The Vice-Chancellors And The Budget


Any serious discussion of university funding and this year’s budget must recognise a simple fact: nothing good for higher education can come of the reforms Joe Hockey announced on May 13.

The mood of public anger tapped by the recurrent student protests in the budget’s aftermath hasn’t abated, with 61 per cent of people in a recent Age/Nielsen poll calling the budget unfair

As a result, there has rarely been a better moment to campaign for progressive reform to higher education in this country. Along with Joseph Stiglitz, the University of Canberra’s Stephen Parker has shown how.

No such response from the Group of Eight Vice-Chancellors. While proclaiming their commitment to the ‘true and the good,’ their mission to ‘support the development of national unity… and to contribute to economic development and social cohesion’ or to ‘truth and knowledge as universal values’, the nation’s most influential VCs have added their genteel, reasoned accents to the chorus of war-cries for deregulation being bellowed through the IPA, The Australian and the Visigoths of the Liberal front bench. 

Collectively, the Group of Eight says that it “commends the Government for progressing structural reform of higher education in its first budget”.

The reforms, it declares, “reconcile access and quality, and make growth affordable”.

The coffers of the Go8 will certainly grow after fee-deregulation, but other institutions will be left out to dry.

The increased graduate debt from deregulation will weigh heaviest on working-class students, disproportionately target women, and disadvantage anyone employed in low-paying but essential occupations like nursing or teaching.

This is what supporting the ‘universality of truth and knowledge’ and ‘contributing to social cohesion’ amount to.

The Go8 VCs have not, of course, abetted the governments’ gutting of higher education in so many words.

Instead, their public comments are laced with high-minded declarations of concern about equity and accessibility under Pyne’s reforms.

These qualms do no more than brush a flimsy veneer of respectability over their position, all the more deplorable given that they would be uniquely well placed to resist the reforms if they chose to.

The VCs of the country’s most prestigious universities collectively and forcefully denouncing his cuts would place Pyne under real pressure.

Instead, they have again and again undertaken Pyne’s marketing for him, cannily masking their support for the principal budget measure, deregulation, with cavils about the details.

From the height of his $900,000 per annum salary, Sydney’s VC, Michael Spence has made himself an accessory to the vandalism of public education by aping Pyne’s oft-debunked claim that “those with the ability to pay should not be subsidised by those who cannot”.

Spence has also stated that in Pyne he welcomes a minister ready to ‘pursue controversial reform’.

Others adopt a more nuanced approach. Melbourne VC and former top Queensland public servant Glyn Davis ($.875m per annum) told JJJ that the public “over and over again have voted for lower taxes; they don’t want to provide free tertiary education”.

The ANU’s Ian Young ($.72m) agrees. The belief among VCs is widespread that the withdrawal of government funding is an inexorable law of nature, completely immune to any agency they might themselves be able to exert. 

This doesn’t stop them talking to the government, however. It’s a delusion to which academics and small-L liberals are constitutionally prone that all differences can be resolved by dialogue inside the tent.

Accordingly, a recurrent theme in VCs’ commentary on the budget process is their confidence that government is listening. Governments will no doubt continue to listen, all the way to the next tranche of funding cuts.

Not only do the Go8 VCs betray straightforward principles of equity and social justice in supporting deregulation, they have the temerity to present this perfidy as progressive.

Speaking on JJJ, Davis justified his support for deregulation with the injunction that “you have to accept we live in a democracy” – as though the idea that education should be properly funded came straight from the Taliban or Kim Jong-un.

The cynicism is impressive, especially from someone who thinks that access to education is a moral question – exactly the claim Davis made in The Republic of Learning, his 2010 encomium to the status quo.

There is no shortage of data which VCs could draw on to justify opposition to deregulation, were they so inclined.

The NTEU has found that 70 per cent of people oppose deregulation; according to the 2014 Per Capita survey, 44 per cent would be prepared to pay higher taxes for better schools, universities and TAFEs; and almost three in four respondents to the 2014 ANU Public Priorities for Government Expenditure Poll said that the government should spend more, not less, on education.

In any case, tax increases aren’t even the only possible sources of extra funds for universities. Not once has a high-profile VC made the elementary point that higher education could be generously funded if the government was not spending billions of dollars on locking up refugees, on tax-breaks for corporations, or on the Joint Strike Fighter with its AIM-120C Air-to-Air Missiles and its GBU-31 Guided Bombs.

Apparently, those budget priorities are less worthy of contestation than the evisceration of what remains of public higher education.

VCs’ main argument has been that that their first duty is to safeguard the ‘quality’ of universities. ‘Quality’, however, has a habit of lining up with privilege.

If there was a severe food shortage, it couldn’t be argued that a small sector of the population deserves fine-dining while others get iron rations.

Exactly the same logic applies here: faced with a funding shortfall, the only just response is to distribute whatever educational resources are available equitably, on the principle that, as a human right, access to education should not be easier for some than for others.

Mediocrity for all is far preferable to educational dispossession for some. 

If Go8 VCs aren’t prepared to do anything to advance educational democracy in practice, we can take comfort from their assurances of being fully committed to free, public education in theory.

Davis tells us that his “personal preference is that I would welcome a country in which unis were widely valued and people were prepared to pay the taxes.”

Young says that in an ideal world, government funding would keep up with increased student places.

We are fortunate that the nation’s top VCs are so unshakeably progressive. What a pity that neither of them will act to draw their ideals closer to reality, even though both lead institutions that are meant not to shy away from hard problems or big ideas.

Vice-Chancellors’ complicity with the dismantling of democratic education in Australia is, sadly, not unexpected.

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci emphasised the role of intellectuals as the ‘dominant group’s ‘deputies’, exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government’. This is exactly the function of the Go8 leadership.

There is no universe in which the Americanisation of Australian higher education is desirable, progressive, or necessary.

Sydney’s Michael Spence has identified Harvard as a model for the kind of university he wants Sydney to become – one, that is, in which 45.6 per cent of undergraduates come from families with incomes in the top 3.8 per cent of households, and flagship of a system in which the vast majority of poor but high-achieving students do not even apply to any selective university

There is, of course, little prospect of Go8 VCs ending their complicity in the entrenchment of privilege and the enclosure of knowledge in our society.

Their stance recalls American universities’ behaviour in another period of attacks on the free availability of ideas – the McCarthy era.

In her sobering 1986 study No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, the historian Ellen W. Schrecker describes the disappearance of open criticism of the political status quo in American universities in the 1950s.

“The academy,” she notes, “did not fight McCarthyism. It contributed to it, (with) professors and administrators ignoring the stated ideals of their calling.”

The comparison with Go8 VCs in 2014 is exact.

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