A Corroboree of Australian Vice-Chancellors?
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A Corroboree of Australian Vice-Chancellors?

In recent times we have seen a small cadre of retired and exiting vice-chancellors come forward to critique our Australian tertiary environment and its leadership behaviours – particularly former VCs Greg Craven (ACU) and Stephen Schwartz (Macquarie). And their appraisals have been illuminating but less than glowing.

ANU’s Brian Schmidt has furthered the debate on sector sustainability by bluntly identifying the underlying assumption that ‘research informs the teaching that students get’ as emphatically incorrect (AFR, 27th Aug 2023).

The undergraduate experience has undeniably changed, and students are less and less likely to be taught by, or even encounter, researchers relevant to their fields of study.

With soaring vice-chancellor salaries and a major marketing emphasis on attracting international students (as perceptibly more financially valuable than domestic students) shorter, cheaper, industry-focussed, efficient courses could (as Professor Schmidt warns) become more attractive to discerning students. And aren’t all students entitled to value for money qualifications and teaching?

Moreover, Professor Schmidt clearly recognises that the current imbalance between the demand for research degrees and the need for affordable, professional and industry focussed qualifications leaves the door open for yet more high-quality private, for-profit, providers to plug the cost effective and industry engaged qualifications gaps left by the public universities.

This potential for cheaper, high quality private providers strongly entering the market is something we have mentioned previously in a number of Campus Review articles.

Broadening access

The proposition now facing the Australian HE Sector is one which demands inclusively broadening domestic access and appropriately supporting students from low socio economic and indigenous backgrounds to achieve industry relevant career goals. Professor Schmidt affirms that our current research ambitious entities are not able to achieve these goals without undergoing significant change.

Moreover, the current and consistently positive QILT results for small private Australian institutions clearly emphasises their potential and their student focussed difference. At the end of the day, Brian Schmidt’s recognition is that government is unlikely to invest in producing new public institutions. But, perhaps, private providers will fill the emerging gaps?

Years 14 – 18 Provision.

The possibility of doing things differently abound:

  • As post schooling qualifications become more and more integral to the digital age – might the private schooling sector (already serving over 42% of our school aged students) extend themselves further to offer tertiary (years 14 – 18) qualifications?
  • Will the mass provision online providers from North America also vie to gain a bigger share of the Australian market?
  • Will Australian commercial enterprises step-up to offer industry relevant/workplace training qualifications?
  • Will new quality providers, free of research ambitions but bolstered by research informed teaching and a student support focus, be the accessible and affordable mechanism for delivering the desired and needed widened educational provision?

In a further sign of the fractious times enveloping Australian higher education, Universities Australia chair David Lloyd (The Australian, 16th August 2023) recently declared that the collective noun for vice-chancellors could be “argument.”  

Whilst ‘argument’ is more commonly used to describe a group of historians, Professor Lloyd’s remarks to the National Press Club highlights the surfacing of self and institutional interests amongst various university leadership factions.

It is also worth clarifying that one point of David Lloyd’s wider discussion was of it now being the time for effective leadership. Which begs the question, ‘when wasn’t it?’  

Smoke and Mirrors Ranking Claims

Throughout the last two easy decades of international student revenue growth a psychology guided league table and rankings marketing focus has led to constantly escalating VC salaries, large corporate bonuses and huge leadership benefits packages. Australian vice-chancellors have largely followed a Sector-wide corporate template relentlessly moving them into a much higher remuneration orbit than ever before.

Rankings and elite institutional status claims have been somewhat ‘gamed’ and are, in truth, the antithesis of what is now being demanded from the university sector by minister Jason Clare: wider access and affordable service to the less well off.

Consequently, although our vice-chancellors might feel that being collectively described as, for example, an imperium or regal of vice-chancellors would be more fitting and reflective of their status – it isn’t the case. Sadly, Lloyd’s spectre of it being time for effective leadership still looms over the entire tertiary enterprise and unfortunately, we are still a long way from achieving an inclusive corroboree of Australian vice-chancellors whose institutions serve the wider needs of all Australians.


Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is a Higher Education consultant and a Fellow of the Centre for Scholarship and Research

Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive Officer at Group Colleges Australia