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A harsh lesson for our university chiefs

4 June 2021

4:13 PM

4 June 2021

4:13 PM

Education Minister Alan Tudge gave a speech at the annual Universities Australia conference yesterday.

Here is how the AFR education editor described what he said:

Mr Tudge will instead push research commercialisation, student experience and freedom of speech, all of which are considered fringe agendas, as being among his main priorities, leaving the higher education sector to face an estimated $2.8 billion revenue shortfall for 2020-21.

If the education elites think that those issues constitute a fringe agenda, then there is going to be a lot of pain for the sector in the next few years.

Here are some of the things Tudge said:

Let me start with what is my top priority in my portfolio, which is our research commercialisation agenda …

For example, it is clear that nearly all the incentives for an academic are geared towards publishing and that there are few incentives for translating research down the commercialisation path.

As one very senior scientist (who had been an entrepreneur) told me, when she told the university DVC that she wanted to commercialise her idea, the response was “well as long as it doesn’t interfere with your publications…”

It is the same with tackling social challenges. I recall asking one Vice-Chancellor why so few of the 2,800 education academics are trying to tackle the core strategic challenge in our schools of standards declining despite funding increasing. His response: “It is arguably not knowledge creation, and even if it was, it would struggle to get published in global journals because it would be entirely Australia-based.”

Looks like the Minister doesn’t like being told that his real-world concerns are getting in the way of academic careers and publication.

My second priority is back on international students, but more at the strategic medium term level, as opposed to the work that is occurring presently to try and get pilots up and running this year and dealing with the fiscal challenges of today…

As I had indicated previously, as we come out of COVID and get our borders open again, we will need to think differently about international students, taking into account four broad objectives:

  1. Providing revenue for institutions and the economy
  2. Enhancing the learning experience of Australian students
  3. Ensuring that we have the workforce skills that we need
  4. Strengthening our people to people linkages.

All are important, not just the first.

The sector’s social licence to print money has just been revoked.

But wait there is more:

Former Vice-Chancellor, Greg Craven, has made strong statements how this should be achieved.

Greg Craven – as far as I can work out – is in favour of quotas for international students.

After warming up – Alan Tudge started reading the riot act.

Our public universities were initially established for one purpose: to educate Australians.

Let’s not forget this.

Then there’s the killer line:

In the past several months, I have had almost every Vice-Chancellor talk to me about research and international students, but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students.

Every VC should be sacking their government relations people. Today. Get new ones.

Let me finish with the essential value which underpins the very essence of a university: freedom of speech and freedom of academic inquiry…

It has been a long journey to protect what should be the core value of a university…

If it becomes apparent that universities remain unable or unwilling to adopt the Model Code, I will examine all options available to the Government to enforce it – which may include legislation.

Magnificent.

Mind you – Coalition governments tend to be all talk and no action. So whether Alan Tudge actually carries through remains to be seen.

Certainly, this is most exciting thing I’ve seen from an Australian education minister since Brendan Nelson banned compulsory students unionism (only to be later reintroduced) and vetoed the funding of several post-modernist ARC grant funding decisions.

Nelson tended to speak softly but had a big stick. Hopefully, Alan Tudge – who has already spoken loudly – also has a big stick. He is going to need it if he hopes to reform the university sector.

Sinclair Davidson is a professor of Institutional Economics with the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub at RMIT University. This piece originally appeared on Catallaxy Files.

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