Today I made a big change which will likely affect the future of this blog. If you are interested read on …
For the last 23 years I have worked at the University of Newcastle, NSW and built up my research centre – Centre of Full Employment and Equity – there. We kept the group relatively small because otherwise I would have had to become a manager and I like to tell the University, when they tried imposing the so-called “managing for performance” routines on us, that we were a management-free zone.
MFP was a new micro-management process concocted by the new breed of tertiary sector managers with the aid of our trade union. The latter signed away our freedoms in the name of a paltry pay rise, which still translated into a real wage cut. MFP involved too many meetings, too much paperwork for no fundamental productivity boost. I have always refused to take part in it and told the University to sack me if they didn’t like it.
My philosophy is that we should be an output-based organisation and I never cared when the researchers I employed worked or how they worked as long as the agreed timelines were met and the work was first-class. The bean counters had different ideas and wanted to micro-manage everything, although they somehow found their way clear to chase the executive salary binge in the corporate world and management pay and bonuses have sky-rocketed, while academic salaries, generally, have fallen in real terms, while having a litany of these bureaucratic impositions placed on our time.
It was just another symptom of the managerialism that has taken over Australian universities, which has dented creativity and outcomes. To their eternal shame, the union agreed to all these micro-management strategies being imposed on the workforce.
Anyway, the economics program was very strong in the early days but by the early 1990s was facing the onslaught of “business education”, which promotes study of human resource management, marketing, and the like at the expense of the foundation disciplines of economics and the related economic history.
Business degrees sprang up like topsy and students were coaxed away from the more demanding studies in economics by near 100 per cent pass rates and almost zero intellectual challenges. I can tell many stories of meetings at Faculty Boards when economists were attacked for daring to fail students.
I became the Head of the Economics Department in 1994 at a time when the new funding model declared we had a serious deficit and would have to lose staff and contract. Over the next 8 years of my period as HOD we went through a difficult restructuring process, which we largely managed ourselves – via democratic decisions taken at the Department Board meetings. As well as all the negatives that accompanied such a process, we did introduce some new subjects aimed at attracting students back (international trade, money and banking etc). The Department was strongly heterodox in its persuasion, which set it apart from other departments in Australia.
The strategy began to work and by 2001, my last year as HOD, the student numbers were growing again and we had eliminated the deficit and starting to appoint new staff. We built up our higher research degree load and our research output was multiplying. These are all things academic departments should be doing but under an increasingly KPI-dominated management structure the performance also satisfied the bean counters.
During this period, I also set up CofFEE (1998), which really formalised our research group. It was a separate entity to the Department although its was mainly comprised of Departmental economists and their research students. As such it provided the dominant proportion of the research income that the Department earned and because the latter was the dominant research unit in the Faculty the same proportions carried over.
By 2001, the neo-liberals had totally infested the university system and we went through a painful restructure, which consolidated the creeping managerialism that had begun in the mid-1990s. So elected HODs were abandoned. Elected Deans were abandoned. The academics, which had previously controlled the Senate (the legislative body of the University), lost the majority to the appointed positions. Committees, which previously had decision-making capacity, were declared advisory only. And so it went. Department Boards were abandoned as decision-making bodies and faculty boards were dictated to by a Faculty Executive, which was nothing more than a PVC telling a small group of academics what the rest of the staff would have to tolerate.
Some manager or another decided that the concept of discipline-based academic departments was divisive and so the Economics Department was abandoned in a major reduction in faculties (from 11 odd to 5) and departments (from 45 odd to about 20). We became the School of Policy (whatever that meant) and the Faculty was renamed Business and Law (previously Economics and Commerce). So they expunged the traditional roots of the faculty name.
Next step was that the faculty fell prey to the designs of a new dean, now called Pro Vice Chancellors (for whatever reason – which has never been explained), who decided economics didn’t fit his plans. He also wanted to narrow the focus of a diminished economics discipline to “business” (whatever that is) and to push the social science aspects out.
