The Enterprise University

Dear colleagues,

If you are interested in better understanding what is happening in universities, especially increasing commercialism and managerialism, I recommend a recent book by Simon Marginson and Mark Considine, The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2000). It is based on interviews with vice-chancellors and other senior figures at 17 Australian universities (not including Wollongong) in the years 1997-1999, plus examination of a wide range of other material.

Marginson and Considine's picture of the contemporary Australian university will be familiar to many who have watched changes at Wollongong. For example, some of the features of the "enterprise university" that they list are:
* "University purpose is now defined by forms of strong executive control."
* "University missions and governing bodies start to take on a distinctly corporate character ... marketing mediates much of the relationship with the world outside, and performance targets are superimposed on scholarly honorifics."
* "Driving these changes is a redefined internal economy in which underfunding drives a 'pseudo-market' in fee incomes, soft budget allocations for special purposes and contested earnings for new enrolments and research grants." (p. 4).

One of the significant points made in the book is that the process of corporatisation inside universities can be interpreted as a response to the imposition of controls and incentives on universities by the federal government. The building of executive power is occurring right across the country, not just at Wollongong.

The authors divide Australian universities into five groups: sandstones (such as Sydney and Melbourne), redbricks (such as UNSW), unitechs (such as UTS), gumtrees (such as Wollongong) and new universities (such as UWS). The sandstones have an enormous positional advantage due to their history and names and are virtually impossible to displace; their key role is to reproduce the social elite. Other unis, to compete, are forced to "reinvent" themselves. Undoubtedly Wollongong has done better at this than most of the gumtrees.

Ironically, the government's promotion of competition between universities has led not to diversity but to "isomorphism", namely conformism to a standard model. Academic innovation has been reduced.

Marginson and Considine are mainly concerned to describe the major transformations of Australian universities rather than attack or endorse them. They see a number of benefits in the changes but also point to weaknesses. Among the limits of the enterprise university that they list are:
* "its leaders are too far detached from that which they lead, while at the same time, too much is asked of them";
* "too often the Enterprise University works around and against academic cultures rather than through them";
* "the internal institutional community has been thinned out. Fewer of the points of institutional decision-making actually matter to overall mission and identity" (pp. 241-243).

In summary, "In becoming the Enterprise University, the university seems at risk of losing sight of its own distinctive features and achievements. In fact it might be losing control over the very means by which its own identity is formed. In very few cases did we find an executive strategy of enterprise and renewal that was matched by internal structures capable of mobilising what [higher education researcher Burton] Clark calls the 'academic heartland' of ordinary staff and students." (p. 6).

There is much else in the book, but these excerpts give an idea of its flavour. The book is clearly written but it is not an easy read, for the most part being couched in system-wide generalities, with only occasional comments about particular universities. Quotes from interviewees are revealing, as are many tables. Whether you support, oppose or are ambivalent about changes taking place in Australian universities since the late 1980s, this book is worth studying to understand the underlying driving forces. It is especially good at helping understand the ways university managers think, and why.

Australia is fortunate in having scholars of the calibre of Marginson and Considine who are interested in analysing Australian higher education and an ARC that is willing to fund such research.

Brian Martin
6 June 2001

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