Does the Australian government really hate universities?

As Australia’s general election looms, many in university circles may be hoping that Scott Morrison’s coalition is voted out. But is it true that conservative governments and universities are natural antagonists? And how much better would the sector fare under a Labor administration? John Ross reports

May 11, 2022
academic on barbecue
Source: Stephen F. Hayes/Getty (edited)

In the anxious early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when queues for unemployment benefits enveloped city blocks and sectors such as air travel seemed poised for oblivion, the Australian government devised an industry-agnostic mechanism to ward off recession.

The JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme averted mass retrenchments by paying A$750 (£430) a week for every full-time staff member of employers who could demonstrate a loss of least 30 per cent of their turnover due to Covid, or 50 per cent for billion dollar-plus businesses.

The scheme gave Canberra the wiggle room to resist bailout requests from individual companies, such as the A$1.4 billion lifeline sought by the airline Virgin Australia. Employers only needed to meet the loss-of-turnover thresholds to qualify for JobKeeper and unlock automatic government support.

Except, that is, for universities. Indeed, the conservative Liberal-National coalition government tweaked the rules three times specifically to prevent public universities from qualifying. First, it lowered the losses threshold to 15 per cent of turnover for registered charities but excluded universities from this arrangement. Next, it forced universities to include government funding in their revenue test, quashing at least two institutions’ hopes of qualifying. And in a final twist of the knife, it changed the revenue test again to stop two universities in Sydney and Melbourne from gaining eligibility through quirks in the timing of international tuition fee payments.

Casual staff and non-citizens were also barred from attracting JobKeeper subsidies – arrangements that disproportionately hurt universities, given their tens of thousands of casuals and hundreds of thousands of international students.

Why single universities out like this? Journalist and commentator George Megalogenis quizzed current and former ministers, civil servants and vice-chancellors to find out. “It’s not that complicated,” one person “familiar with the government’s thinking” told him, according to Megalogenis’ analysis in The Sydney Morning Herald last June: “The government hates universities.”

It is a common perception. “This government’s hostility towards universities is worse even than it was under the Howard government,” Labor MP and former economics professor Andrew Leigh wrote in the latest edition of literary journal Griffith Review, referring back to John Howard’s conservative administration of the 1990s and 2000s. And, giving a more international perspective, Canadian higher education consultant Alex Usher reportedly described Australia’s government last August as “noticeably more antagonistic towards universities than pretty much any other OECD country…other than Hungary”.

Given that Hungary’s recently re-elected prime minister Viktor Orbán went so far as to ban an entire discipline – gender studies – and force into exile an entire university – the Central European University – that is quite a claim. And such perceptions might be expected to encourage everyone from vice-chancellors down to junior lecturers to vote for the opposition Labor Party in Australia’s general election later this month.

But does Australia’s Liberal-National government really detest a sector that educated most of its ministers and now prepares every second Australian youngster for the knowledge economy – not to mention bringing in tens of billions of dollars in export earnings from international students and helping produce breakthroughs like the cochlear implant, wi-fi and the cervical cancer vaccine? Whatever Megalogenis may have been told, the overwhelming response Times Higher Education hears from insiders is “no”.

Invited to speak anonymously so that they can express their views frankly, many of those who have seen government-university relations up close say that the reality is much more complicated than mutual loathing (when the Liberal/National Coalition is in power) or mutual love (when it is Labor).

“I don’t think the Liberals hate universities at all,” says one former Labor staffer. “There’s a great tradition of supporting universities in the Liberal Party.” Robert Menzies, who founded the party in 1945, was the “father of federal funding for universities”, and his enthusiasm for higher education has flowed all the way through to recent Liberal education ministers Christopher Pyne, Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan, who were “great defenders of universities inside the party”, the staffer says.

