Features Australia

Few redeeming features to our universities

Nine years of Coalition failure

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

Here’s how an American commentator recently described the tertiary education sector: ‘The modern university is a political madrassa married to a trade school married to a hedge fund married to a sports team married to an adult day care center married to a visa law firm.’ Ouch! Now as it happens, this pithy description of today’s universities cannot be fully applied here in Australia. Madrassa? Tick. Trade school? Tick. Visa law firm? Triple Tick. Adult day care centre? Tick. And in a poor cousin sort of way, hedge fund? Quarter tick. But hey, we don’t have the sort of near-professional level inter-varsity university sports that the Americans have (and for that matter that you find in my native Canada) run through the universities. And however rotten the rest of the tertiary education system now is with the suppression of free speech, falling standards, inculcation of culture, et al., the American intercollegiate sports are phenomenal. If you love sports the way I do this can be as good as it gets. Men’s football (or gridiron for real Aussies) and basketball make a large (probably immense) fortune for universities because of the television rights – so large in fact that these two fund all other intercollegiate sporting competitions, including all of women’s sports, the rest of those others being money-losers. But the quality of those two money-spinners is something else. Moreover, the highest-paid public servants in virtually all of the US states are either the men’s football or basketball coaches for one of the big public universities – these teams make so much money for the university that paying a top coach is one of the best investments going.

Just a few days ago the yearly college basketball playoffs finished. These go under the name of ‘March Madness’. Here’s how that works. Based on the season’s play 68 teams are selected for a sudden death tournament, with play-in games soon dropping the number to 64. The teams are seeded 1 to16 in four zones. There are always a few David beats Goliath stories. The TV ratings come second only to the Super Bowl. This year, a fortnight ago, an unheard-of little place in New Jersey with a total enrolment of fewer than three thousand, Saint Peter’s University, knocked off one big university with a famous basketball program after another. It became the very first 15th seeded team ever to reach the last eight teams. And then fate, the betting odds, and regressing to the mean caught up with the team and Saint Peter’s got destroyed and failed to make the Final Four teams. But this tiny university, to start March Madness, had a betting line of something like 2,000-1 to win it all. You’d have got close to half that price if you’d picked them to make the last eight. Moreover, it’s easily the best basketball watching of the year. And yes, it is miles better than the NBA.

Here’s something that will delight all of you readers who, like me, detest the turn-to-wokeness of professional sports and worse, of mainstream sports journalists. The NBA’s TV ratings have cratered. Compared to the 1980s and 1990s when Bird, Magic and Jordan were playing (and not pontificating about things they knew nothing about), today’s NBA ratings are woeful. The finals pull in a quarter or fewer of TV viewers compared to the halcyon days. Yes, ESPN promotes the NBA as though its life depended on it. But its ratings are abysmal – worse than car racing and far worse than March Madness TV ratings. Now it is not just the woke, preachy, pontificating for all things left wing that has driven down NBA TV ratings to basement levels. The product stinks.  I say this as someone who played Canadian university basketball, albeit for a very middle-of-the-road, average team. At a bit over six feet tall I was the shortest guy on the team. You know something I learned?  How to drink. When you’re going out with six-foot-eight buddies you learn quickly. My point is that I’m passingly familiar with good basketball. The NBA does not offer that. The tough defence from the 1980s has been taken out to allow three-point shots to rain down unrelentingly. The rules aren’t really called or enforced. A different standard of refereeing applies to the LeBron James’s of the league. By comparison, the March Madness US college basketball product is a purist’s dream. Great defence. Full out effort (and no ‘load management’). The occasional pressing defence. No refereeing to help the stars. Upsets, which in the NBA playoffs happen less frequently than in any other sports league I know. So add ‘boring’ to the list of complaints about the NBA.

Anyway, my original point is that we here in Australia have all the sins of US universities, maybe a bit less virulently, but all the sins. But the one delight or positive, the sports, we don’t have. With the election looming, and as one of the tiny handful of open conservatives working anywhere in an Australian university today, here’s a question I keep asking. Why haven’t these past nine years of Coalition governments done anything about this at all? It’s worse than that. On every important measure today’s Australian universities are worse than they were when ‘our side’ came into government almost a decade ago – I suppose a bit like the national debt, the level of taxes, all free speech-related issues, ditto freedom of religion ones, stop me if you can think of any big area that’s better. Maybe national defence, but only maybe. But back to our universities. They are today more bureaucratic than in 2013. A little under two-thirds of salaries go to administrators and bureaucrats, including ‘diversity’ overseers. They’re more centralised. There’s been grade inflation. Lowered standards. Massive overseas numbers (ignoring Covid times). The Morrison government stood by and watched Peter Ridd be fired (albeit with no glory going to the High Court in that case, in my view). When the Libs try to fix anything university related they call in a High Court judge or chat to the vice-chancellors, the former focussing on codes and written policies not life on the ground and the latter, well, being overwhelmingly left-of-centre voters and no real friends to the Coalition. Ineffectual and useless.

Last point. Not all, but a good few Australian universities have vaccine mandates in place. This is a flat-out disgrace. The unvaccinated can’t come on campus and may lose their jobs and places. Some Liberal MPs such as Amanda Stoker lament this fact but say it is solely a state matter and the Feds can’t do anything. Rubbish. Total balderdash. The Feds fund almost all of our universities.

If ScoMo is happy to leave the paymasters to decide in the private sector about vaccine mandates he could make clear to all universities that the Commonwealth money (or even some hefty chunk of it) will disappear unless the vaccine mandates do. Right, Amanda? Unlike in Britain when Tory MPs voted against Boris on Covid freedom issues we get some cheap talk, no action. It’s almost as though Liberal MPs cared more for their jobs than for any question of principle. That couldn’t be right, could it?

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