Date: May 16 2012
The controversy over the proposed changes to the School of Music is still bubbling. I am not of course privy in any way to the details of the changes or their rationale, but I can offer what I think are constructive suggestions about how to deal with difficult changes in universities and other homes for ''knowledge workers''.
First, a little history. Australia's universities grew in number, size and scale rapidly after 1958. The ANU, founded in 1946, incorporated the Canberra University College in 1960. I joined the ANU just three months later, as a PhD student, and two years later still sat on the council of the university as the representative of the research students.
These were times of great growth, and in the case of the ANU the event I remember clearly was the establishment of the Research School of Chemistry. The decision to set up the RSC was entirely, and appropriately, made from the top. It was a strategic decision, and a good one. The existing barons of the day accepted the decision happily enough, because their baronies were growing too. So, in this time of rapid growth, with initiative after initiative elsewhere in higher education.
A small group at the top made the decision, to establish law, or nursing, or sociology, or molecular biology. It can't really be done in a bottom-up way, because those already there will see how much better their own enterprises would be if the new start were deferred, and the money spent on what was already being done.
In 1975, in the Hayden budget, growth in higher education came to a sudden stop, and thereafter the early momentum was not regained. We limped along, made do, slimmed a bit and shaved. A new set of institutions, colleges of advanced education, received most of the growth there was, and in that sector too establishment decisions were made in a top-down fashion, mostly on the urging of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. From 1988, with the Dawkins changes, higher education entered a new phase of growth and change. The student market now dictated some of the change. Students wanted information technology, or management, or thingatronics, or graduate diplomas - and universities rushed to provide the courses. But there was little new money, little government assistance. Universities were now, to a degree, able to make decisions themselves rather than to do what the CTEC had ordained and paid for. But if something new had to be done, something old had to give way.
That is the context in which the current controversy sits. We are not in a period of nationally planned growth and expansion. New starts have to be balanced with reductions, and reductions are difficult. When difficult things need to be done, in my view you have to involve those concerned early, for two reasons: first, they are colleagues, and one should show them every respect; second: they may actually be able to suggest remedies that you had not thought of yourself.
What is more, you need to be open and transparent about the issue. You need to be able to provide the data, the numbers, the options and the general budgetary context, because account of things has to be reasonable and defendable. To announce closures, sweeping changes and their like, without a decent amount of consultation and with little notice, seems to me an extraordinarily wasteful way to go.
Twenty-five years ago I left the ANU, which I greatly loved, to join the Commonwealth and establish the Australian Research Council, and then spent 12 years as the vice-chancellor of another fine university.
It fascinated and dismayed me that in those years the ANU kept making - and is still making - difficult changes from the top.
If for no other reason than that it infuriates your staff (and in the present case the community of Canberra), it is time that way of doing things came to an end, and those running the university took their staff into their confidence, explained how a particular situation came to be - and asked those concerned to help produce a good solution to the issue.
Professor Aitkin was vice-chancellor and president of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002.
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