Got a face of stone and a ghostwritten biography… The deeper mystery of @LiberalAus cutting research funds #auspol

Dean of Faculty of Arts, Monash University
Dean of Faculty of Arts, Monash University (Photo credit: avlxyz)

Newspapers have a responsibility to report the news accurately and completely.  The journalists covering higher education and research issues are routinely derelict in their duty, often writing such baffling nonsense that I suspect they’re doing it on purpose to troll academics (academics are especially prone to linkbait).  Articles about funding issues are usually the most fraught, if for no other reason than the issues are ridiculously complicated.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the Coalition was unhappy with the way funding had been distributed through the Australian Research Council (ARC).  Nobody would ever accuse Simon Benson of being eloquent, but this article found new ways of presenting information in a way that would make the least amount of sense to an informed reader.

The Daily Telegraph can reveal that as part of the Coalition’s budget savings measures, a dedicated team will be formed under its proposed Commission of Audit to re-prioritise about $900 million in annual Australian Research Council grants.

Apart from being grammatically incorrect, what does this actually mean?  What does the verb ‘to re-prioritise’ mean?  Does it mean that people who currently hold an ARC might have their funding ‘re-prioritised’?  Or does it mean that future grants will be ‘re-prioritised’?  Ordinary journalists would explain what they mean, but Simon Benson is no ordinary journalist.

And things get more confusing from there.

While the overall ARC grant pool – which help fund vital research – would not be cut, a razor would be put to projects that are deemed “wasteful”.

And the funds released from the projects to be axed will be put into new medical research programs for dementia, diabetes and tropical disease.

So the overall amount of funds expended on ARC grants will not be reduced, but the funds ‘released’ (again, what does that word mean?) would go to new medical research programs?  The ARC has rules which restrict your ability to fund medical research programs, stating that medical research programs are to be funded by the NHMRC.  So how will funds be ‘released’ for medical research under the NHMRC while remaining under the ARC?  How can the overall ARC grant pool will both stay the same and reduce?

Utter lunacy.

After meandering around other topics, Benson returns to the question of his verbs ‘re-prioritised’ and ‘released’:

The Daily Telegraph can reveal that a list of the types of grants that would no longer be funded under new and more stringent guidelines for the ARC included an RMIT project on Spatial Dialogues: Public Art and Climate Change which sought to explore how people could adapt to climate change through public art.

Coalition sources also cited as waste several grants worth more than $1 million into philosophical studies including the meaning of “I” through a retrospective study of 18th and 19th century German existentialists.

It also suggested that programs such as the $160,000 given to Macquarie University to examine “sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt” would no longer receive taxpayer-funded assistance.

The ARC grants are independently assessed under strict guidelines but Coalition sources said they believed that there was “waste” in the grants process and funding of projects that didn’t meet the Coalition’s priorities.

‘New and more stringent guidelines’?  Okay, well that seems to mean future projects…

Instead of continuing to rubbish Simon Benson’s terrible ‘jernolism’, let’s look instead at the bigger issue here.  Let’s imagine that Simon Benson’s article were in some way sane, coherent, or made the slightest bit of sense, and that the Coalition was going to have a policy to exert greater control over the sorts of projects funded.  This would make Benson’s article somewhat consistent with the message of the Liberal Party’s media release about the issue.

There is a legitimate dilemma in this issue.  On the one hand, to what extent should academics be free to research what they like?  On the other hand, to what extent should there be controls on taxpayer funding?

I’ve argued before that the ARC shouldn’t exist because it is inefficient and improperly placed to direct funding to the best projects.  In a nutshell, the ARC exists in order to facilitate an extremely wasteful game of picking successful research projects.  If you handed over the funds directly to universities, they’d be in a better position to fund top quality research.

The counter-argument to my position is that the ARC exists in order to increase the scrutiny of universities.  By keeping them on a short leash, they can’t go crazy with nepotistic projects which never achieve anything and just continue to drain funds.  The application process make the system more formal and promotes concrete objectives.