Another former Labor adviser says Menzies deserves as much credit as legendary Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, who abolished tuition fees in the 1970s, for broadening access to higher education. “Menzies made [higher education] a national concern rather than a state concern, and a public matter rather than a semi-private matter,” the staffer says. “That gave Whitlam the social licence to really throw open the doors. Plenty of people in the Liberal Party still operate in that kind of mode.”

The misconception flies both ways, a source says, relating a story of former Liberal education minister Brendan Nelson’s televised address to a roomful of humanities professors in the early 2000s. “He kept on saying words to the effect of ‘I know all you humanities people have a different political persuasion to me’.” An audience member later bristled at the misrepresentation. “I live in Brendan’s electorate and not only do I vote for him, I handed out how-to-vote cards in the last election.”

Coalition politicians sometimes say “they”, meaning the university sector, “all hate us”. However, they are wrong, the source insists. “There might be a skew in a direction [conservative politicians] don’t like, but it’s only a skew.”

How, then, to explain the current government’s doggedness in excluding universities from JobKeeper?

“Easy,” a source says. “Of the 40-odd universities, how many of them returned a 30 per cent decline in income in 2020, or a 50 per cent decline for the dozen that are billion-dollar enterprises? None. Universities were never excluded from JobKeeper. They had to meet the same standards as every other business.”

Andrew Norton, professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University (ANU), dissected the university-related JobKeeper tweaks in a 2021 blog and found most were “not wrong in principle”. In any case, as a “short-term programme”, JobKeeper was never the right fix for Covid’s slow-burn financial impacts on higher education, he believes.

“In the rush to implement JobKeeper, the public university aspects were not well implemented or explained,” wrote Norton, who worked as higher education adviser to then Liberal education minister David Kemp in the late 1990s. “University hopes were raised only to be dashed, feeding a sense of persecution as well as cutting off potential funding.” But the government’s eventual rescue package – an extra A$1 billion in research funding and A$550 million for additional student places – was a much better solution because every university benefited, rather than just a handful. “This would not have happened under JobKeeper,” Norton wrote.

A former Labor adviser has a different view, saying some universities “got pretty close” to qualifying for JobKeeper before the first two rule changes denied them eligibility. “They were deliberately excluded,” the insider says. “It seemed mean. Universities could have made the case, like any other organisations, that they were in trouble. But the government got fairly strong advice from the departments that they didn’t need it.”

Canberra’s approach affected the livelihoods of university cleaners and groundsmen as well as generously paid lecturers and administrators, the source points out. While job loss estimates during the pandemic’s first year vary widely, federal education department figures suggest that the sector shrank by about 9,000 permanent and fixed-term posts and perhaps by twice as many casual positions.

Another former Labor staffer scoffs at “technocratic” explanations of the government’s approach to JobKeeper eligibility. “They rescoped and redefined things explicitly to keep public universities out – unlike the private universities, which were explicitly included. It wasn’t on a criterion of size or how your bottom line looked before Covid struck, or any of that. If you’re a public university, you were out. That’s a political decision.”

The source acknowledges that universities’ 2020 financial losses proved to be far less severe than originally feared. But JobKeeper was not withheld from giant retailers like Harvey Norman, which – despite posting record profits – reportedly pocketed some A$15 million in JobKeeper payments and “passed that money on in the form of executive bonuses”.

But another source points out that many pathway colleges and other university subsidiaries qualified for the scheme, including a handful at the University of Queensland that subsequently repaid over A$9 million of JobKeeper benefits because of “better-than-expected” revenue. Due to the long border closures, “You had a whole bunch of people teaching English [as a second language], and there were no students. That’s exactly what JobKeeper was for.”

The source adds that it would have been ludicrous for large universities to claim that they stood to lose more than 50 per cent of their earnings given that the government had explicitly shored up around half of their income early in the pandemic by committing to maintain teaching grants even if domestic student numbers declined.

A former Labor staffer says the domestic funding guarantee was “dismissed” by many people in the sector because domestic enrolments proved buoyant. “Universities didn’t need it in the end, but it was worth something at the time. It was like an insurance policy, and that was a help. [Former education minister Dan] Tehan specifically should be given credit for that.”

