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This time, it’s worse

Humanities academics are wearily accustomed to attacks on their disciplines from politicians, the media, and increasingly, from their own university administrations. The latest assault from the Australian Catholic University, however, has taken us to a new level. More than 30 high performing and internationally respected academics, primarily in the disciplines of history, philosophy and medieval studies, are being forced into redundancies and two ‘world-leading’ research departments are being closed down.

The university is experiencing a ‘budget crisis’, and has chosen to cut research expenditure as one means of addressing it. The research budget, however, is not the problem. It has reputedly returned surpluses as the result of a significantly successful investment in building capacity under the former Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), Wayne McKenna. ‘Research’, he is reported as saying, ‘can’t be behind this sudden deficit’.

Most disturbing is the fact that these redundancies have particularly affected academics who have only recently been headhunted from prestigious institutions overseas — from Cambridge, Oxford and Yale, for instance. Lured away from secure jobs on the promise of being part of a major investment in the university’s future, they have now found themselves abandoned in a new country, without a job, and little prospect of finding one here in a shrinking sector.

Little wonder these individuals feel misled and betrayed. Some are considering legal action.

Cynical, irresponsible or just incompetent

Pulling the plug on a strategic investment of this magnitude, after only a year or two, is almost unheard of. And the aggressive, ‘sledgehammer’, approach taken by the administration is as unusual, these days, as it is counterproductive.

Universities that are run wisely do their best to plan long term. Knowledge isn’t generated overnight and the conditions for its production take years to develop. It is widely accepted (in principle, if perhaps not quite so much in practice) that those conditions must be developed in consultation with those directly affected by them. Resorting to such a sudden and unilateral shift in strategy as ACU has done not only arrogantly disregards such a process, but it also looks like incompetence.

Further, this can be seen as a cynical exploitation of the ‘pause’ in the ERA. If the ACU is betting that research quality will no longer matter much into the future, they could well regret taking that chance.

As the university’s research performance falls away, so the pressure will rise on their accreditation. Already, their international reputation has taken a big hit. In 2023, the university’s standing in the Times Higher Education university rankings had them in the cohort between 251 and 300. Not stellar, then … but wait. The THE rankings for 2024 has them as much as 200 places lower, in the cohort that sits between 401 and 500.

This is taking the university back to the same position they were in before, when their accreditation was threatened, and when Wayne McKenna bailed them out by hiring precisely the people they are sacking now.

The expanding gap between universities and their staff 

Unfortunately, this just the most extreme example of maladministration in the university sector over recent years, driven by a major shift in how universities now see themselves and how they should be managed.

The signs of that shift are everywhere. They include the systemic underpayment of staff, the excessive casualization of the workforce, profligate spending on consultants, inadequate transparency and accountability processes, degraded learning experiences for students, over-reliance on international student income, the raiding of teaching budgets to pay for research, bloated administrative structures, and the dogged resistance to doing anything about the deteriorating working conditions of academic staff.

As I argued in The Shrinking Nation, the marketization of the university sector has resulted in a deepening divide between what university academics think their institution is for, and what university administrators think it should do.

The point is also made in Ruth Barcan’s otherwise appreciative review of Michael Wesley’s recent book on the Australian university system. In this book, she says, ‘as in higher education policy and politics more broadly, “universities” does not mean “academics”. As a result, Wesley can breezily observe that our system ‘entered the third decade of this century “secure and confident”’. There can’t be many academics at ACU who feel like that.

Insecure, fed-up, and looking for the exit

Instead, as Barcan says, the experience of academic employment in Australia over the last decade or two has been a ‘slow decline before the calamitous fall over the precipice’. Even those who are securely employed, and that is less than half the sector, are ‘ground down, quietly despairing, and looking for a Plan B’ in another field of endeavour.

I’ve worked in the sector since the 70s, but this is as bad as I can remember — for university staff in general and for humanities academics in particular. A central national resource, fundamental to a civil society and years in the making, has become expendable as more and more of our national life surrenders its legitimacy to the logics of the market.


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