The Corporate Brand

The following is the text from Julie-Ann Robson’s talk at Politics in the Pub in Sydney on July 21st 2015

The 2016 federal election has come and gone and we’re still not clear on what the Government’s policy on Higher Education will be – apart from a hint that they may try to introduce deregulated fees for ‘boutique’ courses such as Law or Medicine. I think most people involved in the sector are increasingly aware that they work in institutions that have changed profoundly over recent decades. But they also recognise, with growing horror, that universities are in the process of implementing more radical change than any of us were capable of imagining, foreshadowed by the ‘Melbourne Model,’ or what Gary Newman has described as taking ‘a wrecking ball’ to higher education.

The profound change is made noticeable by the round of ‘brand refreshes’ sweeping through the sector as we speak. Western Sydney University took it to a new level with Deng Adut – making him ‘the face’ of Western Sydney not unlike the way Johnny Depp’s daughter has become the Face of Chanel (I had to google that) or George Clooney is ‘the face’ of Nespresso. Brand identity has become all-consuming in the sector, and marketing and communications portfolios are taking increasing control of ‘the messaging’ of their institutions.

This is perhaps not surprising given the financial pressures under which universities find themselves. As Margaret Simons told us in 2010, ‘Of necessity, education had become an export industry’. Education is no longer a sector. It’s an industry, and a highly profitable and competitive one, and universities compete on ‘product’ through ‘brand differentiation’. The Melbourne Model demonstrates this. If you need a generalist undergraduate degree before you can undertake a specialist postgraduate degree, the university retains you (and your fees) for an extended period of time. Sydney University is currently constructing degrees that encourage/compel students into longer degrees and higher degrees — the ‘industry’ ‘value adds’ in ways that prolong the student’s ‘lifecycle’. A sophisticated and expensive variation on ‘would you like fries with that?’: a tertiary version of the ‘upsell’.

However what Margaret Simons goes on to argue is more disturbing: that there has been ‘a shift in course content from “liberal” to “professional”, and in university governance from “collegial” to “managerial”.

And it’s this managerialist approach to university governance that is most disturbing to both academic and general/professional staff, and I believe is the most radical change in University governance that has occurred since the sandstone foundations were laid for the colonies’ first universities. I’ll give you a little insight into the impact of managerialist governance from my own experience as a long-term casual academic.

As I prepared to write for this evening I was in an online triangle with my colleagues at Western Sydney University trying – hoping – to get teaching for Semester 2. For long-term casuals – and there are lots of us – this is a constant ritual. It occurs twice a year, and I say a triangle because on this occasion I was in contact with two full-time staff who were watching their enrolment numbers. A third and fourth regretfully told me that their tutes were already promised to other casuals but were also very conscious of the numbers game. On their side, the academics in supposedly ‘secure’ employment are battling between workload formulas with complex calculations relating to teaching load, research, writing grant applications etc., with actually writing monographs, chapters, articles and grant applications, not to mention lectures.

Meanwhile, across Australia students – surely a key reason we have universities – are increasingly squeezed, measured and exploited: squeezed by work/study commitments, the cost of living in a large city, family pressure, and finding time to commit to study in an increasingly ‘disrupted’ world; measured by being constantly monitored to provide data for statistics on everything from course evaluation to employability; and exploited with the lure of lower ATAR thresholds, bonus points, large enrolment cohorts, bigger classes, and diminishing face-to-face contact with academic staff and peers.

The divide between university ‘management’ and the academic and administrative body of the university is an ever-expanding gulf – a chasm into which collegiality, intellectual freedom and mutual respect are being cast, and where the salary discrepancy between a Vice Chancellor and a lecturer is in the ballpark of 10:1. Vice Chancellors no longer see themselves as part of the academic community of the University, but as CEOs. They are no longer part of the collegiate body from which they have ‘risen’, but partnered on their governing bodies with ever-increasing corporate bed-fellows: with corporate advisors, directors and former directors of banks and multinational organisations like Macquarie Group, Coca Cola Amatil and Leighton Holdings. One wonders the last time the current crop of VCs saw the inside of a tutorial room or gave a lecture to students, rather than schmoozing potential donors, wealthy benefactors and influential alumni. Welcome to the corporate university.

Most university staff work there because they don’t want to work for the likes of Coca Cola Amatil, and prefer the intellectual gravitas of working for a university rather a neo-liberal institution. Yet here we find ourselves employed by neo-liberal institutions. I work for two – one as a casual academic – part of ‘the precariat’ as it’s becoming known, and another, arguably more secure position in university administration. I say arguably because that institution has just released its Strategic Plan 2016-2020. Its title? On the front cover, if you can read the specially designed trendy font that came with the most recent ‘brand refresh’, are the words ‘IF YOU CHANGE NOTHING, NOTHING WILL CHANGE’. All Caps. It seems to be shouting this at staff to reinforce their employment vulnerability. This, to me, reveals the true colours of the corporate university. As one colleague said, ‘It’s not a very well-veiled threat, is it?’

And whilst I am using one specific strategic plan to draw on this evening, I think we can rest assured that other universities around the country are employing spin-doctors and consultants to produce equally repellent publications. After all, they’re all busy stealing each other’s tactics, mimicking each other’s spin, imitating each other’s marketing, branding and slogans – they will also be watching each other’s strategic plans.

