Sunday, 5 January 2014

End of the old world university


In Sydney in 1982, John Manning Ward penned his gloomy outlook for the following year. There was no point dancing around it: things were going to be tough and Ward planned to explain this to staff of the University of Sydney, where he had been Vice-Chancellor for almost two years. Their current projections looked like a $3.5 million deficit for the year was likely. This was not an enormous percentage of the University’s budget, which exceeded $110 million, but was more than CTEC permitted. Universities were only allowed 1% leeway in either direction, a tightrope walk at the best of times; now was hardly the best time and this was broaching 3%. Ward was not alone in his predicament. Leaders across the university system struggled as government funding declined along with student numbers.

The University’s financial predicament, Ward believed, was not really a result of declining student numbers, but rather the loss of public faith in what the university did; a result, be believed, of nothing more than bad PR. In his graduation oration that year he’d argued:
When we are misunderstood and less generously supported by governments than we need to be, we should ask, who made the gap between universities and their communities? 
It was not that the universities needed to fundamentally change, Ward believed; if only the community could really see how valuable a good traditional university like Sydney is, support would be forthcoming. Like many a Lord of an old aristocratic house facing the modern world, Ward did not yet see that real, fundamental change was going to hit universities. The old world that he knew would soon be swept aside.

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