Letter from Australia: The silly season

The period around Christmas and New Year is often referred to as the silly season and, looking at Australian higher education policy brain spasms, it’s easy to see why.

In the lead up to Christmas, the government cut $328 million from research funding, which sends a questionable message for a country which aspires to be seen as an innovation nation. Indeed, it will result in 500 fewer PhDs being financed next year. But who needs PhDs when digital disruption and economic mayhem is on the horizon?

Regional spending

The Education Minister Dan Tehan explained away the cuts by saying it would “allow the government to prioritise education spending, including on regional higher education”.

You’ll perhaps remember last year, Tehan also cut research funding in order to bolster university campuses in six regional (and very marginal) Federal seats. Interestingly, campuses in non-marginal seats were not in need of a handout.

This latest cut is just another step back for the higher education sector. The message the Coalition is sending to universities is not at all positive and illustrates the risible tension between the sector and those in Parliament House. In the light of this, maybe the sector should do a bit of soul searching about how it undertakes its lobbying and government relations activities.

The cuts are even more hurtful when one considers that the Morrison Government has been bragging loudly about how its economic management will see the economy arrive back in surplus by the next budget (which has been brought forward a few weeks to enable the government to undertake some hearty vote buying before a May election).

Writing in The Conversation, Margaret Gardner, Monash University vice chancellor (and chair of peak group Universities Australia) was apoplectic with indignance. She noted that for every $100,000 universities received in research funding, they had to find an additional $85,000 to pay the staff, keep the lights on and keep the buildings maintained. It will cut the number of PhD scholarships, and it will see Australia’s paltry 1.88 percent of GDP that is spent on research and development even further undercut. Indeed, Gardner pointed out that the Australian government’s contribution to R&D was predicted to fall to just 0.55 per cent of GDP – even before this latest hit.

Ideological

As I’ve written before, it really is difficult to make sense of any of this. Surely, part of it is ideological – the Coalition has a inbuilt distrust of university elites. And part of it is about capacity and focus. Tehan is seemingly happier playing hokey local politics than trying to get his head around the big issues that confront the nation and the interplay between education, economic reform and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I certainly don’t believe universities should be funded generously just because they say so. But as the government cuts research funding and launches a discussion paper to introduce performance-based funding (another ideological battleground), the data shows that universities are doing precisely what they are meant to be doing: producing world-class research and graduates who find meaningful and well-paid work.

Of course, this doesn’t fit with the government’s rhetoric, but its own data shows that employment rates and incomes are both up. On the one hand, it has called an end to the demand-driven system and from 2020 onwards will only increase undergraduate student places in line with population increases. At the same time, universities will be subject to performance-based funding to “incentivise improvement at poorer performing universities”.

My point is this: universities are delivering on graduate employability; the economy has not been swamped by unemployed commerce, nursing, arts or law graduates, it has absorbed them.

One would think the government would take pride in this fact: a buoyant economy will not only get it out of a deficit hellhole earlier than predicted, it is employing the graduates they seem to begrudge having to support through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme.

The silly season (reprise)

And then, the day after the silly season had peaked (January 2), the deputy prime minister was forced to defuse another ideological bomb planted by one of his colleagues. James McGrath, a Queensland Senator, had quietly announced in the final sittings of Parliament that when it resumed in February he would introduce a bill to prevent the charging of a mandatory student services and amenities fee (or what is left after the Howard Government killed off compulsory student unionism).

McGrath might have forgotten but during the five years of so-called voluntary student unionism, many important services were cut from universities across the countries and hundreds of jobs lost. It wasn’t a pretty site. The compromise Student Services and Amenities Fee – introduced in 2010 after Labor got back into power – cannot be used for political purposes and is used to support sporting clubs, student representative councils and a raft of other student services.

That said, John Howard’s aim of gutting student politics and thereby stemming the pipeline of future Labor Party apparatchiks was highly successful and has put a very big dent in student politics on Australian campuses for over a decade now.

But life goes on. Whether McGrath will have is way is unlikely. Maybe it was another ideological bait to get all those commie elites in universities up in arms.

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