A revenge on theory

It has been said that Scott Morrison’s great skill is for accidents. He even made his leadership look like one, moving a column of votes at the last minute.

For a while now he has pretended that the destruction of the university sector is an accident, too. He ignored the calls to offer JobKeeper, and waited for the staff to be sacked. He pretended not to notice, as a sector dependent on international students lost its key revenues.

For him, the pandemic has been an insurance fire of the humanities. In the first months he stood back and feigned despair. A disaster was unfolding and his urgent focus was elsewhere. There were tradesmen out of work and universities already received government monies. As journalist Richard Cooke has noted in The Monthly, Morrison is every bit as ideologically driven as Tony Abbott – he just has more cunning.

Still, the accident wasn’t enough. Education Minister Dan Tehan went out with a jerry can, promising to double the cost of arts degrees. Maths and agriculture would be cheaper to study. So would teaching and nursing.

Hundreds of academic jobs have been lost in the meantime. It is estimated that by the end of the year 21,000 university staff will be unemployed. Tehan’s next plan is to cancel government support for students who are failing in their first year.

There is talk of amalgamations. It is not clear whether all universities will get through this. Many academics will not return to work, certainly not to the work for which they have prepared.

The accident no longer looks like an accident. It looks like a concerted effort to destroy academe. For years the Coalition has cut away at research funding. It has forced universities to become more precarious. It has narrowed the intellectual life of campuses.

At the very time we need universities to help invent a new Australia, the government is intent on turning them into technical colleges.

This is about a view that says to be intellectual is to be inefficient, that thinking is a waste of time. It is a revenge on theory, a punishment for every question that has been asked of the orthodoxies on which a conservative outlook is based.

It is hard to know where these new graduates are to be sent. To work in a defunded CSIRO, or in firms disincentivised from innovation? Perhaps some will work in green energy, in the few companies that survive the government’s undermining.

After this pandemic, we will see the full extent of the damage. We will see the ash and ruin. The prime minister will likely tell us what a tragedy it was.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "A revenge on theory".

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