The greatest threat to unis comes from their own leadership

Crikey, August 28 2014. Read the original here.

In poll after poll, the public has demonstrated its overwhelming opposition to the deregulation of university fees, as to the other austerity measures in the budget. But university vice-chancellors don’t seem to share this opposition — and if they get what they want, it will change Australian society forever.

In yet another illustration of the gulf typically separating leaders from the mainstream view in their organisations, VCs have sided with Education Minister Christopher Pyne in supporting deregulation and the further marketisation of higher education. In doing so, they have supported a key plank of a regressive political agenda that, if implemented, will comprehensively dismantle social protections in this country.

Deregulation’s effect is clear: it will deepen the entrenchment of educational disadvantage and the enclosure of knowledge in our society. The government and its supporters say deregulation is the only way to safeguard “quality”. “Quality”, however, has a nasty habit of lining up with privilege — and there’s a simple analogy that shows why the “quality” argument for deregulation is so wrong.

In a food shortage, it would be unconscionable to argue that the rich should be allowed adequate nourishment while everyone else gets by, or not, on iron rations. Like food-resources, education is a human right that should be equally available to everyone. No one should receive a worse education just because they lack socio-economic clout or — what is often the same thing — high exam results

In essence, deregulation will ensure that only students who can afford to assume substantial debt will get something approaching an adequate education, whereas the poor will be fobbed off with a low-cost, casually taught, overcrowded alternative — if, that is, they make it to university at all.

Group of Eight vice-chancellors in particular have disguised their opposition to educational equity with progressive-sounding cavils about accessibility to university. Speaking on Lateline, Sydney’s Michael Spence described the choice facing the University of Sydney after deregulation as between giving a “lot” of financial support to a small number of scholarship holders, or a “little” support to a lot of them. Either way, it’s clear that Spence doesn’t envisage any significant relief from higher fees for most students. A 2013 Brookings paper demonstrates that the vast majority of poor but high-achieving students do not even apply to selective American universities.

“Vice-chancellors have singularly failed to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity they so frequently profess.”

It is unacceptable that the leaders of institutions that profess to be committed to the public good are barracking for the educational dispossession of substantial sectors of the community. Melbourne VC Glyn Davis is effectively encouraging Labor to side with the Coalition to guarantee deregulation passes the Senate.

Deregulation will inevitably create winners and losers, both in terms of institutions and of students. But there is nothing about supposedly “elite” institutions like the ANU or the Universities of Melbourne or Sydney that justifies their flourishing at the expense of universities like Wollongong or Canberra. And even if deregulation would allow those universities to climb up the — deeply problematic — league tables, from the perspective of social justice, mediocre standards for all is far preferable to the educational disadvantage of the many for the benefit of the few.

In a just world, free public education would be funded through higher taxes — particularly on wealthy CEOs like the leaders of Australia’s universities.

Spence met with Pyne this week for further lobbying, but university leaders should be using their positions to publicly argue against funding cuts. Perhaps if vice-chancellors had forcefully defended educational equity in public, over the long term, deregulation wouldn’t now even be being suggested.

Instead, VCs’ market tunnel vision, weakness in advocacy for their own institutions, and subservience to the agenda of the main parties have helped create a political climate in which higher education has become an easy target for budget savings.

It is not too much to ask of the VC of the country’s oldest university that he defend higher education from cuts, not recommend to the government the optimal way of making them. But that is exactly what Michael Spence did on Tuesday, advising that a 14% cut would be more palatable to the crossbench than the original figure of 20%: “If we delay the onset of the Commonwealth grant scheme to private providers, then Mr Pyne will only have to pass on 14% in funding cuts, not 20% as planned — and he’ll have an easier time selling this to the crossbenchers.”

Vice-chancellors have singularly failed to live up to the ideals of social justice and equity they so frequently profess. It is a dark day when universities’ greatest threat comes from their own leadership.

Fortunately, what happens in higher education funding isn’t just up to VCs. Despite its own VC’s support for deregulation, a heated public meeting on Monday night at the University of Sydney voted overwhelmingly against it. This should give confidence to the ALP, Palmer United and Greens to hold the line: the public is against deregulation, whatever university leaders think.

The community must continue to speak out and mobilise opposition to these deeply inequitable reforms in universities and elsewhere. In the face of our leaders’ negligence, it’s up to ordinary people to act in the interests of a fairer society.

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