and it provides a real opportunity for a fresh start and to develop more sustainable and equitable universities.

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