Cruel Irony or Structural Cruelty? How Good People are Destroying Our Universities

It is a cruel irony when good people act to destroy something that they love in the name of keeping it going. Intellectuals unfortunately have a proclivity for such activity. We do not need hard-edged neoliberals to do it to us: academic managers can be calmly efficient about the process, and, despite an articulate and active critical minority, many academics have over the last couple of decades quietly allowed it happen with little sustained response.

On 19 June Australian Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced that the government would change the levels of its contribution to supporting higher-education places by prospectively changing the fees charged to students by unit (subject), with units in most areas of the humanities and social and behavioural sciences to cost twice as much. This policy did not send university executives into paroxysm of protest. Rather, they quietly talked of ‘challenges’ and meekly accepted this pronouncement as part of current trends: the undermining of the autonomy and responsibility of universities to define their mission and their contribution to the social good; the redefining of universities as utilitarian institutions for training students; and the effective narrowing down of the usefulness of that training to a single outcome—providing job-ready individuals for a changing market.

Last week an apparently simple speech gave the current condition of crisis in the university sector a whole new evocative turn. It described how listening to jazz music can be our consolation. In a video address to the staff of the University of Melbourne, Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell responded to the pain of his staff and talked about his own pain. He seems like a good man. And he obviously loves jazz (as do I). The video appears to have been filmed in his home, using the simple backdrop of a black marble fireplace. He read from a prepared speech:

Hello, everyone. It has been a really tough week for the university, for all our university and for me. I want to say that up front. No beating about the bush. I know that there will be a lot of people feeling pain and anxiety, and a large part of that will be because of the announcement that I made after the Council meeting last Wednesday, made worse by the stricter lockdown that we are all under now. I want to acknowledge those feelings…

What was this announcement? I waited to find out. He went on to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the university stands. And then he talked about Australia’s COVID news. For a while his address became like an editorial summation of what needs to be done to respond to the pandemic. And then it finally came, the cause of the pain: ‘We will have to lose around 450 permanent jobs’, he said. I could now see why it had been a bad week for him. ‘I am really sorry that we have to do this.’ And that was it! A pronouncement from on high, hard on the back of an all-staff email: a large number of colleagues will be sacked or asked to take voluntary redundancies.

Another issue, which the VC didn’t mention, resonated in the background. Two days earlier, the ABC posted that the University of Melbourne had quietly begun to repay millions of dollars to casual staff members after years of systemic wage theft. According to the National Tertiary Education Union’s estimate, the Faculty of Arts owes an estimated $6 million in unpaid wages to precarious staff—an average of $10,000 per person, thus making a serious difference in the lives of the casuals who make up 72.9 per cent of the university’s academic staff. A few people have worked for a long time for this to be recognised.

So, how do we go on from here? The Vice Chancellor’s university colleagues do not get to discuss novel ways of responding to the COVID crisis collegially—together. One possibility is to move all the most highly paid people—the executive and professorial staff—to ongoing fractional appointments, thus saving money to support their early-career and less well-paid colleagues.

This is not suggested lightly. And here I do not just mean a short-term 20-per-cent pay cut. In the shift to what has been called ‘the entrepreneurial university’, senior staff salaries have both proportionally outstripped the salaries of other university staff, and substantially increased in number. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne earns three times the salary of the Prime Minister of Australia, and that is in addition to his other income. Maskell is co-founder of four biotech companies, including Arrow Therapeutics, which sold to biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Another, Discuva Ltd, and its spin-out, Bactevo Ltd, sold to Summit Therapeutics. He is also a non-executive director of the FTSE 250 company Genus plc, in which capacity he was paid $67,000 in 2018, the year he was appointed as VC. His basic salary, before other benefits, is around 25 times higher than his lower-paid higher administrative colleagues, and 30 times the median wage of medical and other healthcare workers in Australia. Australian executive salaries are the highest in the world.

But these lower-paid university colleagues do not get to discuss different alternatives. For example, the projected loss of around $350 million per annum over the next three years could comfortably be covered by the university’s reserves of $3.9 billion (a government estimate). It seems to be of no matter that the university’s 2019 financial report lists approximately $6.856 billion in total equity (or wealth).