Also seldom mentioned is Tehan’s success in securing the extra A$1 billion of university research funding in the October 2020 budget. “No one gives him any credit for getting a billion dollars,” a source says. “Find me another minister, Labor or Liberal, who’s got a billion dollars out of cabinet.”

The ANU’s Norton agrees that senior commentators, who kept “banging on about JobKeeper”, failed to acknowledge the extra research money: “It’s just staggering how you can be on about lack of support and not even mention a billion dollars. They’re so convinced of a certain narrative that they’re just blind to facts that are in serious contradiction to their argument.”

A former Labor staffer says the extra research money arrived far too late to prevent carnage, however. If it had been flagged six months earlier, when the government started tinkering with JobKeeper, universities would have been sufficiently confident of their fiscal health to resist retrenching their staff: “If that had happened, nobody would be even talking about JobKeeper. People weren’t arguing about the mechanism. They were arguing because they wanted to save their employees’ jobs.”

But circumstances militated against advance notice, an insider notes. “To get a billion dollars is actually kind of hard work. Did the minister’s office know in March or April that it was going to get a billion dollars in October? No, it had no idea. It’s a pandemic. Everything’s moving really, really fast. You don’t know if you have any money until you have money.”

Cat watching canary in cage
Stephen F. Hayes/Getty (edited)

Another supposed proof of the Liberal-led government’s disdain for universities is its treatment of the humanities. One example is the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) reforms, unveiled in 2020, which all but eliminated subsidies for a multitude of non-STEM subjects. Government grants for such courses plunged by between 50 and 90 per cent to just A$1,100 a year, while tuition fees for some disciplines more than doubled to A$14,500.

The changes drew a chorus of criticism, not only for suggesting that humanities was unworthy of government support but also for achieving the opposite of what the government intended. There is evidence that universities were incentivised to offer more humanities and social science places because the fee increases exceeded the reductions in course subsidies, making such fields financially attractive from an institutional perspective.

Critics said the reforms also overlooked a basic tenet of Australia’s student loan system: that the deferred, income-contingent nature of the repayments blunts price signals so thoroughly that students are barely aware of the fees.

But a source says such criticism misses the point of the reforms, which was partly to raise students’ consciousness of the personal costs and potential benefits of study. The aim was not to achieve a “100 per cent swing”, but to “move 2 to 3 per cent of the population on the margins to think a little differently”.

The reform architects “weren’t trying to take the school-leaver who wants to do poetry and convince him to do physics. They were trying to nudge the 32-year-old mother, who’s debating whether to go back to university or not, to consider doing social work instead of history.”

The JRG’s multiple objectives also included directing more funding towards areas of perceived public benefit and, crucially, supporting tens of thousands more university places in a “revenue-neutral” way at a time of Covid-induced austerity. “I don’t think people appreciated the complexity and the layering of drivers of that policy,” the source says. “In politics you’re never going to get perfection, so you aim for good – something that’s politically achievable, deals with the problem and is better than what came before.”

In that regard, it is notable that while university groups recommended changes to the JRG reforms, none expressed outright opposition. The Innovative Research Universities group of smaller research-intensives, for instance, said complete rejection of the package would be detrimental to the sector because the funding system that preceded it was unsustainable.

The Liberals’ treatment of research grants – particularly humanities research grants – is also interpreted as compelling evidence of the party’s antipathy towards universities and their staff.

Acting education minister Stuart Robert unleashed a storm of protest on Christmas Eve 2021, when he refused to approve funding for six humanities research projects that had secured endorsement through an arduous peer review process. Robert became the third Liberal minister in four years to ignore grant recommendations from the Australian Research Council (ARC). Collectively, the trio spiked 22 research projects – all but five of them in the humanities – on grounds of national interest, security or value to taxpayers.

