Highly Paid Vice-Chancellors
Presiding over the system is a class of vice-chancellors who are among the best paid in the world, appointed by boards of directors modeled on listed corporations, and often drawn from the same small coterie of elite plutocrats. Politicians and senior Canberra bureaucrats tell bemusing stories of vice-chancellors on more than $1 million a year turning up for private meetings, chauffeured in private cars, with entourages of retainers. One level down, there is a dense upper canopy of deputy vice-chancellors, executive deans, and provosts, who model themselves on hard-charging corporate managers and who command salaries that often overmatch.
For years, VCs gorged on international student revenue, plowing it into shiny buildings, glossy marketing brochures, and exorbitant management salaries. Huge revenue flows from teaching were used to cross-subsidize research costs, particularly in STEM disciplines, which are favored by international university ranking systems.
This period of turbocharged growth was especially noticeable at the largest and most prestigious Australian institutions, known as the Group of Eight, a self-selected cohort of large established universities that models itself on the British Russell Group and the American Ivy League.
The universities themselves are not obviously hard up, at least to the untutored eye (or perhaps, to the casually tutored eye). Ministers invited on to campuses are ushered respectfully to bespoke chancellery buildings staffed by softly spoken security guards; looking out the window, they may see busy cranes erecting sparkling new libraries of glass and steel. The grinding poverty of a casual tutor paid for just a handful of hours a semester is hidden well out of sight — the tutor may not even make it onto campus, if they are teaching a so-called blended learning unit.
Yet one thing is missing from the equation shared by VCs and the Liberal government: any residual idea of education as a public good. While Cardinal Newman’s “idea of the university” may have been an influence on the politicians of previous generations, in Scott Morrison’s Australia, higher education is seen as a dangerous incubator of leftist progressives, valuable only for whether it makes university graduates “job-ready.” It’s a nasty, brutish, and shortsighted education policy, perfectly in tune with Morrison’s worldview.
Universities, particularly the modern research-intensive sort that ascend international rankings, are creatures of the Enlightenment. Perhaps this is ultimately the reason for their newfound vulnerability. In the postwar years, as technological advances drove a huge economic expansion, universities seemed like a safe bet.
But today, in a world of ubiquitous conspiracy theories and widespread public antipathy toward experts, the future of the university looks clouded. As universities abandon lectures and lay off teachers, the idea of university education as a good in itself seems more utopian than ever. But if universities become little more than corporate diploma-issuers or skills certifiers, what will be left of “higher” education for us to defend?