Universities waste a fortune on consultants. When will they learn?

Jenna Price, writing below, lets her hostility to business appear but she is broadly right.  Universities are a unique institution and need their own rules.  I personally see little wrong with the original model where a university was entirely run by its senior teaching staff

My refugee parents were obsessed with education to both protect and embolden me. Mum, mother of the naughtiest girl in the school, was relieved when I graduated. At universities in those days, you actually had permission to talk in class. It was powerful and transformative.

That’s not what’s happening now. Universities are now online assembly lines where interrupting wildly is nearly impossible, and the atmosphere is more likely to be lagging from our unpredictable internet connections than anything else. Staff aren’t paid properly. Class sizes grow. Student satisfaction has plummeted.

How did we get to this? Sherryn Groch, writing for this masthead, reveals a disturbing pattern – Australian universities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year hiring consultants, including from scandal-drenched PwC.

Groch listed wage theft and cruel – often involuntary – redundancies, but there’s more to add to the list. Education, the experience of connection and of intellectual intimacy are being stolen from this generation. Young people have never paid so much for so little.

In the meantime, the consultants –and those who hire them – go about their business with no concern for the ethical aspects of what they are doing. Every single researcher at a university has to complete ethics approval. I doubt consultants would get to first base with such a requirement. The PwC revelations show us we should have trust issues with consultants.

How have they come to dominate the culture of higher education? Just look who is on the councils of these institutions. Academics for Public Universities say there has been a dramatic shift and now barely a third have expertise in the sector. Councils are crammed with big business types and the culture trickles down to vice chancellors and on to deans.

One academic staff member tells me she has to explain to other council members that teaching university students is not like working in a factory. Yes, you might be lucky to get a vice chancellor who can persuade a bunch of profit-hunters that universities are about something higher than money. Staff representatives can’t stand up for everyone on their own.

Business loves cutting costs and restructures. Are those the values we should bring to our future – our teachers, nurses and doctors, engineers, computer scientists, sociologists and lawyers?

In 2017, a consultant interviewed me at a Sydney cafe about the faculty in which I worked. Too noisy to record, she took desultory notes. The experience of my colleagues in that review was pretty similar, although one told me, she instructed her interviewer: “Write this down.”

I asked questions, she already had answers. My trust in the process disappeared entirely. The “strategic assessment” cost the university many thousands of dollars and ended with a document that generative AI could have written if you’d put the words visionary, mission statement and “do better with less” into its prompt. 

A few years later, the whole process happened all over again. This time it was a bunch of international academics who had as much understanding of the Australian job market (or, indeed, Australian universities) as I had about herrings.

At Deakin, consultants delivered a course on change management and leadership. Jill Blackmore, Alfred Deakin professor of education and president of the Australian Association of University Professors, who sat in on the course, said: “Worst course I’ve ever been in, and we paid for it. It did not understand what leadership in a university was all about.”

Just now, at a university near you, a consultant has been called in to investigate the use of offices. The academics have said, repeatedly, hot-desking and open-plan offices might be OK if you didn’t have to deal with sobbing students and more recently, sobbing colleagues. After two years of consultations, enthusiasm has cooled and the report is shelved. Money for nothing. 

Look, every organisation, be it universities, hospitals, telcos, or banks, needs to have reality checks. But let’s engage experts who think about the national good and not the bottom line.

The nation’s 10 top-ranked universities alone spent at least $249 million on consultancies last year, more than they spent before the pandemic.

Universities spend money on consultants instead of education. Every teaching academic I know has had to defend paying casual staff – those running tutorials – to attend lectures. I once had to do an entire cost proposal which took me hours for the sheer bloody-mindedness of my then-boss – at the same time, we were wasting money on consultants.

The University of Melbourne’s Michael Wesley, author of the new book Mind of the Nation: Universities in Australian Life, knows we have a problem. We hire people from the corporate sector, and they lose their minds at what they see as waste.

“But as my boss points out (Duncan Maskell who last week called for free higher education), we are a not-for-profit organisation ... [the] ruthless pursuit of shareholder value is utterly alien to the university. The corporatisation of [Australian] universities is almost unique in the world.”



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