Around the same time (around 2004) I was offered a very lucrative position in another University in Australia. I toyed with the idea of moving. CofFEE was making millions of dollars in research income for the University (easily the higher return of any social science unit in the institution) and building an international reputation.
The new PVC didn’t appreciate our work even though it dominated the research output of the Faculty (on all measures). He was planning to eliminate the bulk of the economics program and knew that I would stand in his way. I was a senior professor in the University with an impeccable research record (winning many of the highest prestige Australian Research Council grants) and I was opposed to his plans to cut economics further. But I was also attracted to moving institutions and being at a place where our work was valued and where economics was not afforded pariah status.
The senior management of the University (Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor Research) wanted to keep me (and my group) at the University because they knew the numbers (research income etc) as well as anyone.
The upshot was that I made a special agreement with the VC at Newcastle to remain at the University. CofFEE moved out of the Faculty structure and we were given stand-alone status (which means I had a separate cost-centre and only really reported to the DVC Research). I could come and go as I pleased and in the following years our research income grew significantly as did our published output and notoriety.
The downside was that I was excluded from teaching into the Economics program by the PVC of the Business and Law faculty and pressure was put on academics within that faculty to reduce or sever their contacts with CofFEE. Many bowed to the pressure and resigned as research associates of my centre. Some might call it a bullied response. I called it gutless.
In my absence from the Faculty processes (I held the position of Research Dean in the Faculty before I left under my agreement) the strategy to reduce economics to a rump proceeded with a pace. The Bachelor of Economics degree was scrapped and the economists were only able to keep a diminished major sequence in the Commerce Degree, which was of secondary importance in student numbers to the Business degree.
Many of the growth subjects I had brought in while I was head of department and which formed the vehicle for restoring our financial position in the late 1990s were scrapped or taken over the accountants etc (for example, money and banking). Staff numbers were cut (through attrition and contract elapse) and very little remains of the once excellent program in economics.
Being out of the faculty I was not able to influence any of this. I had decided that I would safeguard my own research group and concentrate on building that up rather than continue to slug it out with a system that increasingly imposed decisions on staff via fiat rather than consultation and reason. I think I made the right choice – although at times I thought that I probably should have left the University and moved to another more supportive institution when the opportunity was there.
But under my agreement I had freedom and have been very productive as a result. I am an old-style academic. To me freedom generates creativity which produces results. Bureaucratic and managerial structures impede those results. I can tell you many stories of the struggles I have had over many years to remain as free as possible within the system that increasingly suppressed it. I knew though that I was able to “be my own person” because I earned a lot of research income. That was my saving grace – by bargaining power – and I used it to protect my research group.
Anyway, the University for its own reasons – ideological – whatever – decided to relinquish its claim to provide a comprehensive and first-class course in Economics and Economic History. It was amazing that at the time the PVC was driving through his plans that the world was entering the largest crisis since the Great Depression.
I said to the top managers – more times than I care to recall – “when do you see headlines each day on HRM or marketing or accounting?”. The great debates in our area are about economics – every day – every week – every year. Yet our University decided it didn’t want to be a player in the most important debates that affect all of us every day. You can guess that I didn’t support this strategic direction at all. I thought it was poorly thought out and ill considered.
But I was able to situate CofFEE in all the debates and our work has attracted among the most “media hits” of any group in the University for the last decade or more. I do interviews for national radio, the written media and sometimes television several times a week and attract, probably, the highest media profile of any academic in the University.
We work for international agencies (such as the ILO, the Asian Development Bank, the EU etc). We are on very large research and infrastructure projects with partners at the University of Melbourne and other universities around Australia and the world, which bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the University each year in research income.
There are many other things I could tell you about the way managers fail to support creative processes in our universities these days. Part of this trend has arisen because of the neo-liberal bean counters in Canberra (the federal Department of Education etc, which doles out the funding) have become obsessed with KPIs (key performance indicators) and other bureaucratic impositions.
