The Virtual University and Ethical Problems in Downsizing


Paula Roberts (Australia)


The past five years have seen a dramatic change in the ethos and mission of Australian universities, which may herald the demise of the traditional university, and the essence of its familial relationship between students and teachers (Slaughter & Leslie 1997; Kenway & Langmead 1998; Marginson & Considine 2000 and Molony 2000). This substantial change is an outcome of the significant, inter-connected paradigmatic shifts in the financing, governance and curricula of these institutions. Firstly, federal governments, by progressively withdrawing financial support from the universities, and exhorting them to become self-sufficient, have been implicated in these institutions’ change to entrepreneurial, commercial entities serving customers, where once they taught students. Secondly, a new model of university management has emerged which incorporates the ‘flattened’ structures of the corporate world and replaces the multi-layered, collegial management once typical of the traditional university. This older form of university governance included participative committees which involved academics in decision-making, whereas, in the new corporate university, a remote senior management stands aloof from its ‘blue collar’ academics on the factory floor. Thirdly, university councils are now dominated by non-academic, ‘high-achievers’ from the corporate world who have been co-opted to transform the traditional university into a ‘high-tech’, global, commercial purveyor of educational packages, leading to generic, on-line degrees which are delivered electronically in a ‘virtual’ university.

The virtual university might have evolved more steadily from ongoing educational and technological developments instead of its rapid emergence as a matter of expediency in times of acute financial stringency. University managements have seized the opportunity presented by the financial crisis to reshape university curricula by closing whole campuses and cutting programs deemed less attractive than others for marketing and online delivery, making redundant associated staff members and reducing overall running costs in order to free capital for the technological infrastructure of the virtual university. Thus the virtual university has become inextricably linked with the downsizing of academia.

These interrelated and substantial pressures on universities have brought radical and rapid changes in the ethos and mission of the institutions, which represent a hidden structural re-orientation as both cause and effect of downsizing which has been identified by Cameron et al. (1993), Capelli (1999) and Dawkins et al. (1999). The academic and administrative staff survivors of these troubled times are faced with uncertain futures, as well as significantly increased workloads, in a climate where dissent may equate, at best, with reduced opportunities for promotion, and, at worst, with forced redundancy. The plight of the survivors of downsizing who appear to suffer a ‘survivor syndrome’ has received increasing attention in the academic literature (Brockner & Greenberg 1990, Brockner et al. 1994 and Dawkins et al. 1999). Of particular interest for this paper is the relationship between survivor syndrome and trust in management (Brockner & Siegel 1996), the breach of the psychological contract (Morrison & Robinson 1997; King 2000 and Robinson & Morrison 2000), its ethical aspects (Rosenblatt & Schaeffer 2000) and its implications for workplace stress (Spreitzer & Mishra 2000, Gillespie et al. 2001).

This paper also reports data from three recent surveys of stress in Australian academics. The first relates to a stress survey of its academic members which was conducted by a state branch of the National Tertiary Education Union which revealed high levels of stress related to distrust of the institution’s management and poor communication, lack of consultation, and an apparent lack of caring. These outcomes surprised the institution’s managers who commissioned their own independent staff survey which produced similar results.

The preliminary results from the third and much larger survey of work-related stress in seventeen Australian universities reveal that clinical stress in the 9000 academics surveyed was

“disturbingly high with nearly half of the respondents being classed as possible ‘cases’, and nearly a third as possible ‘severe cases’ … These results have serious implications for the mental health of Australian university staff.”

This paper analyses the findings from these surveys by using concepts from the literature related to organizational trust and its general usefulness for understanding the ethical aspects of downsizing and survivor syndrome. The paper concludes with a discussion of the positive efforts required if stress in Australian university personnel is to be reduced through the re-establishment of trusting, co-operative relationships between management and staff. It is argued that the hierarchical, (if paternalistic), leadership of a community of scholars, once the norm in traditional universities, invoked a form of mutual trust in upholding the psychological contract of established obligations between academics and management regarding both the performance and the context of academic duties. Traditional management has ‘flattened’ in the modern entrepreneurial university, and the psychological contract has been breached, with serious consequences for staff morale, productivity and commitment, phenomena which are accompanied by the changes in trust which are allied with membership of these new institutions in a post-traditional society (Giddens 1994).