Accord rhetoric exposes vice-chancellors’ shocking failures

First published in The Australian on Wednesday March 20.

The vice-chancellors of Australian universities have exposed themselves as some of the nation’s biggest hypocrites.

The Universities Accord correctly diagnosed the enormous problems higher education is mired in. Casualisation and insecure work. Scary rates of sexual harassment and assault. A disastrous funding model.

But to hear the university vice-chancellors respond, you’d be forgiven for mistaking them as passive players on the sidelines. Group of Eight chair and University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott called the findings “a pressing case for urgent action”.

RMIT vice-chancellor Alec Cameron called it essential reform and said “the current system needs transformative innovation”. Charles Darwin University vice-chancellor Scott Bowman declared “we need change now”.

Well if only someone had been in a position to do something. It’s incredible to see the very people who created and fuelled the major problems in our sector now nodding gravely about the crisis while keeping a straight face.

Yes, the hypocrisy is frustrating and insulting for university staff. But it’s actually more dangerous than just us being affronted by disingenuous platitudes. What hope do we have in actually reforming universities if the people responsible for the crisis are pretending they had no part in it and can’t make immediate changes that help?

Vice-chancellors have presided over upwards of $160 million in stolen wages from more than 100,000 individual university staff in recent years.

And it’s no accident higher education is a wage theft epicentre of our economy. Two-thirds of all university staff do not have secure jobs. If you’re on a casual or fixed-term contract, you’re instantly more vulnerable to exploitation because your livelihood is at stake. The fear of retribution is real.

Not only that, casual staff are often pressured to do extra work on the side, or do it simply because they care about students. University managers like casualising their workforce because they see tastier bottom lines. But in actual fact, they’re putting teaching standards at risk and causing a huge level of emotional and financial stress for their most precious resource.

Scott also claimed: “Universities are not-for-profit and every dollar is invested back in strengthening their teaching and research”.

An astonishing statement from someone on $1.1 million a year. How does paying Scott double what the prime minister earns qualify as every dollar being invested in teaching and research?

And he’s not even the highest paid of the bunch. In 2022, 10 Australian vice-chancellors had bigger pay packets than the person in charge of Oxford. These are completely out-of-touch financial rewards for people who now acknowledge we’re in a crisis almost entirely of their making.

That’s why we want a cap on excessive executive salaries. As a starting point, why don’t we peg vice-chancellor wages to the premier of the state they work in?

We have also witnessed uni bosses’ “road to Damascus moment” on the Morrison government’s disastrous Jobs Ready Graduates funding model. Back when the Coalition was forcing these changes through, uni bosses showed all the resistance of a wet noodle.

That passive resistance pales in comparison to the flat-out refusal to deal with gender-based violence on our campuses. After years of campaigning from victim-survivors and advocates, and years of resistance from universities, federal and state governments agreed on a landmark national plan to tackle the issue as part of the Accord.

Even leading up to the plan’s official announcement, Universities Australia made a victim-blaming submission that created a straw man to muddy the waters. The peak body actually claimed that a national student watchdog could be hijacked by students settling scores.

They argued voices of victim-survivors should be prioritised, but not at the cost of ensuring principles of natural justice, a proposition precisely no one had suggested.

Confronted with a mountain of evidence from our union, student unions and groups like End Rape on Campus, the leaders of public universities either fought against reform or did nothing. Worse still, in some cases they fought against change.

The accord report links so many of these issues back to one massive issue: governance.

The review repeatedly heard about failures to ensure students are safe, particularly from sexual assault and sexual harassment, and about staff employment concerns, especially relating to casualisation and underpayment.

These are the people we now need to embrace the accord’s reform agenda. If we really believe they’re invested in fixing things, we need vice-chancellors to act on fixing insecure work, wage theft and gender-based violence.

Why wait for the government to legislate when you control so many of the factors that have led us to this crisis point? It’s beyond time for vice-chancellors to stop the hypocrisy and get their houses in order.

Dr Alison Barnes is national president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

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