Labor hires evil professor as top public service boss
Labor hires evil professor as top public service boss

When a new government is being formed, the appointment of senior bureaucrats to the public service often tells you as much about how the country will be run, and in whose interests, as does the allocation of ministries to politicians.

Anthony Albanese has appointed former University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis to lead the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The appointment has produced murmurs of excitement about a new era of “independent” advice and “data driven” social policy. But anyone familiar with Davis’ record of running public institutions will be filled with a deep sense of foreboding. Within this mild-mannered policy wonk beats the heart of a ruthlessly pragmatic technocrat.

Davis began his career as a doctoral researcher contributing to the Liberal Fraser government’s 1982 review of the federal public service. He later cut his teeth as director-general of the Queensland Department of the Premier and Cabinet during a period of profound restructuring of the state public service.

As Melbourne University vice-chancellor in 2005-19, Davis would occasionally lament the lack of government funding for universities. In practice, however, his strategy for the university was to entrench, and gain competitive advantage in, the “education marketplace” at the direct expense of employees, disadvantaged students and poorer universities.

Soon after his appointment as vice-chancellor, Davis launched the Melbourne Model. This shifted undergraduate education from three-year specialist bachelor degrees to three-year generalist degrees, followed by two-year specialist postgraduate qualifications. While there was some lip service paid to producing graduates with broad knowledge, the change radically narrowed the range of subjects taught, and hundreds of specialist undergraduate degrees were reduced to six.

The increased amount of time required to complete a specialist qualification, and much higher fees universities are permitted to charge for postgraduate degrees, significantly raised the cost of a University of Melbourne education. This was the intent of the strategy: poorer students would struggle to afford a Melbourne qualification, but the historic prestige of the university meant that it could always attract students who could afford to pay.

The election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007 presented Davis with an opportunity to influence broader higher education policy. He had worked closely with Rudd in the Queensland public service, and Labor had come into office promising an “education revolution”. Rather than use this moment to advocate the restoration of public funding to universities, Davis pushed for the radical marketisation of funding allocation. Under Davis’ proposal, direct funding of university places was cut in favour of giving students a partially subsidised “learning entitlement”, which they could use to “shop” for a place at any university. Once adopted by the Rudd government, this funding model exacerbated the existing crises in the education system, leading to ballooning class sizes at the larger universities and accelerating the decline of universities in poorer and regional areas.

To attract students, including lucrative international fee-paying students, Davis set up slush funds to poach well-published academics from other institutions. Universities’ rankings on international league tables are a major factor in international students’ choices about where to study, but are largely determined by academics’ research outputs rather than indicators of teaching quality. So by hiring already established researchers, Davis could game the rankings.

He could have funded these positions using the university’s massive surpluses, or by taking a cut to his own $1.5 million salary, but insisted that they come from the existing staffing budget. This resulted in the savage 2014 “business improvement plan”, under which 540 university support staff (administrators, counsellors, librarians etc.) were laid off in what was then the largest mass sacking in the history of Australian higher education.

For teaching staff, the Davis years were no better. The academics who worked in Davis’ reforged degree factory were not the comfortable professors of popular imagination, but were precariously employed and hyper-exploited. By the time he left his post, more than 70 percent of University of Melbourne employees were on casual or fixed-term contracts.

The university was also rocked by wage-theft scandals as it emerged that casual tutors had been deliberately underpaid during the Davis years. In a rare 2020 court win for the National Tertiary Education Union, the university was found not to have paid tutors for work performed, such as marking student assignments, and was ordered to repay millions of dollars to at least 1,500 workers.

The Albanese government has been elected at a time when job insecurity and cost of living are key concerns for most people. By hiring Glyn Davis to run the public service, it has sent an unambiguous signal that “user pays” and “living within our means” are the order of the day for working-class people. We can expect no innovative solutions to social and environmental crises from Professor Davis, only a proven willingness to cut costs in order to insulate the wealth and prestige of the powerful.

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