Solidarity but only among managers, or the future of the university sector

I have watched a lot of workplace TV—shows set in law firms, hospitals, banks, that sort of thing. I was writing a history of professionals and they helped me think more than I’d like to admit. One refrain in particular stood out, usually connected to someone pointing at a colleague and blurting out the imperative ‘do your job’. Harvey Specter in the legal drama Suits was particularly fond of this, or its flip-side, ‘it’s my job!’. Every time, it signals something immoral, but which has to be done—at least, so the characters think.

The managers at my workplace, the Australian Catholic University, must be saying this to themselves a lot at the moment.

Earlier this month, my colleagues and I have had our jobs ‘disestablished’. Managers have said we can re-apply for around half of them. It’s what they call a ‘spill and fill’.

It was a shock. For me, the change plan came through at almost exactly the moment my new book was published. I worked incredibly long hours on this project, ended up making myself sick. They weren’t kidding when they say that the institution will not love you back.

In other ways, these cuts were eye-rollingly predictable. Most of us think universities are there to teach, do research and support communities.

Not managers. For them, universities are there to meet their KPIs.

We can trace this through several recent examples. One wanted to boost a ranking in history and other fields in the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) scheme. He recruited a whole lot of scholars, luring many from permanent jobs at other institutions. Some moved to Australia with their whole family, with partners needing to grow a new career, children needing to go to new schools.

The process continued during Covid. Jobs were being cut due to the threats posed by the pandemic, yet more scholars were being recruited. Nice people, good at their job. But why are we doing this, we kept asking. Management kept telling us we have a funding crisis (which often turned to a surplus in the end), so why are we also on a hiring spree? All along it looked like it could end badly, for all of us.

Managerial spending just kept growing. Across the sector, the professional development of managers alone has become a massive industry. The annual Universities Australia conference charges thousands for bosses to attend. Those keynotes, by the way, are all online—much like the pre-recorded lectures that are now being re-used for the students. I am told too, we may well soon be giving them ‘cohort level feedback’ on assessment, to save money.

Managers seemed scared of one another. Their strategies were always aimed at cutting costs beneath them, while letting their colleagues keep spending.

And then there are the consultancy fees. In my book, Virtue Capitalists, I show that managers and consultants were often brought in as the ‘smarter’ from the cliche ‘work smarter not harder’. Other managers saw them as an investment—often, an investment in cutting the real work of the organisation. The authors of When McKinsey Comes to Town show that this kind of ‘smarter’ reduced safety standards, leading to, among many other things, a death at Disneyland.

Universities generally do less dangerous work—we have no roller coasters at ACU yet. But the logic of management is the same. Pay big bucks at the top, to cut the actual work of the organisation as much as possible. In some institutions, this has become known as ‘tolerable sub-optimisation’.

This is the present aim. Keep bosses’ spending power intact, but cut teaching and research. It is not pleasant—I bet our managers said to themselves—but it is my job.

There are many choices available to them. This spill-and-fill no doubt seemed like the fairest one: everyone, regardless of their current role, gets to compete for the jobs now available.

For those of us affected, it resembles a kind of hunger games. And it is, really. All of us are only ever pieces in their managerial chess game. That is, no matter their personal morals, literally their job.

Look at what they think they are doing, when they are doing their job. Setting targets, meeting metrics. Look at the way the first manager was prepared to play with people’s lives and careers to adjust a single number. And how now, having poured our lives and selfhood into ensuring some managers were awarded their bonuses, a new target—this time, job cuts—will be how a new set of managers will prove their ability to get their next job, their next promotion, their next bonus.

Look too, at the class solidarity that underpins the logic of their priorities. Other managers and consultants who do similar work, are worthy of ever-growing investment. Teachers, researchers, and professional staff are only there (or in this case not there) for managers to hit their targets. We aren’t, in this logic, here to do the work of the university. The only job that matters is the one that bosses tell themselves they have to do.

This situation is not inevitable. It has arisen historically. And it can be undone. In the 1980s and 1990s, the intellectuals of neoliberalism transformed university governance university senate by university senate. Now, it is time that we approach the problem with the same determination, institution by institution, in the interests of a greater democracy.

Hannah Forsyth

Hannah Forsyth is a historian at the Australian Catholic University. She is author of A History of the Modern Australian University and Virtue Capitalists: The Rise and Fall of the Professional Class in the Anglophone World, 1879-2008.

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