Universities might still be caught in the campaign finance net

A Commonwealth campaign finance bill introduced late last year was strongly opposed by the university and broader NGO sectors. Most organisations commenting on a federal political issues were going to have to report on their donations and implement  highly bureaucratic systems to prevent ‘foreign’ donations to political causes. The bill would also have affected think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute, where I work.

The bill’s overly broad definition of political activity — public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means and/or public expression of views on a political party, MP or candidate by any means — was a longstanding problem in the law. I wrote a paper about it nearly a decade ago. Compared to the existing rules, the bill slightly improved on the status quo by creating some exceptions, including expressing views solely for genuine academic purposes. But in practice, the new campaign finance regulations were likely to lead to a much worse state of affairs than now.

Under the old regime, the AEC did not enforce the letter of the law.  Only organisations engaged in traditional campaign activities ever complied, and nobody was punished for not submitting the required reports on political expenditure and donations. During debate over the government’s bill it became clear that many NGOs in technical breach of the current law had no idea that it existed. But now they know, and MYEFO gave the AEC extra funds to implement the government’s ‘electoral integrity reforms’. That money could be used to increase compliance.

After near-unanimous opposition to its original bill, the government released a draft revision for comment. This seems to have satisfied Universities Australia, but I am not convinced that, despite its improvements, that universities should support the bill in its current form. Read More »

Ministers should not choose research projects

Senator Kim Carr has been around forever, and knows what questions to ask in Senate Estimates. And yesterday he got the Australian Research Council to reveal that, last year, then education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 humanities grant recommendations. So far as we know, this hasn’t happened since Brendan Nelson was minister in the middle of the last decade (Gideon Haigh tells that story well).

As with the Nelson intervention, Birmingham’s decision has prompted outrage. The Australian Academy of the Humanities says that “this interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”

Birmingham’s response is, in effect, that the rejected projects are not worth funding. On Twitter, he says “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.'”

He could have picked several other examples: “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms”, “music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” or “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950”.

But that Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from these very niche projects is not the same as an argument for rejecting an ARC recommendation. Read More »

Thought leaders and public intellectuals in the ideas industry

I have never liked the term ‘thought leader’. But Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, persuades me that even if the language is unappealing the concept is useful in describing how the contemporary world of ideas works. In some cases, the category of people known as thought leaders can also make the marketplace of ideas more effective.

Drezner argues that the marketplace of ideas is much larger and more open now than it was in the post-war decades. Technology is one obvious reason; anyone with an internet connection can now publish and social media can be used to bypass the old publisher and broadcaster gatekeepers to audiences. Drezner covers this, but I think the most interesting parts of the book are about how even though it is more possible now than in the past to promote ideas on a small budget, this is also an era of for-profit ideas.

The language of thought leadership is used most by consulting firms, which publish reports as part of their branding – these are the trends and problems your industry faces, come to us for solutions. Drezner says McKinsey spends $400 million a year on these activities. Locally, PwC, Deloitte and others advertise their thought leadership in various fields.

While government spending on consultants seems volatile, there is little doubt that they play a much bigger role in advising governments than they did in the past. So their ‘thought leadership’ is likely to transmit directly to government this way. (Drezner has a chapter on how economics is more influential than other social sciences; that consulting firms are big employers of people with economics degrees is another route for economists to influence government).

Drezner contrasts ‘thought leaders’ with the older term ‘public intellectual’. He has a table of what he sees as the distinctions between them:Read More »

What is Whitlam’s higher education legacy?

Gough Whitlam, who died today, is one of the big four of Australian higher education policy: Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard are the other three.

Whitlam is most famous for abolishing tuition fees in Australia’s universities and state-funded colleges from 1974 (here is the original legislation for universities.)

I’ve argued before that free education was a major symbolic success, but in practice not as significant as many people in hindsight believe. Through scholarships, state subsidies and federal subsidies higher education was already free or cheap for most people. A chart I included on university funding sources in the latest edition of Mapping Australian higher education (p. 53) shows that students were only a minor source of university income in the early 1970s.

Nor was Whitlam very successful in lifting higher education attainment rates. While the number of higher education places did grow, the baby boom generation was so large that there was little growth in attainment for them. On this measure, Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard were all much more significant.

What Whitlam did succeed in doing was take over funding responsiblity for higher education from the states, making conditional grants the basis of Commonwealth power over higher education. Technically, the Commonwealth’s power was quite limited. Universities could have refused Commonwealth grants and returned to fee charging if they wanted to. But never stand between a vice-chancellor and money. If there was anything the universities would not do for the Commonwealth’s cash we never found out what that was. As John Dawkins discovered, they were even willing to merge with colleges of advanced education, which were well down the system hierarchy.

Two particular Whitlam-era policies are still in place, although substantially modified. He created a general student income support system, TEAS, to replace various scholarship schemes. This survives through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. A needs-based income support system is a more efficient way of funding higher education students than merit-based scholarships, which often go to people from affluent families.

