When the Abbott Coalition government was elected in 2013, it had a plan to reform higher education so that those who benefited paid more and taxpayers paid less. When the new Senate commenced in mid-2014, with the crossbench holding the balance of power, it made a concerted effort to implement those changes.
It failed, withdrawing the legislation when it became clear it would not pass. Very watered-down measures, barely worth the effort, finally passed in 2017. Now, in 2020, the government is having another go. Its aim is similar – to encourage courses it believes are of benefit to the economy and use the savings to fund additional domestic places.
The universities have furiously opposed each of the changes, despite the fact the 2014 reforms would have caused them no harm, the 2017 reforms did them no harm, and the 2020 reforms, if implemented, will also cause no harm after some adjustments. The university sector has so firmly embedded itself in the culture of the left that it reflexively opposes anything proposed by the other side of politics.
In conjunction with a number of other factors, this is now having profound consequences. Foreign students are locked out of the country and the government has excluded universities from the JobKeeper program. As a result, many universities are in deep financial trouble. And the government doesn’t really care.
I don’t care much, either. Being one of the crossbench senators in 2014 and 2017, I was lobbied intensively; I suspect because having three degrees, it was assumed I would naturally support the universities. They are obviously very articulate, claiming that Australia would suffer irreparable damage if the bills were passed. At one point, I had several vice-chancellors, each paid at least a million dollars, sitting in my office trying to convince me of this.
While universities have become significant enterprises, they are not normal corporations and do not have shareholders. They are substantially funded by Australian taxpayers and their vice-chancellors are promoted academics, not private sector business managers. Few would succeed as chief executives in the private sector.
Their lack of shareholder accountability and focus on enrolments ahead of academic standards means they can pursue progressive politics unencumbered. Whereas they were once havens for alternative opinions and free speech, where it was safe to express a point of view in the knowledge that it would prompt nothing more than disagreement, they are now guardians of political correctness and bastions of cancel culture, where the non-left dare not speak their minds for fear of losing their jobs.
Two well-known examples include the sacking of Peter Ridd by James Cook University for pointing out flaws in Great Barrier Reef research, and the University of Queensland’s suspension of student Drew Pavlou for criticising the university’s links to the Chinese government. Several also rejected the opportunity to host the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a program worth over $150 million, on the grounds that the course would be an advocate for Western civilisation.
Then there is the claim of an epidemic of sexual assaults on campuses. The data shows it is not true, but some universities nonetheless impose creepy anti-assault obligations on male students and use internal kangaroo courts to deal with assault allegations. Young men are being expelled from universities, their careers ruined, based on dodgy claims and improper processes.
And now we hear that universities have cosied up to Chinese government institutions in order to attract research funding, with little regard for Australia’s national interest, prompting considerable anxiety on the part of our security agencies.
Many universities will pay a very heavy price for the pandemic panic. Quite a few built their business around foreign students, of which there were 700,000 last year, most of whom paid much higher course fees than locals. They even lowered course standards in order to ensure the flow of students kept coming.
Nearly all will be forced to cut staff, there will be mergers and some will not survive. Those that remain are likely to be smaller and more specialised, and some will return to their roots in vocational and technical education. Research will be reduced, probably the only aspect the government cares about.
To my mind, too many universities have forgotten their purpose. Until they regain an interest in the employability of their
graduates and their role in the economy, with strong links to business, I cannot see the government finding any sympathy either.
None of that will happen unless they rediscover free speech and independent thought. And if they do, this pandemic won’t have been universally bad.
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.
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