You can say what you want, you’re forgiven… Rebutting Philippa Martyr’s arts funding model #highered

The very excellent Dr Hazel Ferguson drew my attention to Dr Philippa Martyr‘s quotes in The Australian:

ACADEMICS who want to pursue esoteric research interests should look to salary sacrifice or bank loans, not taxpayer-funded grants, according to historian Philippa Martyr.

She said researchers whose projects might serve personal rather than national interests should ask themselves whether they believed in those projects enough to go into debt for them.

“This is no more than we ask of our university students, who sign up for a three-year bachelor degree and who at the end of that . . . will also have a pile of debt,” Dr Martyr said. [Source: ‘Academe “must put up own money”, The Australian, 1 December 2012]

The article built off claims Dr Martyr had made elsewhere.  In October, Dr Martyr wrote an article for Quadrant:

Imagine a world in which humanities and arts academics were given credit not for winning enormous grants, but for their ability to function without them. What if academic excellence was measured by who could produce the most for the lowest cost? What if we had a university system that positively rewarded low-cost self-funded research in the arts and humanities (and even in other fields), seeing it as a practical way of finding equally low-cost solutions to all kinds of problems? [Source: ‘Taken for Granted’, Quadrant, October 2012]

And on her blog, Dr Martyr wrote:

It breaks my heart to do this, because I still feel like I should wade in and defend ars gratia artis, but I just can’t. And no one else so far has managed to produce even a slightly convincing argument, either [Source: ‘Taken for Granted’ PhilippaMartyr.BlogSpot.com, 1 December 2012]

Quite a number of Dr Martyr’s claims are easily and quickly dismissed.  The Quadrant article contains most of her reasoning on issues.  Dr Martyr criticises the amounts awarded for projects based on the abstracts rather than on the budgets.  Imagine, for example, trying to criticise the amount allocated to the Australian Defence Force based on its Wikipedia entry.  Thus we get the following two rather interesting critques:

Law firms have been transformed as a result of mergers, incorporation and listing on the stock exchange. The centrality of competition and globalisation has jeopardised any possibility of a work/life balance. This project will examine the tensions in trying to effect a balance for lawyers expected to work 24/7.
–Professor Margaret R. Thornton, Law  ($135,000)

A quick inspection of the legal profession’s divorce rate would surely not cost this much? On the other hand, this much money would allow the project team to buy an actual lawyer for a couple of weeks and send her home to her family.

[…]

This project will investigate relationships between feminist theory and practice in Australian judicial decision-making. It will highlight possibilities, limits and implications of a feminist approach to judging, through analysis of existing decisions and practices and production of a collection of imagined feminist judgments in significant cases
—  Reader Heather A. Douglas, Law ($170,000) 

Uh-huh. Uh-huh. [Source]

So Dr Martyr’s not really being serious when she criticise the amount allocated to the projects.  This is a point and giggle session.

And then we get to the Discovery Indigenous program:

The question of special ARC research funding for Aboriginal people is fraught. On the one hand, restricting one form of funding to people of one type of ethnic background is actually racist, and if you don’t believe me, imagine restricting certain grants to whites, and only if they could prove they were really “white”. […] What remains is the unpopular possibility that the people who will benefit from Aboriginal-specific research grants will not be Aboriginal people with new and fresh ideas. They will be the usual suspects—second- and third-generation members of the urban, affluent and largely middle-class Aboriginal industry in Australia. [Source]

It is difficult to critique the Discovery Indigenous program without ever once referencing any part of the Discovery Indigenous program and yet Dr Martyn gives it a red hot go.  She includes all the usual comments — ‘positive discrimination’ programs are racist, urban Aboriginies aren’t really real Aborigines — without having to back them up.  I don’t read much of Quadrant despite being a conservative, but I wonder if Dr Martyn is writing to a very specific audience: people who already agree with her.

At any rate, we finally get to the meat of her article:

At the same time, I know that the ARC is not the problem; it’s just a symptom of a much wider malaise. Some may argue that, given the small sums of money involved in comparison to the billions poured into our illegal immigrant industry and other epic fails, that cutting grants of this kind is akin to a government department getting rid of the free tea and biscuits. [Source]

Oh, no… That’s not the meat.  Wait up…

When you take arts and humanities out of their Christian framework, you are left with ‘learning stuff you need to get a job’, like, say, Asian languages [Source]

I’m sure there’s a point in one of her articles somewhere.  Ah!  Here we go:

A compromise solution would be to phase out ARC funding for the arts and humanities, and phase in a campaign of self-funded research. Self-funded research can and does have a place overseas, at least—if you don’t believe me, Google “self-funded research” and see how UK and Canadian institutions handle the issue. Academic salaries and packaging in Australia are extremely generous. In the absence of genuine workplace reforms which would see academics negotiating individual contracts, perhaps a good start would be to salary-package research costs. (The awful thing is that I can see the average university leaping on this idea, while not carrying out any of the other necessary reforms.)

Another way of pursuing a research project would be to borrow money to fund it. The English word grant derives from the old French graunter, which is in turn based on the Latin credere, which means “to lend”. Yet in Australia today you’d be forgiven for thinking that the word actually derives from the Latin word gratis. Grants are money you don’t have to pay back. I wonder how many projects would evaporate if the researchers were asked, at the end of the three years, to pay the money back with interest, or even just the principal. This is a good acid test of whether a project really is “relevant” or “essential” or “valuable”—would you personally be prepared to borrow money to fund it? [Source]

Although I think the ideas are incorrect and, indeed, wrong, they are useful ideas for discussing bigger issues about research funding.  In New MatildaI argued that the Commonwealth’s ARC Discovery and Linkage schemes are broken.  Given the poor outcomes — roughly four out of every five Discovery Project proposals are knocked back; for Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, it was an abysmal 15.6% success rate — and the vast amount of work needed to prepare a grant proposal, I suggested that a government department was an inappropriate decision-maker.  Dr Martyr’s view is that ARC schemes are broken for a different reason: the money is going to undeserving projects.

