Jeannie Rea on Crisis of Confidence in Universities
Jeannie Rea, NTEU President, is reported today in Campus Review discussing changes in the culture of Australian universities, and the role of university managerialism in stifling the creativity and capacity to innovation of university staff. The text of her comments are replicated below...
Universities are wonderful places to be employed and to do really worthwhile work, whether directly in educating students, or doing research and engagement. Why then does research conducted by universities, by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and by independent investigators, reveal increasing levels of dissatisfaction over the health of the institutions and the impacts of this on staff and students?
Academic and professional jobs are still highly desirable and keenly contested. Thanks to union success in collective bargaining, those fortunate enough to hold ongoing positions enjoy relatively competitive salaries, decent conditions and career paths. But staff are increasingly anxious about unmanageable workloads, high stress levels, and their ability to maintain and improve quality and educational productivity.
Many accuse senior managers of not listening to informed advice or criticism, of micromanaging and measuring everything. Staff feel under constant critical scrutiny despite the consistent improvements in productivity. Morale is rock-bottom in many universities, reinforced when their own leaders criticise their staff publicly, particularly in perpetuating the notion of the arrogant elite academic protected in their ivory towers.
Over the years I have worked as an academic my class sizes doubled and time spent with my students halved. Along with my colleagues I have had to manage more students, with fewer colleagues, increasing administrative loads and the constant stress of meeting research targets.
My efficiency and effectiveness has increased with experience, but that experience also enables me to judge that my students are not getting the attention they want and need. Increasingly the job of academics is to manage a fleet of highly qualified people paid by the hour to do the bulk of teaching so students often do not even see the academics that write their course and do the research that informs it.
So while it may seem shocking, I’m not surprised by research that points to about half the current academic workforce planning to abandon universities in the next five years and many of our “best and brightest” younger academics giving up on wanting to work in universities altogether. There is a very significant crisis of confidence in our universities.
While university jobs remain highly desirable, the enthusiasm is diminishing. This is indicated by the rush of people for voluntary redundancies. These are often people whose jobs have changed so much they are longer able to pursue their teaching and research, who have lost their professional pride and the respect of their employers.
These people also know if they stay and someone else goes, they will inherit their workload alongside their own. Despite the rhetoric there is not really a whole lot of working smarter going on. There’s just more unpaid and hidden overtime by general staff. And for academics, more arcane workload models that don’t capture the time and effort they really expend to fulfil their obligations to students, colleagues and external partners.
University staff are not alone in facing greater work pressures. But other important characteristics of universities have also changed. While I have no interest in returning to old elite university traditions, I am disturbed at how quickly the academic role of thinking, challenging, of trying out new ideas with one’s peers in a community of scholars, has disappeared. And when one is confronted with the reality that one’s early career colleagues can’t even get past first base from a casual to real job, it is hard to expect a full turn out at the course or department meeting and even less likely at the weekly academic seminar.
Research commissioned by NTEU earlier this year found a community expectation that university people should be speaking out on difficult matters. As pointed out by leading intellectuals such as the Chief Scientist and former Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Chubb, it is absolutely critical that intellectuals enter the public debate and offer up their evidence-based and peer-reviewed findings. However, despite the occasional whistleblower, there is great wariness among university staff of speaking out.
The corporate managerial culture is one of hierarchy, obedience and competition. It’s also one of acquiescence, of keeping your head down and getting on with it. There does not need to be many examples of the academic or general staff member being victimised for speaking out to put off others. This is despite powerful grievance procedures in collective agreements, detailed policies and procedures to deal with student and staff complaints, and the very welcome enshrining of intellectual freedom in legislation.
In such an environment, where there is fear and where people are constantly having their professional capability questioned, it is easy for bullies to bully and for (what should be) unacceptable behaviour to become ordinary in supervisory or even peer relations. The message sent by senior leaders often does not help. On appointment (no longer election) to head of school, many colleagues have told me that they were told by their dean that they are no longer a colleague of their staff and must set themselves apart. They are assigned a human resources adviser whose brief is to avoid escalation and to manage the financial and reputational risk to the university. Complaints and complainants are to be “managed” not resolved.
It’s not a scenario that engenders confidence, builds collegiality or encourages those with grievances or concerns to speak up and seek their rights. Universities have unambiguous commitments to equal opportunity, against discrimination and for affirmative action in their policies and procedures, but in many cases the rhetoric is not matched by reality.
Recently the NTEU released the findings of a survey of indigenous academic and professional staff in higher education, which has revealed they continue to experience direct discrimination and racist attitudes. The report “I’m not a Racist, But…” revealed that 71.5 per cent of respondents have experienced direct discrimination and racist attitudes in the workplace. Only 18.6 per cent stated their employer had taken positive action to address these issues.
And although the federal government does not want to hear it, many of the problems at universities are caused by the inadequacy of base funding alongside increased enrolments and expectations. Universities desperately need increased base funding of at least 10 per cent, as recommended by the 2008 Bradley review of higher education.
As things stand, despite some increases in university under the life of the present government, there is simply no space to move, to innovate, to respond to the needs of increasingly diverse student cohorts, or to meet the community’s demands for research and engagement.