Michael Spence: the fair controller?

The Vice Chancellor has been in the role for almost a decade; his drive to reshape the University seems to have only grown.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence. Vice Chancellor Michael Spence. Art: Justine Landis-Hanley/Nick Bonyhady.

The Vice Chancellor is a fan of trains. He alludes to railway gauges three times in our interview. Before his ascension to Vice Chancellor, Michael Spence says that “lots of railway gauge decisions were being made at the local level, and the University was absenting itself from the conversation.” This colonial metaphor is characteristic of a man with three honours degrees. In Federation negotiations, the Australian colonies had to decide on a common railway gauge for the nation, if trains were to smoothly connect cities and towns. Just as, in Spence’s view, the University has had to regiment its processes to work as one cohesive, efficient, equitable whole. It is a belief Spence holds sincerely, but does not apply consistently.

The colleges, Spence concedes, are “the ultimate railway gauge” ­— unaccountable and exclusive — ­but also notes that they are outside his jurisdiction. Spence is technically correct — the colleges were established by NSW statute and do not report to the Vice Chancellor, but that is not to say he lacks influence. In a city where so many are graduates of Sydney University, Spence enjoys a high profile in the media. On the one hand, Spence has used this status to publicly rebuke St Paul’s for initially refusing to play ball with the Broderick Review, but on the other, he has  advocated for the colleges’ independence, writing to NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes this year to urge him to “respect the different histories of the colleges as independent institutions”.

Spence also refuses to add his voice to calls for the colleges to publicly release former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s report into sexual harassment at their institutions. “There is a risk that individual students will be able to be identified [in the report]”, he says. “I don’t want there to be any chilling effect [from public disclosure], with Liz being able to be as absolutely open with them as possible.”

Spence’s desire to work with the colleges is understandable. As long as they remain independent, internal change is the only way forward, but the ‘softly, softly’ approach stands in marked contrast to Spence’s approach to other areas of the University.

At several points in his tenure, the Vice Chancellor has clashed with staff. In 2012, 100 staff members  were made redundant. There were seven days of strikes in 2013, as the University negotiated with staff over an enterprise agreement governing pay and conditions. Footage on YouTube shows strikers clashing physically with police. Some reported broken bones. The University’s reputation took a battering too, with several stories in national media. Nonetheless, 2017 has seen the University plough into another confrontation with staff over their pay. In some areas, Spence is not short of a backbone.

Staff want a 2.4 per cent annual pay rise along with a host of other benefits in the current round of enterprise agreement bargaining; the University is offering them 2.1 per cent. At a time when the University’s revenue is rapidly increasing — income figures show the University took in $130 million more in 2016 than 2015 —  it is galling to many staff that the University is offering a pay rise lower than the current rate of inflation. I ask whether staff deserve a real pay cut. Spence — the consummate communicator — retains his composure but is clearly vexed.

“We don’t make a profit, there is no profit”, he notes. “Some of the rhetoric… of the student organisations paints [the University] as if it were a company where there’s management that represents the interests of capital, and labour represented by unions… but there are no shareholders.”

Spence adds that a common argument — that ‘staff working conditions are student learning conditions’ —is “profoundly bogus”. “That’s for quoting,” he emphasises.

At the core of Spence’s argument is the proposition that, because all of the University’s expenditure ultimately benefits either staff or students, students should leave it to the Uni to divvy up the pot between specific expenses. Simplified enrolment processes and degree rules make it easier for students to get where they want to go, regardless of social capital or language skills. Best to let the University decide whether that is worth paying a lecturer a little less (railway gauges again). Spence brushes aside the numerous anecdotal concerns raised by staff and students that the new student services program is harder, not easier, to navigate.

According to this frame, where only data-driven evidence seems to count, the current pay offer makes sense. The University pays its staff very well. If its pay slips a little, it will still remain an attractive destination for academics. By contrast, when the University seeks to entice more and more international students, promotional websites and beautiful buildings are key.

Spence is aware that his ‘go big or go home’ strategy has its detractors. “Many of our alumni who were here when the University was much smaller say ‘the University has simply gotten too big… wouldn’t it be better if we all just studied Latin and medicine and three people got to go to University’.” In reply, the Vice Chancellor charges that growing the Uni produces dual benefits: it allows more people to access higher education, and underpins Sydney’s finances. Indeed, at an Academic Board meeting recently, the Vice Chancellor said that if the University did not continue to expand, it would “go broke”.

It is hard not to detect a certain circularity in the Vice Chancellor’s argument: the University will grow larger to fund buildings, teachers and research, which in turn will enable it to grow even larger. That would be an inherently virtuous cycle, were it not for the fact that there is no shortage of tertiary education in Sydney. Students who don’t get into USyd study at UNSW, Macquarie, UTS, Western Sydney University and Wollongong. Sydney’s gain is often these smaller universities’ loss. “A bit of competition is not bad for students,” he says. The fact that some of these universities are struggling financially is not Sydney’s problem, it seems.

At Knox Grammar, Spence was a high school debater. He has retained a knack for rhetorically tracing every decision back to a principle of equality. Whether those decisions are equitable is another question. Students might sit in spruce lecture halls, but their casual lecturers do not have sick leave. They might enjoy a great time at Sydney, but their peers at Wollongong may be struggling. The colleges remain practically insulated from pressure, but staff do not. Everyone is riding on the same tracks at USyd, but not everyone is in the first class carriage.