Robert also presided over the latest ever approval of grants under Discovery Projects, the ARC’s main support programme for basic research and a lifeline for academics on fixed-term contracts, whose careers can hinge on bids to a programme that funds fewer than one in five applicants. Outcomes are normally revealed well before mid-November, giving the 600-odd grant winners breathing space to book laboratories, sign contracts and line up collaborators before university research offices close for the summer break at the end of the year – not to mention giving the 2,500-odd unsuccessful applicants time to reflect on their next move.

It later emerged that Robert had sat on the ARC’s funding recommendations, keeping 3,095 applicants on tenterhooks, for more than three weeks. It seemed extraordinarily heartless treatment of thousands of researchers who had already endured almost two years of Covid mayhem, and a commentator condemned the minister’s approach as “gratuitous culture wars. It’s not about using taxpayer money well. It’s about creating division for electioneering.”

A former ministerial adviser says Robert’s office could have expedited the process if it had chosen to do so: “I don’t know that it was necessarily gratuitous cruelty, but they didn’t think it mattered or they just didn’t care.”

The source says Robert’s staff would probably have been made well aware of the delay’s impacts on individual researchers via stern phone calls from senior public servants complaining that decisions were long overdue. Robert had his hands full, having had education and youth (which includes higher education) added to his already considerable ministerial responsibilities for employment, workforce, skills, small and family business after education minister Alan Tudge took leave following bullying accusations. But Tudge’s office and staff would have remained at his disposal, the source points out.

Meanwhile, a former minister regards the eventual publication of the grant outcomes on Christmas Eve not as an attempt to “spite people” but as a “very deliberate” ploy to avoid press criticism of the project rejections: “They announce something when journalists can’t get anyone on the phone to talk about it. And by Monday, the world’s moved again…But I don’t know why that would concern them. It’s beltway news, not vote-changing news.”

Norton, for his part, suspects that the grant announcements “got pushed down the list” by staff grappling with additional responsibilities. He says ministers’ offices are chaotic places, where things can easily “slip through the cracks”, even without the stress of an extra portfolio. “You’re working in overcrowded offices. You’ve got parliament or TV in the background; phones constantly going; people walking in and out; all the emails; all the correspondence. It’s amazing government isn’t worse than it actually is.”

people trying to catch sharks
Stephen F. Hayes/Getty

Most sources say the differences between the two parties’ attitudes to higher education are, in reality, largely symbolic.

In Norton’s view, “hate” – or any emotional response, for that matter – is the wrong way to characterise the Liberal attitude to universities. While the party “owes the higher ed sector no favours”, it is not driven by “deeply held policy agendas or principles”. Indeed, the Liberals lack any “coherent long-term policy agenda” on higher education at all. But their generally “utilitarian approach to public policy” influences the sector through agendas such as research commercialisation and a preference for job-oriented courses.

The Liberals’ self-image as “the lower-taxing party and the party of balanced budgets” has also affected the sector, Norton says. Higher education funding “flatlined for years” after Malcolm Fraser’s government ousted Labor in 1975, and Howard implemented “big cuts” after defeating Labor’s Paul Keating in 1996. Tony Abbott’s government also attempted major cuts soon after replacing Labor’s Kevin Rudd in 2013.

But Norton points out that the country’s finances were “in a bad way” each time the Liberals won power: “If they’d come in at a time of surplus, some of the perceptions might have been different.”

Labor presided over “big thinking” reforms, such as the expansion of the university sector under 1980s education minister John Dawkins, followed two decades later by Julia Gillard’s demand-driven system. But these changes occurred when the government’s cash balance was in surplus, while major cuts coincided with deficits of between 2 and 4 per cent of gross domestic product. Howard’s education minister, Brendan Nelson, also increased funding for universities and research during a period of strong budget surplus post-millennium.

Norton’s analyses have found that federal government outlays on higher education teaching and research have risen in a roughly linear fashion for the past three decades. “Over the long run, whichever party’s in office, spending trends up,” he says.

