Neither university nor corporation

If the University of Sydney really intends to be run like a corporation, it should start behaving like one, writes Alexi Polden.

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The University’s new strategic plan settles it. So far as the powers that be are concerned, the University is breaking free of its pesky cocoon of academia and is taking flight as a fully formed corporate insect.

Just for a moment, let’s put aside the debate about how education institutions should be run, and imagine we’re settled the corporate approach is best. Imagining it is, you’ve got to ask yourself.

Is the University any good at it?

From administration to governance the scorecard isn’t great. As a friend of mine said the other day, USyd couldn’t organise a booze up at a brewery.

My friend made that comment after the University failure to promote its own screening of a documentary about sexual assault, The Hunting Ground. The screening was organised (I use that word loosely) in part by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Registrar) Tyrone Carlin, presumably in response to criticism of the University’s repeated failure to take sexual assault and harassment on campus seriously.

The screening was never advertised, and neither Carlin nor any member of the University’s Student Support Services attended. The Director of Student Support Services and management liaison for the University’s sexual harassment working group, Jordi Austin, told SRC Wom*ns Officer Anna Hush even she hadn’t been told about the screening.

It’s not hard to advertise an event on campus, just about every student club and does it regularly, yet it’s somehow beyond the grasp of University administration. I’d hate to see them attempt it in the private sector.

Okay, so what about customer service? You’d expect the fact USyd constantly touts its “student experience” as a selling point would mean it treats students with respect. Not so.

Due to the utter failure of information technology that is Sydney Student, it took me weeks of emails and sitting on hold to finalise my enrolment this year. By the time I was enrolled, timetables were out and it was near impossible to arrange my classes around work.

This was made infinitely harder and slower by the fact that I couldn’t speak to any faculty staff—instead I was directed to the central student line (1800 SYD UNI). The call-centre staff couldn’t actually process anything themselves, though, instead their role seemed to be CC’ing me into emails with faculty trying to sort things out.

I’m the first to admit the preceding paragraph reads like something posted by an enraged customer on the Facebook page of any second rate telephone company – and that’s kind of my point – it’s the kind of service I’d expect from my budget telephone plan, not Australia’s (self described) “leading higher education and research University”.

In the corporate governance stakes USyd doesn’t rate much better either. For the third time in seven years, the Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating the University.

In 2012, ICAC made a finding of corrupt conduct against University IT manager Atilla “Todd” Demiralay, and made seven anti-corruption recommendations to the University to prevent the practice occurring again. The University duly said it would clean up its act.

It doesn’t seem to have stuck. ICAC is once more investigating irregularities in IT contracting arranged by Jason Meeth, a senior member of the University’s ICT department. In his opening address, counsel assisting ICAC, Warwick Hunt, said it would also be looking at “how the system allowed such conduct to occur and go undetected during the period that it was undertaken” and that “evidence suggests that there was a failing by management more senior than Mr Meeth to identify that policies were being breached during the relevant period.”

If those allegations – which Mr Meeth denies – are borne out, it raises serious questions.

If any business were hauled before the corporate regulator as much as the University is before ICAC it wouldn’t just raise questions, it’d raise eyebrows.

Now, I won’t deny that the University has been getting pretty good at balancing its books lately. It’s a shame that they’ve achieved their fiscal responsibility through – among other things – staff cutbacks, increasing class sizes and treating international students like ATMs.

Unfortunately, running a business is about more than balancing books. For that matter, so is running a university. I’m not quite sure they’re doing the best job at either.