And I say ‘repellent’ because as a person whose area of expertise is literature, and who wrote a PhD on Oscar Wilde, I find the spin in this document dizzying – its mere existence as a product of a university is as bewildering to me as finding out a prospective son-in-law was ‘born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag’. It certainly isn’t something sensational to read on the train, and does not reflect what the ‘vision’ of a university should be.

As Honi Soit’s Alexi Polden writes, ‘The University’s new strategic plan settles it. So far as the powers that be are concerned, the University is breaking free of its pesky cocoon of academia and is taking flight as a fully formed corporate insect’. It opens (after a brief foreword) with the same trendy font claiming ‘The University is on every measure in a stronger position, both academically and financially, than it was in 2011’ (SP, p.3). A compelling claim, and if accurate an important one for the University to make! But there are no quotation marks around this statement, and no footnote. It’s a free-floating assertion with no justification – Who is saying this? Where have they said it? Where is the evidence? What is the context? What do they mean by ‘on every measure’? How has the University’s position been made stronger ‘on every measure’? A first-year student is well drilled in the need for attribution and supporting evidence, but here there is nothing.

From the very beginning, then, the well-trained marker’s eye is on the lookout for sloppy scholarship and meaningless assertion, and is not let down. Moreover, why does the claim pick the year 2011? This seems particularly odd, given that in 2012/13 the University tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to rid itself of some 300 or more academic staff on spurious grounds. Does this mean that the effective industrial campaign that prevented the majority of those sackings might have contributed to putting the University in a better position than it was in 2011? Perhaps so. But as I say, there is no footnote, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you if University management saw this as a contributing factor.

So the well-trained eye goes on through the document and spots the neo-liberal agenda and its language in full flight. Expressions include: ‘rankings, excellence, impact, aspirational goals, benchmarks, start-up, incubator programs, entrepreneurship, commercialisation, intellectual property, flagship, future potential, purpose-designed, footprint, learning experiences, authentic, leadership, individual interests, aspirations’ and ‘emerging capabilities’, to highlight just a few.

On Page 36 we find the following as justification for ‘The Bachelor of Advanced Studies’:

While we will refresh and retain our three-year undergraduate courses, such as the bachelor’s degrees for arts, science and commerce, we believe that for students seeking a career outside a profession that requires specialist training, or in research, these should normally be combined with a new degree, the Bachelor of Advanced Studies (BAdvStudies). Students will be able to complete the combination of an existing three-year degree and the BAdvStudies within four years. It will give them the opportunity to study two disciplinary areas in depth, as well as the requirement to undertake multi‑disciplinary and real-world problem-solving activities, often, but not always, embedded in industry and community settings. They will also be able to take courses from an ‘Open Learning Environment’ that will cover more generic skills and disciplines (see Initiative 3, page 36). We believe that this combination will better prepare students for the work-world of the future by providing the skills that contemporary employers require, and can also provide excellent research training.

Twice the expression ‘we believe’ is used in this one paragraph. I might believe in the flying spaghetti monster, but that doesn’t provide evidence for its existence. Melbourne Model light, or the Clayton’s Melbourne Model, as many see it, seems to be predicated on Management’s belief in its own assertion. One would hope here for a footnote to evidence, to an appendix detailing the rationale and the research behind this claim – good old evidenced based analysis – but sadly, no. In an academic institution that prides itself on research excellence, ‘belief’ that ‘this combination will better prepare students for the work-world of the future’ is enough, and we – the university’s underlings – should trust in management’s belief in itself. We should overturn generations of carefully crafted curriculum and pedagogical practice, and completely restructure our degrees – at lightening speed to suit the University’s Open Day commitments – on what appears to many to be management’s whim.

This is just a hint at the corporatised language used in IF YOU CHANGE NOTHING, NOTHING WILL CHANGE, 2016-2020 Strategic Plan, and the poorly-argued justifications for the decision-making of university managements, but you can be sure that universities across Australia and beyond are producing documents just like it. These documents symbolise everything that is intellectually repugnant to those who value education and evidence-based research, and demonstrate that the corporate hijacking of universities is not merely a threat, but a reality. As I say, this is something that’s happening not just across the sector in Australia, but across the globe. After all, in a global economy where finding the ‘right’ university is only a few clicks away, institutions are in competition with one another on a global scale. Managements see themselves ‘competing’ in a ‘global industry’ worth billions of dollars.

So what can we do? Well, the fact that the Liberal Party was unable to mention higher education during the election gives us hope. When the 2014 budget argued for full deregulation of the sector, despite Christopher Pyne’s claims that ‘Australian Universities’ (read all but one VC) were begging for deregulation, the country was horrified. It was one of the reasons Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey – carrying out the wish-list of the Institute for Public Affairs [here are 25 more] – lost their jobs and Christopher Pyne almost lost his! They didn’t bargain on the idea that higher education matters to voters. The 2014 budget was also a catalyst for the formation of the National Alliance for Public Universities. NAPU has over 1,500 signatures from university staff and academics, including one (now retired) Vice Chancellor and a Nobel Prize winner. The NAPU website has had 23,000 views and 9,000 visitors. People in the sector care about what’s happening to the institutions they work in, and I think there is a growing appetite to reclaim the integrity of our universities, and to push back against the tide of corporatisation. The University of Aberdeen recently launched a website that lays out a manifesto not unlike NAPU’s charter, but specific to the University of Aberdeen. One of the key points in its manifesto is:

  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

I suspect, and hope, that before too long a similar movement may take place here. The push to corporatised governance may already have gone too far, and as happened with deregulation, overstepping the boundaries will create a backlash. Bring it on.

Julie-Ann Robson

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author