There's Gold In The Halls


It’s O Week at university campuses across Australia and as students file HECS forms and queue for student cards and teaching staff come to terms with their teaching loads, submissions to the most important review of higher education funding to take place in a generation are being compiled — and a new leaks site has been launched which will bring the allocation of funding and the operation of higher education institutions into focus.

In October 2010, Chris Evans announced the Higher Education Base Funding Review which will establish "the principles for public investment in Australian higher education, the funding levels required for Australia to remain internationally competitive and the appropriate level of public and private contribution." In other words: how much money does the higher education sector need — and how much of that should come from the government.

In the UK, the Cameron-Clegg government slashed higher education funding last year, significantly shifting the burden of paying for higher education to students. The students have, as they say, been revolting and those staff who have managed to keep their jobs haven’t been too happy about the changes either. Although, as Tammi Jonas wrote in New Matilda last year, most people in the Australian higher education sector have welcomed the base funding review as an opportunity to redress decades of underspending, the reforms in the UK set a worrying precedent.

Tertiary institutions and staff and student bodies may well equivocate about how higher education dollars should be spent, but no matter how the review slices it up, there’s no doubt that higher education is big money.

In the 2010-11 Budget, $8.1 billion spending on higher education was projected. And it’s not just government and local students who are forking out. Data released by Australia Education International in January 2011 show that Australia made $19.1 billion in export earnings through international education activity in 2010. This figure has almost doubled from the $9.6 billion raked in by the sector in 2005. 

Given the significance of the higher education sector to the Australian economy — not to mention its social impacts — it’s remarkable that it isn’t subject to greater scrutiny. The names and faces of mining CEOs may be familiar but those of vice-chancellors less so.

That may be set to change with the recent launched of a leaks website, Unileaks, which has higher education institutions in Australia and around the world in its sights.

Based in Melbourne, Unileaks has been months in the planning. Two anonymous volunteers tell New Matilda that holding the higher education sector to account is critical to an open and transparent society. They’re interested in "anything that relates to higher education: military, civil, commercial" — from academic policy to the large administrative and bureaucratic structures which house teaching and research. Unileaks is primarily expecting leaks from academics and general staff — and are also keen to hear from those who are working for private firms and contracted by universities.

The two core volunteers who spoke to New Matilda wouldn’t give their names. Both have higher degrees — not in I.T. — and claim a background fiddling around with computers, "hacking, naughty stuff." Unileaks have legal advisers, but they aren’t ready to declare who, and tech support from a "community". It wasn’t easy to organise a secure online chat with them. The site has only been live for a few weeks and their servers are already under attack. When questioned about how universities had responded to Unileaks, the response was pithy: "They don’t like us."

At first blush, you might think that Unileaks has something in common with anonymous feedback sites like RateMyProfessors — but you’d be wrong. Unileaks only accepts documents — delivered either online or via the post. Tipsters may apply elsewhere.

So is it working? "We think it will take a while for the site to generate publicity and make a contribution — but it will come. The early signs are promising. It seems our message is cutting through to the people we want to reach." Unileaks is working through one big donation of documents and negotiating with media organisations to release the information. Releases will work in a similar fashion to Wikileaks: entire documents will be published on a repository on their website and they will work with media organisations to publish stories. This will be contingent on information being available unedited.

To a large degree Wikileaks has worked to create a context for Unileaks — and for other new whistleblower and disclosure sites such as OpenLeaks and GreenLeaks. That is, whereas once whistleblowers holding sensitive documents might have been at a loss as to where to send them, WikiLeaks has made the process of disclosure a more familiar one and provided a good — and now immediately recognisable — framework for publishing sensitive documents.

As anyone who has worked in the higher education sector can attest, networks of loyalty and feuding flourish in universities. What is the risk of getting duped by academics with an axe to grind? Verifying information is a slow process, Unileaks told New Matilda. Not only is it a slog for an organisation with limited resources to comb documents, the process of verification may imperil the anonymity of sources. Although it is unlikely that Unileaks is going to find anything as incendiary as the embassy cables in their PO box, the treatment of Bradley Manning must act as a cautionary tale.

Still, the stakes are high for whistleblowers in the higher education sector. As a Unileaks volunteer notes, "The consequences, career-wise, for academics who criticise are pretty dire. So too for students." There’s a culture too in the tertiary education sector which suggests that they are a milieu apart, one which is removed from external mechanisms of accountability and transparency.

A multibillion dollar industry which is also a major employer shouldn’t be immune from criticism — either internally or externally. Representatives of undergraduate, postgraduate and international students and of university staff will certainly be making criticisms of current funding mechanisms in their submissions to the Base Funding Higher Education Review. It remains to be seen whether university whistleblowers will choose to make their submissions to Unileaks — and what impact that will have on the funding reform process. Watch this space.


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