In 2019, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) established the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy and staffed it with leading researchers recruited from international universities. It was a glowing success. Previously, ACU’s philosophy program was unranked. But thanks to the institute, it became the third-highest-ranked philosophy program in Australasia and the thirty-second highest in the English-speaking world.
As political scientist Kyle Peyton has noted, this move was part of a broader commitment to research that saw ACU establish several research institutes over the last decade. The result has been a dramatic improvement in the university’s research output and reputation.
In September 2023, however, just four years after establishing the Dianoia Institute, Vice-Chancellor Zlatko Skrbis blindsided staff by proposing to completely disestablish the institute and make its academics redundant. In addition, thirty-five academic jobs in history, political science, and religious studies are also on the chopping block. Add these to two rounds of job losses earlier this year that saw forty-four full-time equivalent positions cut, and it makes for a total of around 150 jobs lost.
What’s dismaying, however, is that by every measure, the Dianoia Institute was successful. And until recently, ACU operated with a comfortable surplus. It raises the question: Why is ACU management intent on slashing a young, successful research institute and gutting the university’s humanities program more broadly?
The Research Institute Rug Pull
Prior to establishing the Dianoia Institute and others, ACU’s research output was so low that the university faced sanction and risked losing its Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency accreditation.
Consequently, Zlatko Skrbis’s predecessor as vice-chancellor, Greg Craven, decided to invest in humanities research — and with good reason. For a small, relatively new institution like ACU, it’s difficult to build research capacity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics without spending incredible amounts of money on labs and equipment. In contrast, humanities research is cheap — it doesn’t take state-of-the-art labs to attract humanities academics or to produce leading research.
So, in a matter of years, the Australian Catholic University built world-leading research institutes in the humanities at a relatively low cost, in part by head-hunting leading researchers from universities such as Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge.
In 2021, Zlatko Skrbis took over as ACU vice-chancellor on a salary of just over $1 million, and the university’s attitude reversed overnight. Indeed, many staff suspect that Skrbis is directly behind the decision to disestablish the Dianoia Institute, arguing that he has no interest in pursuing his predecessor’s research strategy or honoring promises of job security and institutional support given to recent hires. Instead, staff argue that Skrbis wants to build a reputation as a vice-chancellor willing to make tough decisions.
To justify the cuts, ACU executives point to a $38 million budget deficit and claim that curbing research spending is a necessary evil. However, staff note that ACU spends very little on research compared to other institutions in Australia. According Steve Finlay, director of the Dianoia Institute, ACU spends only 8 percent of its total budget on research, compared to a sector average of 16 percent.
What’s more, staff members point out that according to ACU’s annual reporting, the university’s budget woes only began after the change in administration. Since 2014, for example, ACU’s biggest growing expense has been consulting. The university now spends roughly $10 million a year on external consultants.
At face value, Skrbis’s attacks on full-time research staff are baffling and cruel, and they demonstrate what US philosopher Brian Leiter describes as his “robust commitment to mediocrity.” On a deeper level, the cuts are indicative of the neoliberal governance structures of Australian universities that incentivize this sort of behavior.
Mindless Neoliberal Governance
The neoliberalization of Australian universities is ultimately responsible for concentrating power in the hands of cavalier vice-chancellors and unaccountable board members.
The neoliberal transformation of higher education in Australia began in the 1980s with the Dawkins reforms, named after John Dawkins, minister in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments. Dawkins felt that staff and students had too much say in the running of universities and couldn’t be trusted to manage such an important economic asset.
So, in 1994, at Dawkins’s suggestion, the Keating government gave university executives the ability to make their own decisions on capital-works projects, a move that encouraged them to act more like asset managers. This trend was compounded by the reintroduction of university fees, the deregulation of fees for international students, and declining public funding.
Over time, the consequence was to push universities towards corporate-style private sector management. Although they operate under not-for-profit charters, university executives started acting more like CEOs. They sought to cut labor costs and boost investment in fixed capital in order to maximize surpluses generated increasingly through student fees. Of course, they also paid themselves the seven-figure salaries expected by CEOs in the private sector.
The problem is that Australian universities are not the same as private companies. Big corporate CEOs are accountable to shareholders, at least in some sense. Corporate boards are elected by voting shareholders, while university councils and senates are largely self-selecting. The ACU Senate — which will be responsible for passing or rejecting Skrbis’s proposed cuts — is made up of eighteen members. Only four are elected by its staff, and only one is elected by its students. Most of the other ACU Senate members are nonacademics recruited from senior positions in the private sector, NGOs, and the judiciary.
Australian university management has become a cheap parody of private sector corporate governance. University executives run down their budgets with excessive spending on marketing, consulting, capital works, and management salaries and perks, like travel. When the inevitable shortfall hits, they initiate yet another restructure to cut staff costs. And thanks ultimately to the Dawkins reforms, there is no effective internal mechanism that could hold them to account, demanding that they put staff and students first.
Every Job at Risk
The job losses at the Australian Catholic University have also highlighted the lack of job security in universities across Australia.
When we think about insecure work in universities, we usually imagine casual academics who are routinely underpaid and who make ends meet jumping from one insecure short-term contract to another. But the ACU cuts show that no one is safe — not even prestigious academics with continuing research-only roles and elite publication records.
Indeed, a number of the academics at Dianoia left jobs in countries with tenure on the assumption that continuing academic jobs in Australia are permanent too. But no academic in Australia has tenure. Thanks to employment standards that favor employers, it’s nearly impossible for staff to successfully appeal redundancies.
Many of the ACU staff being made redundant were hired fairly recently — in some cases, as little as a few months ago — while others had only just received a visa allowing them to move to Australia. But these factors don’t matter under Australian employment law. And to compound the personal devastation, their short time at ACU means Dianoia staff will be entitled to very little in redundancy pay.
News of the proposed cuts has already traveled widely, harming the international standing of all Australian universities. Humanities researchers around the world have been alerted to the fact that in Australia, university jobs can be taken away at any time. As a result, they will be rightfully wary about leaving secure jobs overseas to work in Australia. It will also disincentivize building institutional ties with Australian universities, or collaborating with Australian university departments and academics, regardless of their merit.
While Skrbis’s cuts are exceptional for their brazenness, they are entirely in step with the outlook of a generation of self-serving, incompetent university managers empowered by the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s. Restructure after restructure has led to an appalling race to the bottom, and the damage is so profound that the entire sector is in obvious crisis.
For staff, however, the most important lesson is about the need for solidarity in the face of management. In many instances, permanent staff members have been more reluctant to take industrial action than casual university workers, in part because a little job security is better than none. But the ACU cuts show that no job is safe — job security will only become a reality when ongoing and casual university workers stand united against neoliberal university managers.