A piece I wrote for the Higher Education online section of the Australian. Published September 26, 2013.
ALLOW me to present a handy guide for senior university executives: 'How To Get The Answer You Want Out Of Student Consultation'.
Step 1: It's important to agree on principles for consultation: More specifically, it’s important to agree on your principles for consultation. After all, we can’t just have anyone coming in with an opinion and expecting it to be taking seriously. It’d end in anarchy!
You know what all the important issues are and you know what is important to students. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by student representatives pushing their own personal agendas because they’re obviously just pushing their own barrow.
If the student representatives refuse to agree with your assessment of priorities, then there must be something wrong with them. Feel free to cast them aside and find your own more sensible and co-operative student representatives. They only represent the shabby 10 per cent of students who could be bothered voting. You’ll be able to find a student somewhere that’s much more representative of all students. (Hint: the business and law schools are usually a good place to start looking).
You don’t have to consult, but if you do, make a big deal out of it. Talk about it in front of your peers a lot, and make up phrases and acronyms to describe it. It will seem even more unique to other management types who visibly recoil at the suggestion of having to deal with students at all.
(See also the extended guide chapters: ‘You can have input but we will make all the decisions’ and ‘Engage student reps for consultation until they don't agree with you’).
Step 2: Student unions are rolling in money so feel free to make them conduct market research: If you’re not sure what student reps tell you is true or if a proposal is worthwhile, you don’t have to accept it straight away. Send the students away on a data-gathering mission or tell them to produce a feasibility study.
Don’t worry, you won’t need to do any of the work yourself. You work for a university, and universities are responsible with money, unlike student unions. Feel free to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to any internal project you like without seeing any plans or a proposal at all. Your job is SECURE.
(See also: ‘No matter how simple the fact, it ain’t true until a survey says it’s true').
Step 3: All students are -- and have always been – the same. So feel free to make decisions based on what things were like when you were a student: Don’t let the fact that you earn a lot more than students stop you from empathising with them. You were once a student too.
Granted, you didn’t have to pay for your degree or work part-time while you studied, but those are just minor differences.
Since all students are the same, feel free to make generalist statements. Young women and international students don’t drink alcohol. Young people are all tech-savvy and want to spend all their time staring at a screen. Work ethic is a thing of the past. No need for justification.
(See also: ‘I know what you’re going through; I struggle with the mortgage payments on my million-dollar house').
Step 4: Selectively quote examples from other sandstone universities (but only when it suits): For everything that a university does, you can always find a way to demonstrate that the other universities either do it better, or they do it worse. This can be very helpful when it comes to justifying your own priorities and disregarding those of your students.
Cite a study to back up your argument if you can, or even better, tell the students that you can’t show them the data because it’s commercial-in-confidence. Don’t worry about the statistical validity of any studies you use; you’re an academic so everything you say can be trusted.
(See also: ‘Rankings don't matter ’til I say they do (which is usually when I'm allocating resources').
So there you have it! With these handy tricks you’ll be able to neutralise any student uprising. And if you’re ever in doubt just blame the federal government. If you didn’t create the problem, you don’t have to fix it.