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.


You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Reflection of man in cracked mirror

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry