OPINION

Why is the government locking universities out?

Govt locking out nation's key to knowledge

The government doesn't like universities. That's undeniable.

Universities were the only major economic sector to be denied JobSeeker last year, meaning that lockdowns cost them $4 billion and some 30,000 jobs.

Jobs aren't everything, certainly.

To deal with global warming, we'd have to shut down most of Australia's coalmining industry, and that could be managed - at 38,000 coalminers, that's not many more jobs than the universities have lost over the past two years.

Still, if I'm willing to accept the prospect of job losses in mining, then I can't in all honesty complain if universities get shafted too.

The same goes for arguments based on the universities' contribution to our export income, which before covid-19 was actually two-thirds of that of the coal industry.

Either way, Australia will cope. Exports aren't everything.

Education, however, pretty much is everything in the long term.

We're healthier and better fed and longer lived and more productive than medieval serfs not because there's an automatic escalator of progress but because we know more - more as individuals, and much, much more as a society.

Universities are where a lot of that knowledge has come from.

Universities are only one form of higher learning, of course - a point that government could certainly make if successive governments hadn't also stuffed up the TAFEs, apprenticeships, and government schools that they wouldn't dream of sending their own children to.

Still, when we're talking about Australian research, Australian universities are just about it.

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So why is the government so down on them?

The government hasn't offered any explanation, because it won't admit there's a problem, so I'm free to provide my own.

First on the list, I suppose, is that this government prefers to target marginal electorates with favours, and it doesn't think university lecturers - or even university graduates - vote for the Coalition: in 2019 the Morrison government did best in less-educated electorates and worst in better-educated ones.

It may sound cynical to suggest that a government would set its policies simply for selfish electoral advantage, but in fact it's a lot more flattering than to accept that it sincerely believes that universities are a bad thing. Because that's possible, too.

There's some indication that the government may be trying to marginalise universities because university research isn't telling it what it wants to hear.

On issues like global warming the government prefers to get its advice from consultants and centres which it funds directly and can silence more easily.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison may well feel that university researchers, like Commonwealth public servants, should accept that their job is to carry out government policy without getting hoity-toity about idealistic notions of independence or objectivity.

Since the 1960s, too, there's been a strain in Australian political thought - a strain now hypercharged by Sky News and its ilk - that sees university education as a conspiracy to radicalise nave Christian undergraduates into atheism, socialism, wokeness, and in general modernism as opposed to traditional nationalism.

A government with a one-seat majority and George Christensen on the backbench has to tread carefully and may eventually come to identify with the anti-intellectual point of view it's been pussyfooting around.

If you judged the government on its actions, you'd have to conclude it really does want an uneducated workforce digging things up and not thinking too much. That's not what I want.

When I left school, I entered an apprenticeship (I was desperate to get out of the Christian Brothers, and I grabbed the first thing at hand) but once I'd got a grip on things, I knew I had to get a degree and I went off to university as a (im)mature age student.

I want my children to be properly educated (I'm prepared to lean on the lazy little buggers to get them there), and I think that respect for learning is just about the definition of civilisation.

If anyone else in the world ever referred to Australia as the clever country I'd burst with pride; absolutely nothing in Australia is going to be improved by more ignorance.

The simplest explanation of the government's approach, mind you, is that the government has now tossed all its actual policies into the too-hard basket, has no ideas, and has discovered that it doesn't need them.

After all, the thing about being in power is that you get to subsidise your friends and put the boot into your enemies - defund the universities and the ABC and the arts, stack boards and tribunals with defeated candidates, make grants to mates, and take parliamentary cues from News Ltd's culture-war-of-the-week.

Whatever the explanation, some of the brightest people I know are fleeing our universities - and without them our country is not the lucky country, it's the dumber country.

  • Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.
This story Govt locking out nation's key to knowledge first appeared on The Canberra Times.