A Corporation By Any Other Name

‘It is clear that staff and students must look beyond any idealized perceptions of the ‘University’ to the purpose of the university as a business’, writes Catrina Yu.

The University of Sydney

In November 2011 amid the end of semester celebrations, the Vice Chancellor serendipitously announced that despite recording high end-of-year profits, the University was to “reconsider” up to 340 jobs.

The University of Sydney

The performance of academic staff was to be solely assessed by the number of ‘outputs’ published within an arbitrary time frame with those not fulfilling their quota placed on a ‘hit-list’. A recent leaking of the “list” (the existence of which is disputed) in The Drum revealed some inter

esting names, almost all of whom are National Tertiary Education Union Members. It remains unclear how the ‘performance’ of administrative staff will be quantitatively assessed.

At such moments of unanimous outrage, let us consider some similar examples. Within the past few months, ANZ openly announced that profits come first, and its employees, somewhere further down the list. Their unwillingness to risk any marginal portion of their $24.3 billion profit recorded in 2011 seemed to fit the preconceived reputation of its corporate image. Fellow financial institutions such as Westpac in preparation for slowing growth announced that 560 positions were likely to be culled. Although those directly affected were rightfully outraged, commentators and the general public were less emotive in their response, describing the circumstances as ‘unfortunate’. Given the current financial climate, many deemed the move ‘understandable’.

Unfortunately it seems that in the realm of tertiary education, the image of academic benevolence the universities attempt to foster are in tension with its ‘strategic plan’ of widening its profit intake. Strategic plans, annual reports and by-laws entrench the operations of tertiary education providers in a safe corporate model where “teaching” is, on the surface, respected but in reality incidental.

Now academic communities at many universities are stifled in a daze of mixed messages. In a push by students, petitions are emerging in attempts to save individual staff members. Blogs are inundated with disgust at the actions of the VC as negative PR for the University has never been this actively robust. In contrast however, the public adoption of business models by large corporations have been rewarded by public resignation and apathy.

To be fair to the University, it is no secret when hiring academics (on the contrary, it is made painfully explicit) that employees must contribute extensively to research in their respective fields as well as executing a host of other teaching duties.

Unfortunately the façade of University as a teaching institution may have misled potential employees and students as to the primary purpose of this multi-billion dollar business. Should the university base their operations on what the
academics and students want when they can adhere to the large corporation business model they so easily fall under?

It is clear that staff and students must look beyond any idealized perceptions of the ‘University’ to the purpose of the university as a business. There must be a prioritized effort to understand why the institution that has evolved (for better or for worse). The alternative result may be the complete exclusion of those who have the highest stake in this game from an increasingly one-sided dialogue.