Australian government ‘waging war’ on universities, says opposition

Government claims universities are neglecting the regions, as relations continue to fracture

November 15, 2018
Cannon on battlements

Australia’s opposition has accused the government of launching a “comprehensive assault” on universities following a string of funding cuts, regulatory interventions and research grant vetoes.

Shadow science minister Kim Carr said that the government was waging “cultural wars” against a university system that it regarded as “essentially hostile to their interests”.

“Hardly a day goes by when this government does not bring forth yet another attack upon universities,” Mr Carr told the Senate. “The idea of autonomous self-accrediting institutions devoted to free independent inquiry is something they can’t accept.”

Mr Carr’s attack follows last month’s revelations that former education minister Simon Birmingham had secretly vetoed 11 humanities research grants, and the government’s subsequent imposition of a “national interest test” for future research funding.

In recent days the government has also revealed a cut to research funding to pay for increased higher education provision at a handful of regional and outer suburb locations, and launched a review into freedom of expression on Australian campuses.

And in comments reported by Fairfax Media on 15 November, education minister Dan Tehan accused universities – particularly the prestigious Group of Eight institutions – of neglecting the regions by failing to research their educational needs.

Mr Tehan said that a keyword search of the Australian Research Council’s database had failed to find any reference to studies aimed at bridging the tertiary education attainment gap between the capital cities and the regions.

“It beggars belief – given some of the research that has been put forward – that so little work has been done by the universities themselves to try and address this gross inequality,” he was reported as saying.

“I would call on all universities, but particularly the Go8, to look seriously at this issue and put some of their collective research weight into addressing it.”

Mr Carr said that the government had closed down the Office of Teaching and Learning, which had undertaken the bulk of education research in Australia. “It is profoundly ironic that they should assert that it’s the universities that are at fault for government policies,” he said.

University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Duncan Ivison said that government cuts to the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Programme had also affected research on regional educational access.

Mr Carr’s parliamentary outburst followed the government’s refusal of a Senate order to hand over the incoming minister’s brief that the ARC had prepared for Mr Tehan. The government declined the order on “public interest immunity grounds”, claiming that release of the information would “prejudice commercial decisions” involving the federal government and the states.

Mr Carr said that this was “simply not credible”. He said that the incoming minister’s briefs had previously been released by many governments.

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens have introduced legislation to remove the education minister’s power to veto ARC grants. Education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi, a former University of New South Wales academic, said that such a move would bring the ARC in line with other research funding bodies.

“Simply publishing the reasons for veto isn’t enough,” Dr Faruqi said. “We need to take concrete action to protect academic independence and that means taking politics out and leaving it to the experts.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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