One of the latest travesties is the UK-inspired research excellence framework. In economics, it has meant that publishing policy-related material is given low credits and an article, in say, the Journal of Economic Theory, which will be read by about 10 people and, which has no relevance to anything, will be awarded high research importance status. This is because the mainstream of my profession has promoted the key paradigm-reinforcing journals as the A plus type journals on the recognition list, while heterodox studies are largely disregarded.
Anyway, to cut a very long story short, after 23 years I have left the University of Newcastle and started work this week at Charles Darwin University. The link to CDU came because the new Vice Chancellor at CDU was previously the DVC Research at Newcastle, who was instrumental in retaining me back in 2006 and drove through the special deal I mentioned above.
He likes CofFEE and is keen to develop more teaching and research capacity in Economics at CDU – a trend that runs counter to what is happening in other universities around Australia. I plan to teach a full-blown MMT macroeconomics sequence here using the new textbook that I am currently completing with Randy Wray. The attraction of being in an institution that actually wants to invest in the development of economics is significant.
The Northern Territory government is also keen for me to help them build modelling capacity to improve the conduct of economic policy. Some say the NT Treasury is one that neo-liberalism passed by. We will see about that.
I am also doing research on Timor, indigenous labour markets and have on-going work with the Asian Development Bank (so the northern location is attractive).
And, I am sure Somerset Maugham would agree that everyone has to spent some time in their life in the tropics. Today it is 35 degrees and very humid – which means awfully hot. We have moved to the top of Australia some 4 hours by plane from Newcastle.
While Darwin is a remote tropical location it is also one of the capital cities in Australia. This means it has a seat of government and provides more public infrastructure and other facilities than say a regional city like Newcastle can provide. So that compensates a bit. But it means more flying hours than ever.
Some of my research group are remaining behind at what will become known as CofFEE-Newcastle. The HQ of CofFEE is now located at CDU in Darwin. Our annual conference, which is normally held in December will now be staged in Darwin in July 2013 (during the dry season when it is 30 degrees and relatively low humidity – in other words, near perfect weather). We hope to see a lot of people up here for that event next year. We hope to run it in to the Darwin Festival, which is a premier cultural event in Australia and worth the trip to be part of.
I have agreed with VC to come here for 2 years. The weather is not particularly attractive, there are no surf beaches, there are crocodiles and I spend a lot of time in Melbourne each fortnight on the collaborative projects with staff at the University of Melbourne. Melbourne is 1 hour or so by plane from Newcastle but 4 from Darwin – so a not inconsequential difference. So I am capacity building here over the next two years and then will return to Newcastle after that time.
The implications for my blog are as yet unclear. I have a more regular faculty position now – still situated as a stand-alone unit with the university but this time located in a Faculty structure. I will be teaching again and presumably having to take responsibility as one of the most senior academics here for some committees etc. So a change of role no doubt.
At present I allocate a fixed amount of time to the blog and that is why the conclusion comes very quickly sometimes. The clock ticks over and I have to bring it to an end. I am unsure whether I will have that much time each day for the next two years. I am unsure whether I will be able to plan each day as fully as I do at present. So it is likely that I will not write as many blogs as I currently do, which I am sure will be met with a sigh of relief.
While I don’t claim to be a particularly succinct writer, the blogs do have to be of a certain depth given that the material I write about is contentious and involves concepts that are either unknown or poorly understood. I have to spell things out a bit to ensure the arguments are not dismissed as being of the lunatic variety.
So we will see what this all means. Wish me luck!
For earlier reflections on the way the Australian university system has been taken over by managers and bean-counters, please read the following blogs:
3. Education – a vehicle for class division – and they make good background reading for this blog.
Tomorrow, we will be discussing MMT things again – the reason why fiscal policy is required at present and why monetary policy (increasing liquidity) will not turn the sinking ship.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2012 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.