On the other hand, per-student funding is under constant threat. A consultant notes that recent major savings measures by both parties – the Coalition’s underlying reductions within the JRG package and cuts planned by Labor in 2013 – have been “identical in size”.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in power,” the consultant says. “From the 1980s until now, the funding per student has been going down every year.”

Perhaps this is why another former academic and public servant says university leaders tend to assume that whoever is in government hates them. “My hunch is that they think the Coalition hates them more than the Labor Party, but universities are suspicious of all governments – both complexions,” they say.

The consultant agrees that universities feel they can “speak a little more easily to the Labor Party than to the other party”. But this drives them into a no-win situation, where the Liberals expect no votes from the sector and Labor assumes votes are assured. “So there’s nothing in it for either of them to give [universities] anything.”

Politicians from both sides enthusiastically visit universities to talk up their work – particularly those with campuses in their electorates. Equally, Liberal Party politicians aren’t unique in disparaging the humanities, a former Labor staffer concedes, saying that politicians in working-class areas are mindful of their constituents’ resentment of tax money being used to support things like Renaissance studies: “There’s unreasonable antipathy to the humanities in the Coalition ranks. But it’s not absent in opposition ranks. There are people on both sides who aren’t fans of universities.”

Western Sydney University chancellor Peter Shergold, a former economics professor who served as Australia’s most senior public servant, says coalition governments tend to be more “suspicious” of the “left-wing orientation” of social science in universities. But this suspicion is also part of a broader, cross-party perception of the social sciences and liberal arts as somehow inferior to science, particularly medical science. “There is an inclination in some parts of government to see science as more objective than social science,” Shergold says.

Nevertheless, whatever the policy realities, Labor’s “emotional connection” with higher education is stronger than the Liberal Party’s, a former insider says. Labor MPs vie for the opportunity to speak in parliament about even the most minor higher education legislation and dream of overseeing the sector. “The education portfolio is a prize [in itself] on the Labor side,” the former insider says. “I think it’s seen as a stepping stone on the Liberal side.”

Another difference is largely rhetorical, with Liberal ministers and leaders more inclined than their opponents to take swipes at universities. Current prime minister Scott Morrison dished up an example during a recent visit to open the University of Newcastle’s clinical school and research institute on the New South Wales Central Coast.

Morrison voiced his admiration for “practical” universities like Newcastle by contrasting it with the kind of university that “keeps itself separate from the rest of the community and walks around in gowns and looks down on everybody…and only looks at things that are [not] remotely interesting to anyone”.

“I don’t know any university that’s like that, anywhere in the world,” a source says. “Not even Oxford and Cambridge are like that. He’s always got to leave a little bit of room for a dig.”

The source says it is unclear whether Morrison is “constitutionally” anti-university. “But there is an antagonism there, even if it’s just a niggle. People around the cabinet table and in the party room probably take their cues from that.”

In that regard, if the polls are correct and Labor is returned to power on 21 May, the mood music from government towards universities is likely to improve considerably. But common wisdom suggests that if academics hope voting out Morrison will see all of higher education’s substantive problems swept away, they will almost certainly be disappointed.

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Reader's comments (3)

The Australian Government sold Australian Universities to Chinese Businesses.
The Lib party represents the views of business too and wider anti-intellectual views, particularly in relation to humanities and social sciences. Bagging unis wins votes!
The trouble with Norton’s analyses is he is not looking at the disciplinary squeeze on the humanities and social science. As said, "Peter Shergold, a former economics professor who served as Australia’s most senior public servant, says coalition governments tend to be more “suspicious” of the “left-wing orientation” of social science in universities. But this suspicion is also part of a broader, cross-party perception of the social sciences and liberal arts as somehow inferior to science, particularly medical science." All counter-examples that the government does not hate universities are in areas of technology, thus, the hate is nuance to those who have the capacity to demonstrate the shortfall in government policies.


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