Universities ‘in political box seat’ after Australian election

‘Bloodbath’ in traditional Liberal seats shows that anti-intellectualism is no longer a vote winner, consultant says

May 24, 2022
Labor Senate Leader Penny Wong, Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese accompanied by his partner Jodie Haydon and son Nathan Albanese arrive for a victory celebration after winning the 2022 general election at the Federal Labor Reception in Sydney
Source: Getty

Australian universities’ underlying political power has been “flipped on its head” by last weekend’s federal election, with a “conducive” policy environment now beckoning for at least the next two terms of government.

Melbourne strategist Justin Bokor said the “three-way bloodbath” that had ousted prime minister Scott Morrison, whose Liberal Party lost seats to Labor, the Greens and “teal” independents, meant universities could no longer be treated as a political “kicking bag”.

Mr Bokor highlighted the independents’ victory in half a dozen affluent electorates that had been considered among the Liberals’ safest seats. He said the former government had assumed it could afford to alienate “a few progressive inner-city elites” by pursuing an “anti-intellectual, anti-science, culture wars” agenda appealing to outer metropolitan and regional voters.

“That strategy backfired spectacularly,” said Mr Bokor, a tertiary education consultant and former commercial director at Monash University. “It will take a while to play out, but it changes the dynamics of the relationship [with higher education] for both sides of politics.

“It raises the electoral importance of inner-city electorates, and that should help the university sector. All things being equal, policy will be better for them in the next five to 10 years because of what happened on the weekend.”

University and science groups have seized on Labor’s modest pre-election commitments to the sector, exhorting the new government to act on key issues like research funding, academic job security and equitable university participation.

The National Tertiary Education Union pointed out that key Labor frontbenchers had signed its “pledge” requiring them to support a strong, quality sector “centred on opportunity, accessibility and affordability”. It called on the new government to implement a national higher education funding strategy, reverse the Job-ready Graduates reforms and reinstate the funding link between teaching and research.

The Innovative Research Universities said Labor should use its promised “accord” on higher education to tackle red tape and “review regulatory duplication”.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering pressed Labor to prioritise its promised A$15 billion (£8.5 billion) National Reconstruction Fund, which would give universities a role in rebuilding the country’s industrial base.

Meanwhile, Science and Technology Australia reminded the party of “detailed commitments” it had made prior to the election. They included passing legislation for the previous government’s A$1.6 billion research commercialisation fund, adopting a fixed timetable for research grant announcements and driving national research and development spending “closer to” 3 per cent of gross domestic product.

Mr Bokor said that while such commitments “might mean a lot to a lobby group”, they were “peripheral” to a newly installed government taking stock of the big issues confronting the country – such as Australia’s ongoing transition to a “service and technology-led economy”, which he described as unfinished business.

He said universities could anticipate a “double positive” from a looming demographic bulge and a simultaneous need to boost higher education participation. The only “constraint” was the government’s willingness to provide the necessary allocations – and with “educated electorates suddenly much more important”, Labor would now find that proposition politically compelling.

Consequently, funding for domestic students was the revenue stream most likely to grow under the new government. This was good news for universities, because subsidies and fees for educating Australians was easily their most important source of funds.

But Judyth Sachs, chief academic officer with study assistance company Studiosity, said universities would need to work hard to reap the benefits of their improved political circumstances. “It is incumbent on the higher education sector to reset its relationship with Canberra,” said Professor Sachs, a former provost at Macquarie University.

“While the sector may believe none of the bad blood is of its own making, the fastest way to repair sentiment is to come to the table with a compelling ‘offer’.”

She said there was a widespread view that universities had focused on “unnecessary or wasteful” activities while they neglected their core business of providing students with quality learning experiences. This perception had been amplified during the pandemic, when a “panicked transition to digital delivery” had undermined what was already a “largely impersonal ‘learning at scale’ experience” for many students.

Changes in the political landscape “won’t derail the persistent need to deliver on the student experience”, Professor Sachs warned. “There will be a greater – and long overdue – focus on vocational education and training,” she added. “The university sector will need to adapt to not getting the lion’s share of the government’s attention.”



Print headline: Universities ‘in political box seat’ as Labor takes power in Australia

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