The view from Billinudgel

Learning difficulties
The Coalition’s political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom

Image © Melek Kalyoncu / Alamy

Universities are not, and must never be, walled citadels. Not only do they rely on taxpayers to maintain their existence, they have a responsibility to extend the privileges they are accorded to citizens who wish to receive them.

But universities are communities with their own premises and their unique cultures. And, as such, they need a reasonable amount of autonomy so they may be secure from unwarranted interference by politicians who are intent on enforcing their ideological biases on the day-to-day affairs of universities.

They do not need instructions on what they teach nor the way in which they teach it, which is why the government’s proposal to reset course fees to accord with a political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom. And, quite apart from that, it is a hasty and almost certainly counterproductive over-reach.

The most obvious motive from the hardliners is simple vindictiveness. They regard universities – indeed, most forms of education – as something vaguely subversive, yet another conspiracy hatched by the progressives to enhance their dominance.

But the stated rationale is, as always, jobs. Encouraging more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates will produce, conservatives say, a productivity surge to turn around the horrible employment figures emerging as the country struggles back to what Scott Morrison and his cohort desperately hope will be business as usual.

But juggling the fee structures will, as so many have pointed out, make no appreciable difference to the actual enrolments because school leavers choose courses based on what interests them. And while they expect to find a job when they leave the cloistered halls, young people do not pick certain careers because they may save few bucks on their HECS debts some decades later.

This should be clear even to the dumbest backbenchers, given that if they have gone through higher education themselves, they have almost all pursued courses in law, economics, politics and the social sciences they now affect to denigrate.

Now they sneer dismissively about authors they have never read and never will read. They claim they are realists, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing – especially not those mythical jobs they avoided themselves but insist are needed for everyone else. There are not many scientists, technologists and engineers among the members of Morrison’s cabinet.

But now, absurdly, they attack those who deface statues for vandalising “history”, at the same time as the government’s reworking of university fees seeks to downgrade and dismiss the entire discipline.

Surely Liberal politicians should know enough history to recall that the revered founder of their party, Robert Menzies, was not just a huge advocate of the universities, but was also the man who took over their revenue base to save them from the vagaries of the states; he regarded his involvement as perhaps the most significant and lasting achievement of his illustrious career.

Menzies would be appalled at the idea that the primary aim of universities is to be mere training mills; to him they were institutes of learning and research, fountains of knowledge. They were bastions of civilisation and culture to be preserved and nourished.

But there are no votes for civilisation and culture from this government. Jobs and growth, growth and jobs, is the order of the day. And if the universities don’t deliver them, says the Coalition, we’ll starve the bastards until they do.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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