Opinion

John Hewson
What does the prime minister have against universities?

The need for a longer-term recovery strategy from the Covid-19 pandemic provided a critical opportunity for genuine reform of key areas of public policy that have been neglected and left to drift, in some cases for decades, by the short-term pointscoring and blame-shifting game we call our politics. It was an opportunity for something of a reset of important industries and activities in terms of our longer-term national interests.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was not seized by the Morrison government. The most pressing issues were ignored, including climate, specifically the transition to a low-carbon Australia over the next several decades; the need for a full manufacturing reset; and the need for a national productivity strategy. Another vital area, also tragically overlooked, was higher education, especially our universities and research. What’s worse, some of the measures taken to cushion the impact of the pandemic have been counterproductive to the development of the universities sector.

This has been particularly hard to accept given that the sector is a big employer, exporter and is fundamental to our standing and future as a nation. It says a lot about who we are and what we value as a nation. The decision of the Morrison government not to extend JobKeeper to public universities was indefensible, especially when it was apparently extended to a couple of small private universities.

Unfortunately, it seems the Morrison government’s attitudes to universities has been primarily driven by Morrison’s personal prejudices. It has been reported that Morrison considers universities to be fat and ugly – that they spend excessively and wastefully and are poorly administrated. He also considers that vice-chancellors pay themselves too much, especially relative to what he earns as prime minister. He sees universities as providing “a training ground” for radicals and activists who may campaign against his government on key issues at the next election.

The pressures on the university sector have been mounting for decades, in part due to neglect and bad policy. The funding decision that allowed universities to charge full fees to foreign students – an attempt to catch up on years of cuts by successive governments – worked to the detriment of Australian students and saw an unhealthy dependence on foreign students in many universities as a principal source of their revenue. The dropoff in foreign students during the pandemic has had significant consequences beyond the universities, as foreign students became an important source of labour for the hospitality and agricultural sectors, which are now facing serious workforce shortages.

The case for the reform of higher education has been long established, at least as far back as the Bradley review, released in 2008, against the background of Kevin Rudd’s promised Education Revolution. Since then some have argued that perhaps we have too many universities in Australia for a country of our size. There is a small subset that are essentially financially non-viable. The recent challenge for government has been to promote university amalgamations, which understandably are likely to be expensive. This issue has been compounded by the lack of subject specialisation, leading to unnecessary duplication across universities.

A major difficulty with government involvement in higher education has been the inconsistency of that involvement, with little clear understanding of – and commitment to – the role of universities. Unfortunately, more often than not, governments have focused on universities as a source of vocational training rather than as learning and research institutions built around critical analysis, reasoning, understanding evidence and being able to communicate important, complex ideas. This should always be close to the frontiers in the development of knowledge.

Education should prepare our citizens, and consequently our nation, for change and future challenges. The scientists who have been crucial to our response to the pandemic were educated and for the most part work in our universities. Our future doctors, nurses, engineers, economists, medical researchers, as well as many novelists, filmmakers, journalists and sportspeople, to name just some professions, received their start in our universities. The attributes imparted by higher education optimally prepare the mind for vocation and the ever-changing requirements for success in the workplace and across our broader society.

Yet the government doesn’t see this. Instead, it has contempt for the institutions. Some have attempted to fiddle with the curriculum – mostly again out of prejudice, sometimes backed by supportive funding. The most recent example is the Morrison government’s intervention into STEM subjects, at the expense of the humanities, arts and social sciences. However, their attempts to vary the costs of these degrees makes little difference with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme operational, which works to negate the price sensitivities.

Clearly our universities found themselves in very precarious financial circumstances, but the government ruled out any form of direct financial assistance during the pandemic. Indeed, it has been reported that Morrison reverted to form – refusing to meet small groups of vice-chancellors from various universities, who were keen to advise and warn him of the dangers in the sector, just as he refused to meet Greg Mullins and the firefighters in relation to the Black Summer bushfires.

The recent funding is supposedly tuned to the quickest path to a job, with much university funding now delivered under the government’s Job-ready Graduates Package. On the research side, successive governments have found it all too easy to cut research funding. Moreover, the government funds research through the research councils but unfortunately this does not tend to cover the full costs of research, even with the block grant system. I am told funding in science falls about 30 per cent short of what is actually needed. This grant funding system has only about a 10 per cent success rate.

I recall talking to a visiting oncologist, here from America. He complained that he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time applying for grants as well as having to spend considerable time accounting for the way the money was spent. After all this, he said, there was very little time to do the research. He noted that his personal grant in the United States was roughly equal to the total amount spent on oncology research in Australia. A key point is that the American system values and backs the individual researcher as well as their research projects. Another significant difference is the considerable extent to which research is funded by philanthropy and business.

There is of course a perennial focus on commercialisation and research. Again, Australia has a poor record in this area, by American and European standards. A few years ago I was introduced to an individual who had been hired by the University of Sydney to improve their commercialisation of globally significant patents. He told me that, in his view, the university had about 60 to 65 such patents, none of which had been successfully commercialised. He emphasised that he had most recently worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, which had some 3500 to 4000 globally significant patents. Most of these had been commercialised.

The political discussions of the commercialisation of research often fail to appreciate the banal fact that before you can translate discoveries into profits you have to make them. All translation is built on fundamental research and this is the key role of universities. There is no doubt that our universities can and should do better in translating their research. Yet one of the major constraints in this area in Australia is what we might call the “risk-averse” nature of Australian businesses, often more the reason for the underperformance in research commercialisation than the efforts of our universities.

Business is shy of investing in early-stage research. Unreasonably, our ministers tend to blame the universities for this. Pure research is not seen as valuable, despite the long-term evidence to the contrary. There is now too heavy a focus on translation to industry and the focus has moved away from fundamental research, which can pay significant dividends in the longer term.

About 10 years ago, as an example, there was the establishment of research in infectious diseases modelling. It had little immediate application then but paid significant dividends in the past 18 months. Another powerful example is wi-fi, an Australian invention that was very much niche at the time and now is ubiquitous.

Kevin Rudd was right. The nation really does need an education revolution, building from early childhood learning through to universities and research. Several Australian governments have wanted to see Australia as a “clever country”. We have the people with the skills, technology and software capabilities; but for some reason, it just never happens. Now, though, the need and opportunity is greater than at any other time in our nation’s history. The pandemic should have made this clear to government. Instead, it retreated to the prejudice and indifference that has defined its approach to Australia’s intellectual life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "The dumb country".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.