The privatisation by stealth of Sydney University

The near closure of SCA is part of a wider trend, writes Alexi Polden

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a cautionary tale for monarchs everywhere not to trust your own perception lest you end up baring your own naked vanity to the world. The University looks threatened by a similar fate; we are witnessing it as academic gown for an outfit with a more corporate cut. And, like our unlucky emperor, what that reveals may not be pretty.

The University would likely reject the analogy as hyperbolic.1 In response to this piece a University spokesperson made clear that there is no privatisation agenda behind the changes being made to how the University is run. The changes are billed as necessary to continue the University as “world class” and sustainable.

But what will tomorrow’s “world class” university look like, and how will it function? If recent changes are anything to go by the University 20 years from now might be “world class” in the agility stakes—but, like Usain Bolt, struggle to make it as a heavyweight.

Because, for all the claims that the University is becoming more responsive or more agile, what’s left unsaid is: more responsive to what? Time and time again the unspoken answer is bean counting, not academic excellence.

Take, for instance, the University handing over to private hands the reigns of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. According to an internal report circulated in May the hospital – currently a financial drain on the faculty – will be handed over to a company, VetFriends, in exchange for a fee. In return the company will be guaranteed the income stream on the hospital. Among other things, academic staff will become answerable to the company under the new arrangement. “For the avoidance of doubt” the report continues, teaching will remain the sole domain of the University.

It’s difficult to see that bearing out in the real world, when teaching vets will have to have one eye on the curriculum and another on their calculator. Expecting teaching to stay world class in an environment like that requires the same kind of intellectual contrition that was at play when the vet school seemed to think having a pet-food rep teach animal nutrition didn’t pose a conflict of interest. Indeed the report itself says that “Operating as part of the University, there are time consuming and restrictive requirements on every aspect of the business.” This begs the question: what do they expect is going to change? More to the point, should you even expect a teaching hospital to run like a business?

Financial sustainability is also the reason behind the changes to Sydney College of the Arts, which until last week was set to merge with UNSW’s School of Art and Design. In the face of extensive criticism the school is instead set to move onto the University’s Camperdown campus and will be absorbed into the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. While this looks like a backflip in response to criticism, a University spokesperson said that wasn’t the case, and “It was entirely expected that staff and students would be concerned at proposed changes.”

So, despite knowing it would be opposed by the people it would affect, the University resolved to cut the profligate artists down to size. This comes at a time that the University is embarking on an unprecedented construction binge on the Camperdown campus, including a glitzy new building for the Vice Chancellor and administrative staff.

While the University may have expected backlash to their plan, they don’t seem to have expected (or at least less planned for) providing Art facilities at the Camperdown campus. When asked what facilities would be available for Visual Art students at the Camperdown campus the spokesperson responded “They are being investigated now with various options being considered”.

Suffice to say, Sydney College of the Arts’ future remains uncertain. There will be no enrolments for the Bachelor of Visual Arts next year, with the degree re-released in a “reimagined” form the year after.

Despite this the University spokesperson insisted that the University isn’t getting rid of the art school. Instead, it is “working to enhance the sustainability of visual arts in NSW and to that end is now proposing to bring them to main campus.” Perhaps the art school isn’t being killed off, but it’s certainly being forced it into an induced coma. Visual arts “reimagined” might be more financially “sustainable” that doesn’t mean it will be any good. This approach speaks to a worrying perspective—art (and academia) cannot be supported for their own sake, they must be independently “sustainable”, else they face a “reimagining”. One wonders what the world’s art galleries would look like were they “reimagined” into profit.

Finally, we turn to how the University intends to run itself. In December last year the University quietly announced a restructure of its governing body—the Senate—and sweeping changes to the way courses are structured. In a closed meeting the Senate voted to shrink itself, slashing its members from 22 to 15. Elected alumni positions were scrapped altogether, and academic staff representation was dropped from four positions to two. In the new senate only five members will be elected; the remainder will be ex-officio members or be appointed by the Senate or NSW Education Minister.

As revealed by Honi Soit in May, the changes to the Senate were made after a report commissioned by the Senate recommended the University see itself as an “entrepreneurial organisation”. The report begins by saying it considers the Senate in the context of a “shift towards more hierarchical models of [university] management” from “the traditional model of university management under which academic institutions were run by their academic communities”. In plain English— universities should look more like businesses, and academic communities don’t matter in our brave new corporate world. With that starting assumption, it’s not difficult to see why the Senate chose new clothes with a corporate cut.

A former fellow of Senate, Dr Michael Copeman told Honi in May that “the current Chancellor doesn’t like using the word ‘corporate’, but it really is a corporate board in the sense that it behaves exactly in the way that a corporate board does”.

The University spokesperson said it was “completely wrong” to claim that these changes (and many others) show a privatisation agenda at play. That’s fair enough, and I don’t doubt the changes are well intentioned. Unfortunately, the University is being changed in ways that mean privatisation agenda or not, it’s beginning to feel less and less like a place of learning, and more and more like a centre for business excellence.

1. Let’s be honest, it probably is. For one thing, Universities don’t wear clothes.