I want scholar-leaders, not corporate managers, v-c says

Academics must be more involved in decision-making, David Matthews hears

May 3, 2012



Credit: Getty
I'm in: Richard Higgott says efforts to rebuild morale are working


The head of an Australian university has vowed to turn back a tide of institutional "corporatisation" that is said to have demoralised staff and undermined leadership.

The vice-chancellor of Murdoch University in Western Australia has said that he wants academics to be more involved in decision-making - as the institution prepares for substantial cuts to its portfolio of courses.

Arguing that the "corporate turn" in Australian universities was creating "managers rather than scholar-leaders", Richard Higgott, who took up the post in August last year, told Times Higher Education that he wanted to "reboot" the "traditional academic scholar".

Professor Higgott, who spent part of his early career as a lecturer in social and political theory at Murdoch, had been pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Warwick for four years when he was appointed to lead Murdoch.

"It's a stark contrast coming back now [to Australia and seeing] what's been quite a dramatic corporate turn," he said.

Although this has affected much of the country's sector, he believes that the need for "de-corporatisation" is probably greatest at Murdoch, where the academic council had become a "rule taker" rather than a "rule maker".

As an example of what he is after, Professor Higgott recounted a discussion he had had during the restructuring of a particular school.

"One of the deans said: 'Can't you tell us what you want?'"

Professor Higgott told him: "No, you'll learn to bloody well govern yourself."

Murdoch now has a senior leadership group that features only one non-academic member of staff, Jon Baldwin, the deputy vice-chancellor for professional services, who was previously the registrar at Warwick.

Before a shake-up, the group, which meets once a week, had 14 members, only four of whom were academics, Professor Higgott said.

No top-down driving

Behind his desire to bring Murdoch's deans "back into the decision-making process" is his conviction that a top-down managerial structure ill serves universities. "[It] effectively stifles innovation...in favour of the revenue-generating activities" as well as demoralising staff, he said.

Such systems place the focus on "compliance" and metrics such as profits, which have been linked to the vice-chancellor's bonus, Professor Higgott said.

After his arrival, bonuses for the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellors were scrapped because, he said, they are "inappropriate in a university culture and specifically distort priorities towards that which can be measured metrically rather than qualitatively".

Bonuses can have a "potentially corrosive" effect on behaviour, he continued. "There are some vice-chancellors [in Australia] who see themselves as chief executive."

The salary of Murdoch's vice-chancellor has been a source of contention in the past, but Professor Higgott said that his was comparable to that of heads of similar institutions in Australia and did not include "frills" such as a house or car.

And he argued that not all of his pay package is guaranteed: if he underperforms, the university senate remuneration committee can withhold a portion of his salary.

In all his actions, Professor Higgott said he aims to build esprit de corps among the staff, and a sense of collegial solidarity could be more needed than ever as the review of course offerings proceeds.

"It's quite clear that the outcome of this is that we will offer a lot less than in the past," Professor Higgott said.

Asked whether devolving managerial powers to scholars might allow them to impede cuts, he said: "There will be tough decisions taken in the university. We're better off [if] the senior members of the university make these decisions collectively."

Already Professor Higgott senses a difference in the atmosphere. The plans have had "massive buy-in" from academics, he said. "Morale is now coming back considerably. It's quite clear that people are bringing their cricket bats back to the game."

Representatives from the Murdoch branch of the National Tertiary Education Union did not respond to a request for comment in time for THE's deadline.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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