No, this decision will be passed down by the vice chancellor to other good people to get rid of a proportion of their working colleagues: deans of faculty, including one who loves French literature; heads of school, including one who revels in the poetry of William Blake; and professional staff members who during the COVID crisis are working out of their bedrooms and lounge rooms while home-schooling their children. They will be asked to set up the conditions for ‘losing’ their colleagues.

Let me be clear here. There is nothing negative or snide in what I am saying about these university administrators. They will not want to do what they will be asked to do. Here, the cruel irony (of destroying people’s working lives in order to balance the budget) shifts into a further phase: what might be called ‘structural cruelty’. That is, apparently neutral processes—guiding procedures—will be put in place to guide who will be targeted for redundancy. Within the overall structure of the entrepreneurial university, including a financial structure that requires that a significant proportion of international fee-paying students are recruited annually, certain staff will be rationally and neutrally ‘surplus to requirements’.

Cruel ironies continue to abound. University of Melbourne Provost Professor Mark Considine, charged with overseeing the process of budget saving, was once a researcher who co-authored, with Simon Marginson, The Enterprise University which criticised this sort of thing. But then, that was many years ago. More recently Considine oversaw the university’s ‘Business Improvement Program’, unfondly referred to as BIP. As a cost-saving measure, BIP effected the sacking of most of the professional staff at the University of Melbourne, with everybody required to reapply for restructured and often downgraded positions. Even if Considine, like many others, sees himself as acting proportionately to save the university, structural cruelties will take over.

The fact that this will be carried out by good people with uncomfortable (mostly private) worries, and that it is happening across the Australian university sector, clearly indicates that what is happening is structural. I use the University of Melbourne as an example only because it is the richest university in Australia and thus has the greatest capacity to do otherwise and to push back against the neoliberal de-funding of the sector. The University of New South Wales has already announced that, as an efficiency measure, it will cut almost 500 full-time jobs and combine three faculties—all while pushing ahead on its $1-billion project to build a security and defence campus in Canberra. Deakin University has already effectively sacked 300 staff and is seeking the redundancies of 400 more. And across Australia, the redundancy figures do not count the hundreds of sessional staff across the sector who have found themselves without new contracts.

After briefly noting his pain, the VC of the University of Melbourne went on to talk about his other great love, music. In these difficult times, he said, continue ‘to remember that there are many beautiful things to appreciate’. He gave us three jazz melodies to listen to: ‘Them There Eyes’, by Ella Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, by Frank Sinatra, and ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, again by Frank Sinatra. The title of the last song, he noted, raised many ironies in this time of COVID. However, he seemed to miss the consideration that 450 people may not be consoled by such music as they reflect upon what happened in 2020, not to mention the countless casuals who have been dropped, often without even the courtesy of an email.

But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

The structural issues that lie behind the current upheaval have long been in the making: a framing tendency to treat the university as if it were a line-management corporation; the recruiting of ever-increasing proportions of fee-paying international students to cover budget deficiencies; a shift of emphasis from learning as intellectual engagement to more instrumental intellectual training and, increasingly, job-readiness preparation; and the redirecting of research engagement towards getting grants.

In this context, fighting for the future of the university will need much more than a glass of vintage melancholy before settling down to an evening of efficient budget management.

About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

More articles by Paul James

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.


There’s a memory, from excursions into the literature associated with “faculty democracy” and “student democracy”, of some number of universities in the state of New York who, in the earlier moments of the 20th century, were together resisting what they called the presidentialisation of their institutions.

If Arne Naess were still with us he might explain that universities, like many other institutions, fell into step with the ideology of market-logics. Michael Freeden might agree with this (would be great to know!).

The view became that a collegiate, more or less “flat”, and bicameral (faculty + student) or tricameral (faculty + student + demarchic body of some kind from outside the university), could not govern their university as well as a military-style, chain-of-command, top-down, hierarchy with a professional body of expert managers at the top.

It is true that prior to the long (in time) inversion from the rule of the collegiate to the rule of the clercs (clerks + clerics) there were problems, and serious ones too: inefficiency, slowness, torpid and confused policy responses, students feeling disrespected, nepotism, clientelism, corruption, etc., which in some ways mimics the critiques that advocates of the market-logics leveled against states and public utilities providers for example.

