IPA attack presents gift to sector

Do communities really think that universities are bloated and in decline? If they listen to the Institute of Public Affairs, then it is possible that they do –  but the latest attack on the sector actually represents a gift.

There is a worrying trend in public debate to assume that hastily constructed arguments cobbled together without evidence are an acceptable proxy for reality, if pedalled by the right person.

Hence when Federal Education Minister Jason Clare warned that universities were at risk of losing their social licence because they were enrolling too many international students, it was reported as fact, without a great deal of digging to understand whether that was true. We know there are surveys on which professions are most trusted, but actual market research into the sector’s social licence? MIA.

Similarly, when Peter Dutton criticised the University of Sydney for making too much money by enrolling too many international students, nobody required an explanation as to how many students constitutes the Coalitions measure of ‘too many’ (nor why the party of free enterprise has a problem with accumulating cash, but that’s a side issue in this discussion).

Hot on the heels of empty rhetoric dressed up as fact, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has presented universities with a gift, by mounting an attack on university staffing; “Universities Spend Billions Each Year To Not Teach Students.”

The IPA’s media release has at least gone to the trouble of trotting out a couple of graphs to support their argument, but then get lost in a wave of shrill accusations based on misunderstandings of how the sector works.

The IPA’s cutting edge research looked at publicly-available data on HE staffing published by the Federal Government to criticise the fact that 57% of all university staff are classified as professional or non-academic.

However, the release then takes a bad turn, mistaking the antiquated dichotomy of professional vs academic staffing as a marker of unproductive vs productive, shrieking about ‘bloated bureaucracy’ ‘the proliferation of work strategic commitments,’ and ‘ a culture that is more interested in growing and sustaining a bureaucracy for its own benefit.’

“It can be no surprise that the teaching quality of Australia’s top ranked universities is in decline when resources are disproportionately poured into administration over teaching and research,” the release says.

The fundamental problem here is the assumption that professional = hanger on/useless and academic = gilt edged productivity machine. Many have already written about the questionable relevance of this dichotomy, given the requirements for so many staff to exert their labours on both sides of the fence.

However, the attack is useful – to help understand the misconceptions held by others and also because it demonstrates the issues with continuing to persist with the antiquated professional/academic dichotomy. How should learning technologists be classified? What about experts in generative AI assessment security, or teaching methodology, or institutional positioning? Is it time to consider allowing more professional staff to lead institutions as VCs?

The sector criticism from both sides of politics and the IPA are a wake up call to the sector. Bouquets of boosterism where institutions compete to tell the world how important they are to their communities are an unheard monologue that have defined sector positioning for decades.

Third party endorsement – where allies and even grudging adversaries speak up on your behalf – is comprehensively drowned out (when it exists) by community apathy or antipathy.

Until now, the sector has thrived despite governmental and community indifference and declining real funding streams because it has been able to make up the shortfall with international fees.

As Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton fight for bragging rights on who can be tougher on migration, universities are left in a new world of increasing regulation, no revenue parachute and no hint of communities marching in the streets to rally for their institutions.

Which means new political skills, but also new community engagement skills are needed – right now. The outlook for the sector doesn’t have to be dire – it will only remain so if we cling to the models of the past.



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