'Arrogant' universities seen as out of touch and ripe for cutbacks

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne, on a 'rising chorus' of complaints about universities in the UK and Australia

October 20, 2017
Chainsaw cutting tree branch

Today we hear a rising chorus of complaints about arrogant universities. These are places that value research over teaching, fail to address community ambitions and, worst of all, resist government priorities. 

In Britain and Australia, higher education ministers have not held back – universities are labelled as inefficient, with overpaid vice-chancellors and overly generous wages and conditions for staff in a time of austerity. These institutions seem ripe for government cutbacks. 

Even the core value of universities – expert knowledge to be shared with students and the wider community – is devalued when, last year, then UK justice secretary Michael Gove declared "people in this country have had enough of experts". 

This year the language has become even sharper, with Labour Lord Adonis attacking universities for "greed", for running a ‘"fee cartel" and a "Frankenstein's monster" of a tuition fee system that leaves students with huge debts.  

Economist Alison Wolf urges careful thought about any further expansion of university places. The courses are expensive and graduate outcomes uncertain. She notes the polytechnic-sized hole in the British tertiary system, signalling the absence of shorter, more focused qualifications as alternatives to the traditional degree. 

In my country, Australia, education minister Simon Birmingham has criticised university surpluses, and described institutions as burgeoning bureaucracies that benefit from "the rivers of gold" poured into them as student enrolments have grown. If this is what our champion in government thinks, the minister for education, what do the critics say? 

In such a climate, asks higher education analyst Simon Marginson, "what greater good would be lost if universities closed tomorrow?" 

Such a view should be unthinkable. Universities were once praised for their trustworthiness and standing. Not so much any more. A Pew Research poll early this year found a  majority of Republican voters in the US – 58 per cent – view colleges and universities as negative influences on their country. There is evidence of voter resentment against the perceived privilege of university graduates and their view of the world. 

Pollster Nate Silver argues that not economic disadvantage but education levels best explain the shift of votes from Democrat to Republican in 2016. CNN exit polls suggest Donald Trump received 71 per cent of votes from non-college educated white males.  

In Britain, the divide seems equally sharp, with three out of four non-graduates voting to leave the European Union. 

Yet graduates are not happy either. They have accumulated unprecedented debt to take into a world of employment insecurity and unaffordable housing. 

The good life we promised can seem elusive.

In Australia, as in Britain, there are signs of political impatience with the autonomy of universities and their failure to bend to government imperatives. It is not hard to understand the frustration of elected politicians. Universities pay little tax yet are remorseless in asking for more public money. They champion themselves as innovators yet resist political pressures for applied research and immediate impact. These large and wealthy institutions chase international students and drive up property prices. 

Hence the suspicion among politicians that universities have lost sight of real life. In the face of such trenchant criticism, how best should universities respond? 

Writing last month, chair of the Russell Group Anton Muscatelli suggested that universities must demonstrate the "value for money" they provide; he noted the 300,000 jobs generated by the Russell Group of universities alone.  

But there is another, complimentary, strategy to bolster the reputation of higher education. It predates current political debate, but has its origins in similar concerns about community acceptance for universities and whether they are seen only as places of privilege. This is the idea of engagement: creating meaningful links between a university and its many constituencies, and communicating the fact that this is what we do. 

It is an old idea with new relevance. When Joseph Chamberlain encouraged a university for Birmingham, he spoke of an institution committed to improving the future of the city. 

Engagement offers an answer to the question "what have the Romans ever done for us?"

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania has developed community partnerships under the Penn Compact, a commitment to inclusion, innovation and sharing of knowledge. UPenn students work with local schools. The university encourages urban farms on its campus, and has cleared a public common next to the football stadium. UPenn is determined to shed its image as a wealthy institution aloof from the surrounding city. 

In Australia, the University of Melbourne works with Indigenous communities to share the advantages of teaching and research with people who might never set foot on campus. 

There are institutions that insist students do an internship or volunteer work before they can graduate. The University of Nottingham has programmes that encourage academics to work with charities and small business. The University of Manchester commits to "listening to the wider community, and involving the public in our work". 

Engagement alone will not end concerns about the modern university.  These have deep roots in social divisions, student debt, incoherent government policy and too little diversity across the sector. Yet this instinct to build a stronger base in society – among graduates as among those who never attend university – is imperative if universities are to speak above the din of the rising chorus. 

We need more practical demonstrations of how teaching and research bring prosperity to communities, opportunities for the young, a richer and more engaged life for all. 

When we engage, we encourage local forces to defend the value of universities whenever politicians stoke resentment. We make clear the campus offers more than qualifications and traffic – the university is, in a real sense, part of the community. 

Or, in the words of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "If you want to build a great city, create a great university and wait 200 years."

Glyn Davis is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of MelbourneThis article is based on his UPP Foundation Inaugural Autumn Lecture, delivered on 19 October 2017 in London. An extended version of this argument will be published by MUP on 10 November as The Australian Idea of a University.

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Reader's comments (2)

Rather a sad reflection on society and values that universities are seen as some sort of cushy number in the face of our pension cuts, a salary that has not kept up with inflation and a rising workload. Moreover, getting an academic position is a highly competitive process and succeeding represents a return on all the hours of study and so on put in earlier in life. The jobs are not handed out in the fashion of government posts (e.g. House of Lords) but hard won and then hard to keep. As a staff member in a Russell Group university, I long ago gave up any attempt at a "work life balance" and am divorced with little spare time after seeing my children. Admittedly, the work is often more enjoyable than that of many people but it is grossly unfair to categorise academic conditions as overly generous. I have friend from school who is materially much better off having gone to industry after his PhD; he works relatively short hours between Monday and Friday only.
I can assure you Mr Glyn that noone in the UK talks about overly generous wages and conditions for University staff as they basically aren't generous at all with one great exception: Vice Chancellors Aussie University staff are a lot better paid and Vice Chancellors there extortinately paid.

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