It would be unfair of me to say that the argument doesn’t have some merit.  After all, it’s taxpayer’s money being spent and no other organisation gets to free wheel on the public purse.  In this sense, the ARC is also a risk mitigation device.  If the ARC didn’t exist, a government would eventually have to invent it.

Regardless of our views of the ARC and the ‘correct’ way to distribute funds, it has to be admitted that the academic community does shockingly little to justify its existence.  If anything, there’s an entitlement culture in universities.

This entitlement culture expresses itself in two ways.  First, there’s the sort we’re seeing at the moment where people feel like they are entitled to funding apropos nothing.  Why should we give more money to universities for research?  …?  The answers currently on the table almost exclusively involve reference to the economy.  You fund research because it will result in bigger and better (or smaller and cheaper) gizmos and widgets that we can manufacture and sell.  This answer leaves Humanities out in the cold, of course.  No matter how much you study Varro (Roman writer in the first century BCE), you’re never going to increase Australia’s GDP by much.

Second, there’s the utter hatred of accountability — a topic about which I’ve written extensively.  In 2012, auditors couldn’t even work out how many people the University of Sydney employed, for example, and yet one of their most prominent academics complained about having to fill in a form to hire some staff.  A widely circulated document, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline, was a collection of anecdotes from a disgruntled academic who thought it was hilarious that he was chastised for reducing an administrative staff member to tears.  The main theme of the document is he — an academic — should have been lord and master of spending funds, accountable to nobody (especially not Vice Chancellors).

There are two reasons why universities are bad at justifying their existence.  The first is that the National Tertiary Education Union is utterly ridiculous.  In a blog post which resulted in them abusing me over Twitter, I explained that the NTEU blows hot and cold depending on the mood of the day.  It’s not accustomed to advancing a sensible argument and, as a result, never does.  I’m being a little bit unfair; Universities Australia has a similar problem trying to promote a strategic vision of Australia’s research future.

Second, academics fundamentally do not believe that they need to justify themselves.  On this, they have a point: a cultured, civilised society should have well-funded universities just because.

The failure of the academic community to justify its existence is demonstrated in the tone and acceptance of Benson’s article.  If academics were seen as a public good worth funding, it should be almost impossible for an article like Benson’s to be published.  Confronted with such an article, the reader in my fantasy utopia would dismiss it as inane, anti-intellectual rubbish from a disgruntled, barrow-pushing mouth-breather.  My fantasy reader would know that, although they might not understand the details of the project being researched, that it was good that top quality humanities research was being undertaken.  There would be pride — if nothing else — that Australia was the epicentre of good scholarship into Kant and Hegel.

But because the academic community doesn’t engage with the broader public, my fantasy reader doesn’t exist.

Let’s put this in extremely blunt terms.  I am a big Kant and Hegel fan — as most of my Twitter feed knows all too well.  When the press release said that one of the ‘wasteful’ projects was a Hegelian study by Professor Paul Redding, my first reaction was shock and disgust that the party which best fits my natural political persuasion would dare hate on Hegel.

My second reaction was: ‘Why the hell don’t I know anything about that project?  And who’s Paul Redding?’

If academics were interested in being a public good, members of the public with a keen interest in their research field should know who they are and what they’re up to.  If academics were interested in being a public good, we’d know to whom to turn when policy debates flare up for some sweet, sweet Kantian perspective.  If academics were interested in being a public good, we would have been able to defend them in less abstract terms when a political party targets them for cheap political points.

Benson’s article demonstrates a failure of three agents.  First, the Opposition for having such a barbarian attitude towards the Humanities.  Second, the academics for disengaging with the world to such an extent that the Opposition could descend into barbarism.  Third, Simon Benson for being functionally illiterate.

All three are signs of a university sector failing to do its job.



Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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