You can see here that I’m heading toward the pendulum should swing back argument. It’s plain, but there it is. We have, and can, learn from the pathologies of collegiate rule and re-establish a better system in which the people who make up the university and find value in it (perhaps that tricameral approach would do) are responsible for governing it, caring for it.

There is no reason for the clercs, the highly paid managerial body. I welcome opinions counter to this view.

I agree, Jean-Paul. A managing collegiate, as opposed to a managerial clerkdom, would mean that being an academic manager did not mean becoming a manager for itself. Managerialism is very different from being a manager, cognisant of the pitfalls of the tyranny of budget-balancing. It would mean that the people who stepped into these important roles had the courage to step out of those roles, and support new colleagues who took up the mantle for a period. Unfortunately, they get addicted to the salaries, and their academic work drops away making it impossible to step back. Yes, we would need a very different colleagiate from the hand-on-the-shoulder boys club of the past, but these issues are worth addressing.

Excellent insights Paul into the insensitivities of obscenely overpaid senior managers who help perpetuate the corporate university, but alas many good people at other levels feel they have to play the game too if they want to remain employed / employable. Behind them is the pervasive power of HR operatives who bully or remove staff who stand in the way of ‘improvement processes’ or restructures; this is so much easier when so many are precariously employed. It’s so shameful. One correction Paul: surely 1000s of ‘casuals’ have been let go rather than hundreds. The only hope of redeeming universities as cultural institutions run for the public good is an external body or movement that has a say in how they are run, which will free staff to speak up, ie the tricameral structure already suggested

Yes, you are right, Hayden. Thousands not hundreds. I was being conservative, but this case being conservative is to mislead.

There are at least two issues here. I might have more respect for the managers who have had to comply with the budgetary constraints imposed by governments were they not at the same time using their institution’s resources to feather their own nests.
A further complication is that most of us working in universities over the past few decades are acutely aware that we have been (to all intents and purposes) selling degrees at all levels. A complete rethink is required in my view.

As an insider to events at you-know-where, I would say the real problem we face is a total failure to undertake a democratic debate over the financial crisis. You are correct – “But these lower-paid university colleagues do not get to discuss different alternatives”. The first we heard of cuts was a press release and all-staff message. The alternative I would have liked to discuss would have been along the lines of Raewyn Connell’s ideas for Australian universities, too detailed to report here (The Good University: what Universities actually do and why its time for radical change, Zed 2019). This would include maximum salaries for VCs and senior managers of a little above professorial salaries, with no bonuses, thus flattening the hierarchy. Also, making them more accountable. This means they do not do the job for the money but to use their leadership skills and out of dedication to the institution, something I once did as a manager myself. It is strange that senior academics at the institution are now perceived as a problem and being targeted for early retirement and after that, redundancy – with our modest salaries, 50+ hour weeks, and costly 17% super [for some]. As one of those, I have plenty of ideas for crisis management and exit. For a start, we should re-dedicate ourselves to teaching, which might mean universities cooperating rather than competing. Fees for international students need to be dramatically lowered. Profs do too little teaching, lured by fellowships and research. It is what pays the bills, and numbers of domestic students will rise for sure, so they are needed. Yes, this will cut back casual contracts. At the university in question, all suspect that the draconian solution of retrenching +-450 staff had already been made by the senior management and university council well before it was announced. The pandemic provided the structural framing for another round of cuts – we know ‘shared services’ professional staff restructuring discussions dated back to 2019 – unbelievable since BIP is not long in the past. The ‘structural’ history of the university in my experience has been nothing but cuts, restructuring, rebuilding, new initiatives some of which do not even see the light of day, and injudicious spending when money is available [mostly on infrastructure, some of which we will not need in a world where the physical campus is going to be less important, especially in arts/humanities/social sciences/non-experimental fields]. We hear the Chancellery will now suffer cutbacks at least – but who? Hard working teaching staff should never be retrenched in the middle of a recession, in an expensive city where there are no other jobs advertised – this is a socially unjust policy, when the alternative was finding a credit line for 3-5 years, listening to the grassroots. It is not caring for your employees, but jettisoning them .

Comments closed