In Policy Heaven, you would have a policy platform about what you wanted to achieve with the higher education sector (coextensive with the research sector?) and derive from this a policy about how the funding model should operate.  In Australia, we lack a serious higher education policy.  The rhetoric of the ALP, the LNP, and Dr Martyr is that higher education is important because of something something innovation and industry and productivity.

The voters who are most interested in higher education policy are students.  Thus we get a public debate about the University as the Teaching Institution.  The model encourages universities to teach large volumes of students at the cheapest price, promoting a model of the university as a daycare centre for 18-25 year olds.  Further, it’s easy to measure: we’ve set ‘targets’ of having a certain proportion of our adult population as graduates.  It doesn’t matter what the degree is in, just so long as they’ve got a degree.  The quality pressure pushing back is recognition of degrees: there would be an outcry if our universities were pumping out graduates who couldn’t get their degree recognised internationally or domestically.

The loudest lobby groups are those with money, and few come more resplendent with cash than industry groups.  Public debate about the University as the Research Institution is usually framed in terms of ‘How will taxpayers subsidise research and development for industry groups?’

In Australia, there is no public debate about the University as the Cultural Institution.  That debate is stone dead.  In the ALP’s National Cultural Policy, universities are discussed in very circumspect ways.  The word ‘university’ does not appear at all; ‘higher education’ appears once.  (For more on the NCP, listen to this podcast)

Because Australia does not know what it wants from its universities, it doesn’t know how to fund them or what to fund them for.  Dr Martyr appears to be arguing for academics to be employed as teachers, buying out time to do research with their own money (or with money obtained through negotiating a contract for a teaching-research position).

It is difficult to imagine two members of Australia’s academy more different than Drs Ferguson (the researcher who drew my attention to the story) and Martyr.  Dr Ferguson is an early career researcher studying case studies of land histories in the Northern Rivers.  Dr Martyr is an established researcher with nearly 20 years of lecturing and visiting fellowships studying mental health.

Here we have Dr Martyr indirectly telling Dr Ferguson: ‘You know your research?  You should personally finance it either by negotiating a research stipend as part of your salary or by getting a bank loan to fund it yourself.  Stop expecting somebody else to pay for it!’

First, this argument lands us squarely in the idea of valuable research as profitable research.  Most people don’t do research because it will result in a commercially viable outcome.  How do you commercialise fluid dynamics?  How do you commercialise knowledge about super black holes at the core of a galaxy?  How do you commercialise knowledge about new translations of Varro?  None of these are strictly in the national interest and, yet, they are important to our collective body of knowledge.  Some research, for example, informs future research which is profitable.  Other research is important because it provides us collective access to information from the past.  None of this research is profitable.  If you took out a loan from a bank, there would be no way to recoup the costs.  Dr Martyr’s argument appears to be that because it is not profitable, it is not worthwhile.

Second, this argument puts us in an uncomfortable position about the idea of employment.  Researchers are employed to research yet here is Dr Martyr arguing that researchers should have to fund their own research out of their salary.  I doubt Dr Martyr goes to the local bakery and asks whether the 17-year olds serving her at the counter paid for the bread’s ingredients out of her own salary.  Why?  Because it would be dumb.  Academics are employed to research and the ARC is (in theory) supposed to fund Australia’s best research.  Academics aren’t employed to bankroll their own jobs.  If you think the bread ingredients analogy is stretched, you’d be incorrect: universities are allocated funds based on their HERDC point outcome which is calculated based on how many publications are produced.  In Dr Martyn’s research funding world, academics pay for their own research and the universities profit from it.

Third, this argument says very ugly things about the nature of research and it’s an attitude becoming more common: research is something that academics do in their spare time in between teaching, administration, and writing grant applications.

We can — and should — discuss lots of different options for funding research in Australia.  Dr Martyr’s views help us to work out exactly what we’re discussing.  Are we evaluating research in terms of its profitability?  If so, why?  Are we taking the view that universities should be teaching institutions first and then undertake research only if they can afford it?  Should research institutions be profitable?  Should research institutions contribute (somehow — through commercialisation of intellectual property maybe?) to their own costs?  What about philantrophic institutions?

Dr Martyr’s views also show us why we need to diagnose the problems with research funding before trying to come up with solutions.  Although we can point and giggle at the abstracts for research projects, it doesn’t help us to explicate what we’re trying to achieve by funding universities.

One final note: I think it is an utter, complete and utter, total crock that a few organisations are treated very favourably by the taxation system.  In January, I pointed out that a libertarian advocacy group, the Centre for Independent Studies, is registered as a charity.  Their ‘research’ output consisted of book reviews and articles on The Drum (among little else).  In the same entry, I noted that the Institute of Public Affairs had (at a minimum) thirteen staff, but only managed a dozen pieces of ‘research’.  It has Deductible Gift Recipient status.

Wouldn’t it be totally weird if Dr Martyr had contributed to these two organisations? Yes.  It really would.

I have a proposal: to increase the amount of funding available to universities, we should stop giving tax concessions to think tanks…

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