catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Australia's mediocre Vice-Chancellors

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Politics aside, one of the biggest problems Australia faces is a lack of talent at the top of its major institutions. I was generally optimistic about Australia’s future until I met its Vice-Chancellors. What a drab lot. I expected a group of dynamic heavy-hitters to lead the nation’s universities, but the standard is very poor.

The Latham Diaries, 18 October 1998.

I had the same surprise when I met a good proportion of Australia’s Vice-Chancellors, around the same time as Latham was doing the university rounds. He was the Shadow Education Minister until his post-1998 election dummy spit; I was still the actual Minister’s Higher Education Adviser. There were exceptions of course (I ended up working for one of them, and am lucky to have scored another in Glyn Davis), but bold visionaries were few and far between. The basic mentality was of a mid-level bureaucrat – a bit of tinkering, and more public money please. The intellectual quality of their policy advocacy was low. I would have embarrassed myself had I used any of the AVCC’s arguments in internal government discussions.

Monash Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins’ opinion piece in today’s Age is a case in point. He makes the usual objections to VSU and reasonable points about the government’s micro-management and arbitrary rule. But then, instead of a bold plan to free Monash from the burdens he describes, he says:

Perhaps instead of the ideological trivia, we should have the Government focusing on why public expenditure per Australian student has fallen 30 per cent in real terms since 1995, the biggest fall of any country in the OECD and in stark contrast to marked increases in public expenditure in many countries that seem to value their young people and the contribution they can make to economic development….Government might also discuss how it can support the universities which, with little help, have developed an export industry worth $7 billion a year to Australia, our fourth largest export.

Larkins had a brilliant medical and academic career (he was Dean of Medicine at Melbourne before taking the Monash job). But such is the dulling effect of becoming a Vice-Chancellor that instead of planning to put himself in a position where he could ignore the interference coming from Canberra, he wants greater dependence on the key to Ministerial meddling, Commonwealth grants. It’s another example of what I call the Vice-Chancellors’ battered wife syndrome: they complain after every beating, but they keep going back for more.

Larkins’ whinging critique of government policy is a hopeless political strategy. In the University of Melbourne’s Library there is a 1952 publication by the AVCC which, hilariously, has much the same arguments they are still running more than half a century later. It didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work now. They need to break out of the current system – which Melbourne is partly trying to do– by pushing for full power to set their own fees, and by refusing to sign future funding agreements until the government agrees to relax regulation. They have to take responsibility for their own futures. But like other long-term welfare dependants, no matter how much they hate their current circumstances they have trouble imagining the world any other way.

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Written by Admin

December 16, 2005 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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