The wolves of the sandstones

The dismissal of Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice chancellor of the University of Bath, over her annual salary of £468,000 (AU $812,500), has focused public attention upon this new breed of university moguls. It has raised eyebrows, particularly in Australia, where 12 VCs take home over $1 million a year, and Breakwell’s salary is only half that of our highest paid VC.

In a neoliberal world of princely hedge-fund managers and tech billionaires who have city governments bidding for their business, you’d think we’d be used to ridiculous salaries for management at odds with employees. However there is residual shock that doyens of the academy receive pay packets we’d expect from corporate lawyers. The change after all is a recent one, with the salary of University of Sydney VC Michael Spence, for example, increasing 56% in the past five years. So what has happened in universities and why is it particularly marked in Australia?

Every age of laissez-faire brings with it inequality and alongside the usual suspects of bankers, landowners and mining magnates, a class of the anomalously wealthy who rise with the peculiar industries of their time. The Victorians had their chocolate millionaires, the 1920s had press barons and bootleggers and film moguls, the 1980s had opulent resort owners like Chris Skase. The 2010s brings the entrepreneurial VC cum CEO. The Glynn Davis’s and Michael Spence’s of Australia have gone from first among equals in a collegiate academy to ‘education barons’.

The ascent of the VC contrasts with trends in university education. By any number of metrics, from class sizes and contact hours, to campus culture and employment outcomes, the quality of university has declined for students. With funding cuts and student contributions rising, more students forking out for full-fee postgraduate courses increasingly deemed a sine qua non for the job market, and continued calls for fee deregulation, students are paying more for less: less hours, less rapport with lecturers, less expectation that reading is done as students must work to support themselves, and more classes taught by harried sessionals. This is accompanied by unstable working conditions among academics themselves, forced to compete for short-term contracts, driven by a mantra of publish – namely attract grants for lucrative research – or perish. Junior academics are paid relatively less, complete more administrative work than ever before as universities seek productivity gains, and find their academic freedom beholden to an ascendant class of university HR, with reports that University of Melbourne management recently proposed that academics’ ability to make public comments on their areas of expertise should be restricted.

It is in this contradiction that an explanation for the ‘big-end-of-town’ salaries of VCs lies. Universities are no longer an academic island, a collegial corporation operating with its own imperatives of truth-seeking and a grand tradition apart from the profit motive and exchange of the market economy. Over the past few decades they have joined the rest of the economy with gusto, and thus mirror its corrosive patterns on speed. Thus students are now paying customers rather than apprentices or stakeholders – choice, gimmicky marketing and maximum scale replacing rights, responsibilities and community membership. Like the twenty-first-century labour market generally, academics find job security under assault, collegiality giving way to competition, contemplative and ‘paradigm-shifting’ contributions junked for easily monetised research, courses of academic significance and rigour traded for degrees that appeal to teenagers via YouTube advertisements. Where once humanistic visions of the canon of knowledge, or transformative critical aspirations prevailed, curriculum is degraded into glorified massive open online courses (MOOC) and banal ‘21st century skills’. Far from their old status as proverbial ‘ivory towers’, universities behave like every other business, and as such we should expect a sharp escalation in the salaries of their CEOs.

However there is more at play than mere integration into commercial imperatives and managerial governance. In a neoliberal knowledge economy, particularly in Australia where high-value adding manufacturing has atrophied, universities sit at the centre of high-value productivity. From being the refuge of classicists and the high priests of a few tightly guarded professions, universities have made themselves a virtual necessity for membership of the middle class. They have positioned their research, contained in expensive but cheaply replicable electronic journals, as one of the only valid forms of usable knowledge. In a society headed towards near-universal tertiary education and consequent degree-inflation, the pickings are enormous and inevitably the nobler imperatives will suffer.

In Australia, where our VC salaries are some of the world’s highest, it is no surprise that higher education is one of our biggest export industries. The massification of degrees, the expansion of full-fee postgraduate places, and a vast increase in international students has turned ivory towers into ‘degree factories’. Our ‘Group of 8’ institutions have between 2 and 5 times the student body of the prestigious universities of the UK and US, which generally have smaller class sizes, more contact with senior academics and vibrant campus cultures.

If this were not enough of a sign that Australian universities had sacrificed older academic values for market logic, there are the acceptance rates of our demand-driven system: Harvard’s rate stands at 5.4%, Oxford’s at 17.5%. However the University of Melbourne, one of Australia’s most selective universities, accepts between 70-80% of all applicants, loosening English language requirements when they are paying international fees.

This is not to say we should close the doors on those seeking social mobility through higher education, nor cultivate the elitism of Oxbridge and the Ivies. However these trends have decreased universities’ capacity to be motors of genuine social mobility. Minimum expenditure on teaching is combined with maximum fee revenue to feed the state-of-the-art facilities, research output and grant-attracting that keeps universities atop league tables. Around university precincts, prefabricated towns of accommodation have arisen with exorbitant rents for shoebox apartments, alongside the shadow employment market exposed in Four Corners’ 7/11 expose, both peopled by exploited international students. In addition to our proximity to Asia and the decline in high-value export manufacturing, it is perhaps our stronger vocational tradition in education and a generally utilitarian cultural streak that has made it easy to convert universities into cynical, cost-cutting training providers and research firms.

What does all this have to do with the VC? The VC stands atop this pyramid of grant-hunting sessionals, online learning platforms, packed classes and academics harried by administrative burdens and HR metrics. None of this has gone without complaint – any student protest against cuts or deregulation will rage against ‘corporate universities’ and highlight the excesses of VCs. However the nexus of the corporatisation of the university and the end of student-academic collegiality combined with its increased productive power in a knowledge economy is often overlooked. The modern university has become one of the most neoliberal economic phenomena we have. A corporation, granted a government sanctioned pseudo-monopoly over a captured quasi-market, trading in abstract services to which they can apply infinite quality debasement, and ultimately reliant for their profits on government funding and rent-seeking.

Is it any wonder that VCs live in the opulence of the Wolf of Wall Street while their dependents wade through a morass of compliance and insecurity? Their business is knowledge production, and business is big.


 Image: University of Sydney / flickr

Joseph Moore

Joseph Moore is studying to be a history and humanities teacher.

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  1. Well said, and a pithy explanation of how we got to this sorry point. I’m surprised that not more people are jumping up and down about this, but I suppose the army of contract workers who are fodder for the university mandarins, are too busy and fearful to raise their heads in protest. The fact that Australian VCs earn around twice the amount of the Prime Minister, seems to have escaped the public’s attention.

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