Gavin Brown, RIP

Being vice-chancellor of a sandstone university does not seem like the path to a long life. First Alan Gilbert died far too young, and now Gavin Brown. He had a heart attack and died after his Christmas lunch, aged 68.

In my time as David Kemp’s higher education adviser in the late 1990s, Brown like Gilbert stood out among the vice-chancellors. Gilbert was an entrepreneur and visionary type, and you always knew what he thought. Brown struck me as a canny character; the Scottish accent and a left eye that did not follow the right distracting you from what he was up to.

Though Brown did what VCs needed to do in the 1990s in pursuing full-fee students – including, controversially, domestic undergradates – in other respects a cigar-smoking, racetrack-going academic seems like someone from another, more leisurely and less ‘performance’ oriented era. We probably won’t see any more people like him leading the top universities.

Gavin Brown, RIP.

6 Responses to “Gavin Brown, RIP

  • 1
    Cantankerous
    December 29th, 2010 07:27

    Let’s see. He did what VCs needed to do? What he and other VCs did – and Gavin led the charge – was to steal a publicly funded infrastructure, cut academic positions and salaries, and erect enormous bureaucracies, while pulling in more and more income from deluded international students who thought they would get a quality education in Australia. Our student-staff ratios – the most easily measured index of quality – increased by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2006 – and are abysmal! Meanwhile the VCs continue to pay themselves and their acolytes a larger and larger piece of the cake.

    To cap it all, they bleated about being underfunded by the Liberal Govt (over the time from 1996 to 2006 Australian University income doubled in real terms) and about the cost of government monitoring that they claimed (in a time when IT support should have been making it easier) was requiring them to expand bureacracy.

    Are you saying that as David Kemp’s HE advisor you were duped by these guys?

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    December 29th, 2010 08:40

    I’d like to think that we were never duped by anyone, though we were very much stymied by the political process.

    There has been some documented increase in senior management positions at unis, though I have not see a study to see whether they are bloated compared to other organisations of similar size.

    But the share of academic to non-academic staff is essentially unchanged over time (42.9% academic in 1996, 43.1% in 2009), with only a small downward shift in share of salaries going to academic staff (54.2% in 1996 to 53% in 2009). Both figures are likely to understate academic staff, due to increased outsourcing of teaching in that period.

    See some of my recent posts in the ‘higher education’ category as to whether student:staff ratios are a reliable indicator of quality.

    The time burner in dealing with government is not just in reporting, which if the data demanded is stable can be automated to some degree, as you suggest. It is the constant process of putting in bids for often small pots of money and the continual policy changes with the associated consultation processes, management time spent working out how to game the system and implement the new policy, and then the associated reporting. Few of these schemes last more than a few years, so before long you are back working on another one.

  • 3
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 30th, 2010 06:02

    Both figures are likely to understate academic staff, due to increased outsourcing of teaching in that period.

    I’m not sure about this; a lot of teaching has always been outsourced to casuals, or tutors, or grad students. The names and the identities might have changed over time – but the principle of outsourcing one way or other is long-established.* Also many of the senior management, who don’t teach or research carry academic titles or occupy academic positions.

    * Measurement of this is likely to be tricky.

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2010 06:28

    Sinc – Casuals are included; I meant private providers doing the teaching in university branded courses. I used the ‘current duties’ figure which I think avoids the issues associated with administrators who have academic titles (though I don’t have my book of DEEWR definitions with me).

    But I’m not sure how much additional outsourcing of non-academic jobs occurred in that period.

    Both figures will understate the number of people ultimately paid by universities, given that functions like security and cleaning are generally outsourced.

  • 5
    conrad
    December 30th, 2010 07:26

    “Our student-staff ratios – the most easily measured index of quality – increased by 50 per cent between 1996 and 2006 – and are abysmal! Meanwhile the VCs continue to pay themselves and their acolytes a larger and larger piece of the cake. ”
    .
    People complain about this (I work at place that got 1* for this in the good university guide, so I can probably do it louder than others), but that was basically a government policy, and the main thing VCs didn’t do was speak up enough about it, but I doubt that would have made much of a difference in a place like Australia given the prevailing cultural attitudes.
    .
    At least for places like Syd U, the simple solution to this would be to privatize completely — I imagine that at Sydney, only around 30% of revenue is from the government, so after counting the money saved from not having to comply with innumerable government rules, it’s hard to see how people would be worse off there if it happened. It’s the lower universities that don’t have this option since they can’t generate as much revenue that are (will be) worse off.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2010 07:58

    “but that was basically a government policy,

    It was a government policy, but only in the sense that the government had a fiscal policy that had consequences for higher education – all the more reason that unis need to insulate themselves by some form of privatisation.

    But if Sydney privatised on its own, it would suddenly be vastly more expensive than its traditional rivals. I doubt there would be any net savings; any reduction in administrative costs would be more than consumed by marketing costs. Plus all the tuition subsidy would be lost.

    While obviously bureaucratic costs should be minimised, on the undergrad side I don’t think these are the main issue with regulation – it is their distorting effects that are bad more than the costs of employing a few extra bureaucrats.