Mark Scott: Career Liberal

Why you should hate our Vice-Chancellor.

Mark Scott’s career is full of success stories. He began as a Liberal Party staffer, became an editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, director of the ABC, secretary of the New South Wales Department of Education, and this year was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Just like every other high-flying Liberal, he owes his success not to any talents of his own, but to his family’s connections in Australia’s ruling class.

1988 was a watershed year for teachers in NSW. Premier Nick Greiner came to power on his promise to run the state government like a business, and neoliberal austerity was the order of the day. Between March and December, two thousand teachers were made redundant and education cuts were announced in areas as diverse as women’s programs at TAFE and free bus passes for students.

Scott made his first foray into politics as a policy advisor to Terry Metherell, Greiner’s Education Minister. He had no apparent knowledge of the education system, save for two years’ experience working as a teacher at St Andrew’s Cathedral School. However, the Liberals had given the job of finding out where the biggest savings could be found in the education system to Scott’s father, who was head of the largest management consultancy firm in NSW. Because his father was the CEO of WD Scott and Co, Scott received a senior executive position that hadn’t been advertised publicly and which he was unqualified for.

Ultimately, Greiner was brought down on corruption charges after he promoted Metherell to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency just weeks after the latter had resigned. Scott jetted off to Harvard in 1992 to complete a master’s degree in public administration. When he came back, he was made (ironically) education editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. From there, he climbed his way up to group editorial director of Fairfax Media. In 2000, when staff went on strike over unpaid overtime in the leadup to the Olympic Games, he helped organise a lockout of over 1,200 journalists, photographers, and artists. “Picket Schmicket,” a line of his, became the rallying cry of the strike.

Scott’s climb up the Fairfax ladder didn’t leave a trail of adventurous journalism. When he was appointed managing director of the ABC, the response of most employees was “Mark who?”. In 2014, Scott set about sacking 400 staff after the public broadcaster’s federal funding was cut. He was content to pass the savings onto workers while his $600,000 salary remained untouched. The sackings were brutal. A hundred reporters in the ABC’s NSW office were told they were redundant and would have to fight each other for 70 new positions. Staff called it the ‘hunger games’ model. 

Some years later, former NSW Premier Mike Baird made Scott the Secretary of the Education Department. It was another inside job. Like Scott, Baird’s father had been an important Liberal under the Greiner government. The two families were well connected: Scott’s daughter was a staffer in Baird’s office and Baird’s sister Julia (who hosts The Drum on the ABC) got their start in journalism as a reporter for the Herald under Scott’s editorship. Baird had already tried head-hunting Scott to take a job as health secretary before convincing him to become education secretary. Last year, when public sector employees had their wages frozen, Scott’s commitment to educational equality didn’t stop him from accepting a five-figure raise.

When he was appointed Vice-Chancellor, there were some complaints about Scott not being a career academic. But Mark Scott is anything but an outsider. He’s a career Liberal who spent years attacking public education and years administering public institutions with the same callousness he showed in his time as a Fairfax executive. His career trajectory is remarkable only for its reliance on nepotism. We should have no illusions that he’s on the side of students here at USyd.