Vice-Chancellor faces up to students: Here’s what you missed
ProctorU, merging with UniSA, and sexual misconduct on campus were all hot topics of conversation
Adelaide University Vice-Chancellor Peter Hoj said that while it is his view that a merger between UofA and UniSA is still ‘worth looking at’, staff and student morale needs to be raised first before the move is considered.
Professor Hoj spoke at length at Tuesday’s much-anticipated Student Forum about a range of topics including a merger, the Peter Rathjen misconduct scandal, and controversial anti-cheating software ProctorU.
Attending with Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Jennie Shaw, Hoj went on to state there have been no conversations on the subject between UofA and UniSA officials since he assumed the post of VC on February 22.
He said if international student enrolments do not return to pre-pandemic levels and the federal government does not inject more funding, a merger will be ‘a necessary consideration’ to ensure the university remains solvent.
Hoj has been equivocal on whether current university staff could expect to face job losses.
He told On Dit in a February interview that, ‘The hope would be that what you save on that administration through scale, that could be spent on more university research and funding… I don’t think that the number of South Australians employed by universities would change, but the nature of the job would.’
The forum was attended by roughly 70 spectators and hosted by the Student Representative Council, which spent $100 of its budget to advertise the event on Facebook. SRC President Oscar Ong and Union President Angela Qin co-chaired the event, with Ong reiterating his belief that the event was the first of its kind attended by an Australian university Vice-Chancellor.
Misconduct policies ‘not good enough’
Discussing the ICAC investigation into former VC Peter Rathjen’s sexual misconduct, Hoj said consultancy firm KPMG was ready to deliver its report on how UofA should implement ICAC’s recommendations.
Hoj acknowledged the process of investigating sexual misconduct complaints was ‘not good enough.’
‘The process takes so long that people complain that we do nothing. Is there a way to accelerate the process while still being fair to all parties?
‘It retraumatizes victims… why is it necessary for victims to tell their story over and over again instead of just once? We need to do better and make the process better.
‘I accept that it starts at the top. I have to show impeccable behaviour… workplace culture has changed, and I have chosen to be absolutely ultra-secure in avoiding physical contact and colourful comments.’
When questioned about an incident at the University of Queensland, where an offender was cleared of wrongdoing and had further complaints raised against them, Hoj characterised it as a ‘he said, she said’ situation.
UQ did acknowledge that it had breached some of its policies by allowing the offender to continue teaching while they were being investigated. Despite this, UQ was cleared of wrongdoing by the federal regulator after 18 months. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) did advise, however, that UQ needed to make information about reporting procedures more available to students.
ProctorU may have a future
Shaw said that exams would likely return to the Wayville showgrounds in semester 2, and using ProctorU was the only way to ensure academic integrity. She was confident that further security breaches, like the 2020 leak of 440,000 users’ information, would not occur.
‘Universities introduced online invigilated exams early on in the pandemic and the service provider — in this case, ProctorU — had to ramp up quickly due to demand. The capability today is better than what it was before.
‘There are 449 examinations in semester one and 30 exams through ProctorU, which is about 7% of the total.’
Hoj said, ‘While we haven’t established cheating is rampant, it definitely increased and the last thing we want to happen is for a student to provide their testamur and an employer to question if they really were successful in the course.’
On the question whether ProctorU will have a place in the post-2021 learning experience, Shaw simply said, ‘It’s a pilot program, and we’ll see what happens.’ She said it is her preference for a blanket return to face-to-face exams.
Austerity for ‘next year or two’
Money was the elephant in the room– or rather, the lack of it. Hoj and Shaw acknowledged the University was hit hard by COVID-19, and everyone would be feeling the crunch for some time.
Hoj did however advocate the injection of $40k of SSAF into the Adelaide University Union and $30k into AU Sport earlier this year to transition back to a ‘face to face student culture.’
The Clubs Lounge will likely remain in the much-maligned Hartley building basement for ‘the next year or two’ and that ‘essential infrastructure’ spending would be prioritised, said Shaw. This included completing the Napier building renovation by September and introducing ground level toilets at Union House.
Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students will also not receive an increase to their stipend unless the federal government is willing to subsidise it, said Hoj.
‘Our stipends are mostly funded by the federal government which is a block grant for training. HDR students are working many hours, and we know that. We have to recognise that HDR is also a training role.
‘As an undergrad, you don’t get paid to study, you in fact get charged sometimes exorbitant HECS fees. We have no plans to increase the HDR stipend but would love it if the government did.’
Hoj playing the PR game
Overall, the forum showed UofA’s future is clouded in uncertainty. The scope of discussion was also hamstrung by Hoj’s relative freshness to the University, and the fact questions were vetted before being asked.
Ultimately, Hoj’s tenure at UofA will be judged to a higher standard than usual. As we wrote earlier this year in an editorial, ‘It’s hard to imagine what the University Council were thinking when they chose an embattled, disgraced Vice-Chancellor named Peter to replace an embattled, disgraced Vice-Chancellor also named Peter.’ The Rathjen affair was as much about men abusing their power as it was about a corporate culture that is more managerial than visionary. It says something about a leader when their legacy is being a sex pest and inviting alcoholism on campus under the guise of RCC/Fringe for a quick buck.
Nick Birchall pointed out in On Dit issue 1 this year that Australian Vice-Chancellors are among the highest paid in the world, averaging $1 million before tax annually:
‘These salaries are comparable with CEOs of major corporations, and the numbers just keep rising. The key difference? CEOs are often picked for their ability to make money, and for a private company the end goal is make more money. It shouldn’t need to be said, but universities aren’t (or fucking shouldn’t be) solely profit-driven. Universities are institutions of higher-learning.’
Hoj seems to share this belief — on paper. His aversion to the cult of university rankings and opposition to the federal government’s JobReady scheme are a good start — but look to what Vice-Chancellors do, not what they say. Time will tell whether Peter Hoj cements his legacy as a leader or a manager, and that will shape the conversation about whether we think a seven-figure salary is too much for a VC.
His final words at the forum were about the role of the university in society:
‘Students need to believe that they had an education that could land them a career not a first job. This is not a place for vocational education, but where students can aspire to be leaders… We need to give them the knowledge that they can be ambitious.’
We’ll leave it for you to decide whether he’s successful in this ambition.