ICAC report, what ICAC report? University governance failing to learn from the past (and present)

It’s business as usual at SA universities, writes Kit MacFarlane – and that’s the problem.

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Last month, the latest Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) report into South Australian universities was released, presenting results from ICAC’s 2023 survey.

Unfortunately, the main thing the report’s release seems to demonstrate is that not enough people are paying attention to what’s happening in South Australia’s universities.

The fact that a detailed ICAC report into SA’s three public universities can drop so quietly is especially concerning when two of South Australia’s three public universities are set to merge in the very near future. The new Adelaide University, combining UniSA and the University of Adelaide, plans to start operating in January 2026 and will be launched in the global market on July 15 this year.

If longstanding and well-documented issues within existing universities won’t be addressed transparently and with accountability, then it should be a matter of real public concern that the problems of the past may simply be scaled up along with the size of the new institution.

Some of the limited media coverage of the ICAC report has focused primarily on the concerns raised by university staff about artificial intelligence. This is a serious and pressing issue. But the hot button issue of AI shouldn’t distract from the consistent problems that too many people, including university councils and state and federal governments, seem determined to ignore.

The ICAC’s website summary of the report is clear that “nepotistic recruitment, misuse of authority, and improper procurement were identified as the largest corruption risks” and that “the universities do not always foster a workplace culture where staff feel safe and able to report”. Echoing a concern that university staff have been shouting for years is the statement in the report that “Universities are hierarchical organisations with entrenched power imbalances, making them vulnerable to abuse of power and authority”.

SA universities are public institutions that operate through state government legislation. They exist to benefit the public and rely on public money to operate. Students also pay very large amounts of their own money to attend. The idea that the organisations are structured in a way that can inhibit an appropriate academic environment and experience is a big deal.

ICAC’s new report follows their earlier reports from 2020. Particularly alarming is the statement that “respondents to the 2023 survey perceived that their workplaces were more vulnerable to corruption than in the 2020 survey”. An increase rather than a decrease in perceptions of being vulnerable to corruption should be a flashing warning light as the merger process continues at its incredibly rapid pace.

This is an important moment to be able to take a close look at the longer-term data across both surveys, the responses, and their effectiveness, especially in relation to the two universities about to merge.

But you probably won’t have much luck.

First of all, the scope of this ICAC survey was substantially limited compared to 2020. After SA politicians moved with unsettling speed in 2021, the ability to investigate misconduct and maladministration was removed from ICAC’s powers.

The latest ICAC report also only covers SA universities as a group. The previous ICAC survey produced additional reports focusing on each university individually. While the 2020 SA summary report is available on the ICAC website, the specific reports about each university individually are not. Instead, these were left to those universities to host and make available themselves.

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Flinders still hosts its individual ICAC report, which can be easily found by searching its university website.

Using the University of Adelaide’s website search, I personally didn’t have any luck finding their individual ICAC 2020 survey report. (That’s not to be confused with the 2020 ICAC statement on a previous Vice-Chancellor and the many responses to that following considerable media attention.) Some general web searching did eventually uncover the University of Adelaide 2020 ICAC survey report, seemingly floating as a disembodied pdf in cyberspace.

As for UniSA, the small number of results when I searched their website for “ICAC” didn’t include the individual report. I had no luck with a general web search either. The URL originally sent to staff to access UniSA’s ICAC report now just gives me a “404: Page not found” error.

Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did.

It’s probably no surprise that universities may not want these vital documents front and centre when one of those reports contains one summary statement like this:

“Qualitative feedback also raised concerns with management and leadership, declining teaching standards, admitting students who are unlikely to succeed and various pressure to adjust or provide easier grades for these students to pass. When considering the comments as a whole, these problems seem directly or indirectly connected to a focus on student fees and income.”

The nature of ICAC’s investigative powers places the immediate focus on “perceptions and experiences of potential corruption and other improper conduct”. But it shouldn’t require an actual corruption finding for the public to expect clear and demonstrable improvements to the substantial cultural problems that are presented in these reports.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) data confirms these issues consistently. Universities also perform multiple surveys into their own culture, with results that seem to stay safely within their own walls, are subject to no public scrutiny or visible accountability, and that can contain damning results in line with many of the concerns raised in ICAC and NTEU reports.

If SA is going to have a strong university future, there needs to be a reckoning with the sector’s ongoing problems and failings. Staff, students and the public need to actually see that taking place through transparency and accountability within university governance and senior management.

With SA’s three Vice Chancellors costing millions of dollars each year, a multiverse of senior managers around them, serious concerns about top-down decision-making, and appalling treatment of casual staff and plummeting wellbeing in the university sector, some tangible improvements shouldn’t be a big ask.

The public deserves transparency and accountability, not a “404: Page not found” error message.

Dr Kit MacFarlane is NTEU UniSA Branch President, NTEU SA Division Assistant Secretary, a lecturer in UniSA Creative, and was the academic staff member elected to UniSA Council in 2022-2023.

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