Universities caught out by public service ethos

October 20, 2010

Peter Quiddington from The Australian Higher Education supplement wrote today:

As a group, Australia’s university leaders have largely failed in their primary task of arguing a coherent case for higher education in order to ensure sustainable levels of funding through the commonwealth budget. It is difficult to find a sector of comparable economic and social significance that is so lacking in political aptitude as higher education.

Deakin University - Burwood campus

While his criticism of the peak body Universities Australia as a “gentleman’s club” is probably fair, the accusation that Vice Chancellors failure to advocate for higher education is based around their lack of political nous misses an important point.

That point being: universities see themselves and are seen as public institutions, with a public service ethos. Most universities are more than 50 percent publicly funded. Like the public service, there is an expectation that they remain apolitical – or at least non-partisan.

Open criticism of public policy therefore goes against a long culture and tradition of independence. As a peak body, Universities Australia is in large respect hamstrung by the fact that the government holds the purse strings. UA is not like other peak bodies such as the ACTU, AiG or BCA – or the Mining Council. All of those organisations receive the bulk of their funds from private sources, rather than public.

A government facing an advertising campaign from Universities Australia would be able to argue that universities were wasting public funds on political causes.

Even were Vice Chancellors more politically adept – and Quiddington does make the valid point that most of them probably are not – they would struggle to legitimately lobby or campaign while they receive significant public funding.

Of course – and gratuitous plug – a genunine, independent voice, which can politically campaign for the Higher Education sector is the National Tertiary Education Union.

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