A return of the academy to its roots

January 1, 1990

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30 October 2012

Jon Baldwin explains why Murdoch University has decided to engage with the world rankings again, and how its new leadership team is fundamentally rethinking what the university is for

It was interesting (and gratifying) to see so many Australian universities doing so well in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-2013.  However much cynicism a lengthy career in higher education breeds, these things are important. Judgement and comment on the work of universities is far from new, but systematic attention to key performance measures that seek to assess institutional strength and standing is something we ought to work with, not against.  Here at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, we know that only too well since the university has until recently, and for reasons not understood by the new administration, chosen to absent itself from such rankings, hunkering down within itself  - for sure doing some things correctly but eschewing the opportunity (and risk) of exposing itself to scrutiny by others.

This is changing, as it needs to.  In August 2011, the appointment of Richard Higgott, a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia and recent former Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Warwick in the UK, was a prompt to re-think the university, its leadership, managerial and governance model and fundamentally (and simply) reflect on just how the university worked and how it could and should be reformed. This process, in what is a potentially interesting model casting wider policy shadows, raises fascinating and broader questions on what the university is for, who its key stakeholders are and how the parts that the various actors play can be fused for maximum impact.

The top universities in the THE rankings are, emblematically and tangibly, scholarly, intellectual communities. They have respected the notion of the self-governing community of scholars, modernised the expression of that concept and remain fit for purpose in the global, connected, instant environment that characterises the twenty first century. They have relevance, not just mystery. They are to be admired. Simply, there are lessons there for the rest of us.

In Murdoch's case, by contrast, the academy as a collective had been marginalised. The embrace of corporate culture was almost total and the very idea of the university was threatened. In leadership and governance terms, the academic voice had to be rediscovered and it is that task that Higgott has set about with passion and tenacity. Shared governance is at the heart of any scholarly community and, in short order, the pursuit of that has become a holistic project here, even a case study casting interesting reflections and potentially wider policy shadows over the corporatist trend in the sector at large.

One or two matters are already in hand. In a break with practice over the last decade, the three new deputy vice chancellors (DVCs) are all external appointments rather than internal promotions (and pleasingly from leading universities): The DVC (Education) is leading a Curriculum Commission designed to get to the heart of the learning process, to reflect on pedagogical approaches and to ensure modern practice designed to provide the best possible experience for Murdoch students; the DVC (Research) is overseeing an Adjunct Professor/Distinguished Researcher Scheme to secure enduring relationships with the brightest and the best from all over the world; the DVC (Professional Services) is integrating and unifying the administration of the university to support the academic mission and goals reflecting the primacy of the academy.

All these initiatives will make a difference but, in and of themselves, they are not enough. And success must be demonstrated if tradition and modernity are to be embraced, enjoined on a new pathway to success. The real challenge lies in Higgott's shared governance agenda and its total embrace - a more difficult sell, but one that might offer wider comparative insights for the higher education sector, certainly in the UK and maybe wider.

Australian higher education does feel more corporate than its British counterpart.  Governing bodies are generally smaller, the membership more prescribed and the relationship with the academy variable.  It seems to be a given "truth" that a smaller board is a more effective board - why is left invariably unarticulated? Governors can be disconnected from their institutions, from the rhythms of university and academic life and so retreat to indicators they believe they understand - balance sheet strength, liquidity, "profit", headcount - all important in the quest for sustainability but far from the whole story. Small boards, prevent integral academic membership, governance is therefore done to the community not with it - a recipe for discontent and, at its worst, dysfunctionality. Somehow that has to be tackled, but major actors (State and Commonwealth governments) have to be (re) persuaded of the merits of such an approach - that could be a long(ish) haul. Agencies aside, there is also an internal institutional challenge. Forced and learned behaviours and entrenched attitudes are difficult to change.  Ensuring that the Murdoch community speaks with a single voice on governance matters will be key and, ultimately, the issue upon which the leadership team will be judged.  It is an important moment and one to which the sector should pay attention because what Murdoch is attempting could be a small signal of a return of the academy to its roots.  A signal that in a global world, the "essence" of the university itself is what counts and that the corporate culture and corporate games should be played into the university sparingly and with caution.

Jon Baldwin is Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professional Services, Murdoch University

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