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The University of Melbourne is among many Australian universities facing tough times ahead

‘Universities are public institutions with public functions’: Getting back to tradition

More than 1200 members of Australia’s academic community have signed an open letter to state and federal education ministers to overturn what they see as a current corporate model of university governance and return it to its traditional roots.

Three Southern Cross University academics, Alessandro Pelizzon, Martin Young and Renaud Joannes-Boyau, penned the letter, concerned the Australian higher education sector is heading for an irrevocable crisis.

In an article the trio authored for The Conversation, they wrote that “large-scale redundancies are announced almost daily, with estimates of up to 21,000 jobs at risk this year alone”.

Just as problematic is financial modelling conducted by the University of Melbourne which found that “prospects for the even the richest universities are bleak, while poorer universities face a veritable existential crisis”. The article also states that the impact of job losses at regional universities will be even more significant, given the critical contribution they make to their local economies.

But can we just write these bleak statistics off as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, according to the authors of the article and the 1200 academics who have signed the letter to “return to a more democratic, cost-effective and functional structure for Australia’s universities”, the answer is a resounding 'no'.

The rise of the corporate university

Instead of COVID-19, the authors assert that the financial problems facing Australian universities now are the product of a “profound transformation over the last few decades” that has resulted in universities that “mirror the hierarchical corporate structures of the commercial sector”.

Pelizzon, a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University, attests to witnessing this corporate shift in Australian universities some fifteen years ago. In stark contrast to Italy (where he completed his first degrees), and what he learnt from his conversations with colleagues who had been trained in many different countries, he realised that the Australian model of higher education was distinctly hierarchical and corporatised.  

“It emerged that the Australian model was significantly more hierarchical, and more oriented toward a commercial corporate narrative than what we were all used to in the rest of the world," Pelizzon told Campus Review.

“Over the past 10 years, I have definitely sensed an intensification of this model, with increasing recourse to market-based justifications for any strategic decisions made both within individual faculties and at a wider university level. Decisions have been increasingly centralised in the hands of a few, with little (if any) input from the rest of the collegium,” he said.

“Furthermore, decisions have been increasingly made without any transparency, and every conversation, every decision, every strategy appears to be under a cone of silence protected by confidentiality clauses (be they legitimate or not).

“It’s not what universities are intended to be by law, nor what they are in the vast majority of the world’s countries. Rather, this shift is simply the result of habits. And now, the current COVID crisis has revealed, these habits have proven to be utterly unprepared to deal with a sudden crisis.”

This, the authors of the article remind their readers, bears no resemblance to the tradition of public universities for the public good in Australia.

“Public Australian universities are created by legislation which enables them as statutory bodies with delegated legislative powers, similar to local councils,” the academics told The Conversation.

“Universities are not commercial corporations; councils are not boards of directors. Vice-chancellors are not CEOs and students are not customers.”

The impact of the shift to the commercial corporate model

The article’s authors contend that Australia’s transition to a commercial corporate paradigm of higher education has weakened the very tradition referred to above. For instance, they allege the new model has seen intense competition between institutions, “aggressive student recruitment”, plump marketing budgets and increasing demands on staff productivity.

Regrettably, it has also brought about a casualisation of the higher education workforce (particularly tutors), “increasingly autocratic councils” and a cohort of very well paid senior and executive managers.

Can this structural fragility of the Australian sector be fixed?

While Pelizzon told Campus Review that the current pandemic was obviously impossible to predict, he also explains that the threat of such a crisis was considered by many in the sector.

“For this reason, over the past decade or two, many have advocated a reduction of excessive spending and capital investments, a reduction of both the numbers and the salaries of the managerial cohort, and a more judicious management of universities’ budgets, to lessen their reliance on the international student market,” he said.

“Moreover, a huge portion of universities’ budgets is dedicated to domestic marketing. However, such an investment of ultimately public funds is profoundly wasteful, as it creates a somewhat cannibalistic competition for the same pool of students.”

Another key impediment Pelizzon highlights in fixing the structural fragility of the sector is that the current commercial corporate model “does not incentivise increasingly autocratic managers to be thrifty”.

“However, since universities are not private institutions, they are not allowed (nor should they be allowed) to fail, as they still provide an essential service to the nation. As a result, the lack of ultimate accountability for what are now clearly identifiable as previous mistakes suggests that the commercial corporate model is not serving Australia in providing an effective university sector.”

Can the sector return to the traditional model of old?

Despite the pervasiveness of the corporate commercial model, Pelizzon is optimistic the Australian university sector can return to its “original legislative intent” through the readoption of transparency, accountability and collegiality.

“Transparency could be achieved rather promptly, as it could be rapidly legislatively mandated that all budgetary decisions, as well as all university council meetings are made public at all times (unless issues of individual privacy require confidentiality, of course, but these instances are relatively rare),” he said.

“Accountability requires a more significant change, which can still be achieved through legislative action: university council and governance could be regulated more rigorously, limiting the ability of councils to autocratically regulate themselves, and limiting the salaries paid to managers and executives.”

Finally, Pelizzon contends that collegiality could be achieved through either of two means: again legislation, or, perhaps more pragmatically and  democratically, “reorganising the internal structures of each university… allowing its members to participate in the selection, nomination and election of all academic managerial roles.”

“In all cases, the will to reassert the ultimate intent of universities (to be the ‘collegial collective of all students and scholars’, as the etymological meaning of ‘university’ suggests, focused on the pursuit of research, academic inquiry, and advanced pedagogy) must be the driving force behind any of the proposed changes.”

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  1. Milovan Urosevic

    Great Article, spot on. Add me to the 1200 list.

  2. How do academics think universities will be able to survive in this era without the government funding of old?

    We need our universities to perform to attract good students, but stay viable at the same time.

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