Although completely free higher education lasted less than 15 years, Whitlam’s price control on undergraduate higher education has lasted the full 40 years since 1974. Universities were given back their power to set charges in 2005, but only up to limits determined by the federal government. Christopher Pyne is now trying to abolish these controls, supported for the first time in the post-Whitlam era by a majority of vice-chancellors.

The fact that until recently most vice-chancellors supported undergraduate price control shows Whitlam’s on-going influence. Despite being dissatisfied with their funding rates for all but a handful of those 40 years, many vice-chancellors still maintained the faith that government would give them what they believed they needed. Public funding was the norm when most of them went to university and started their academic careers. Even now, vice-chancellors generally see private funding as a regrettable but necessary departure from this ideal state. Staff and student groups ofen condemn university leaders for this concession. Creating such a powerful default belief about how the world should be shows that Whitlam’s cultural legacy will survive the man’s passing.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP

Sad news over at Catallaxy that Kenneth Minogue has died.

In the 1980s he was one of the political theorists who made me think that I wanted to be one too – I was in the tiny handful of people interested in this K. Minogue rather than the other one. My pre-computer card files list 36 Minogue articles I had stored away for future study. I am rarely much good with titles, but I still like some of his: ‘The Hucksters of Happiness’, ‘The Prison Cell of Political Theory’, and ‘Freedom as a Skill’.

The last one hints at his political position. He was a classical liberal, but presumably influenced by his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott saw it as based on the culture and practices of Western societies, rather than on single abstract principles such as liberty or natural rights from which all else must be derived. Living in a free society requires ‘skills’ that need to be learned – the quotations in Julie Novak’s Catallaxy obituary from early and late in Minogue’s career show how this was a long-running theme.

I think Minogue’s inductive liberalism is probably a minority position in political theory, or at least there is far more written about grand attempts to create principles to govern society, such as John Rawls’ original position. But in real-world liberalism it is common. The conclusions for liberty, markets, limited government, and so on are still there, but with messy arguments based on precedent, analogy, tradition and many different general principles.

Minogue discusses his ideas in this interview I did with him in 1995. Minogue spoke as he wrote, in well-formed sentences. He was as easy to edit as he was to read.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP.

How ‘public’ should public universities be?

There has been debate about the University of Melbourne’s response to a sex-segregated Islamic event held on campus. But it was an unusual debate, in which the radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were on much the same side.

U of M VC Glyn Davis pointed this morning to the tensions between gender equality and freedom of association raised by this case.

Some commenters on my Facebook page argued that as a ‘public’ university made a difference to how we should weigh up the conflicting considerations – that even if we should tolerate sex segregation in society generally, it should not happen at the ‘public’ University of Melbourne:

This is, however, a publicly funded university and I assume it’s more then likely that the venue was provided at lower/no cost then a private space; effectively meaning the event was subsidised by the taxpayer. For the sake of reputation of the institution, as well as applying best principles, events that entail gender segregation should be clearly not allowed on campus.

The likes of Glyn Davis must remember that they are public servants.

Most universities in Australia are more akin to government departments than private enterprises, they are established by legislation that allows for extensive control over the way they conduct themselves.

‘Public university’ is not a legal concept. The University of Melbourne’s legislation rather pointedly refers to it as ‘public spirited’ rather than public. University staff are not employed under public service legislation, and the governmnent of the day has no say in academic or professional staff appointments.

In practice, the term ‘public university is used to describe the universities listed in Table A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. But it is not a term that appears in the legislation.

Table A universities do have greater access to public funds than private higher education providers. Most (though not all – Australian Catholic University is the exception) are subject to some public sector requirements in their own state, perhaps most significantly administrative law obligations such as freedom of information.

But I would generally defend the ‘public spirited’ rather than ‘public’ formulation in the U of M Act. There are good small-c constitutional reasons for thinking that universities should be substantially autonomous of government, places of independent thought and speech. Governments have historically tended to accept that view. Though state governments appoint university or council senate members, they only appoint a minority. State governments especially have taken a laissez-faire approach to academic matters.

To me, public funding should be seen as transaction. Governments are entitled to get what they pay for (such as a number of student places), but this should not give them broader rights over the institution. That some taxpayer money might have been used in building the lecture theatre where the Islamic event was held does not give government any on-going veto power over how the theatre should be used.

None of this means that universities should be immune from criticism. But to me the fact that the U of M was set up by a Victorian government statute, or that it receives Commonwealth funding, does not add anything to the case for preventing sex-segregated events on campus.

Misreadings and criticisms of Graduate Winners

The AFR published a response to Graduate Winners from Caroline McMillen, VC of the University of Newcastle. It provides an opportunity to respond to misreadings and criticisms.

Article starts, my responses in block quotes:

Access to a high-quality university education is the key to a stronger Australian workforce, economy and society. In turn, these are all important contributors to establishing a stronger place for Australia in the world.

An accessible university education is essential to ensure that Australia in what has been called the Asian century becomes a beacon for innovation and competitiveness.

The proposals contained in the Grattan Institute’s Graduate Winners report would jeopardise that future.

The report, which was made public last Monday, presents in measured language a reductive future for higher education in Australia, where students are motivated only by their graduate earning potential and the state withdraws its funding from what is currently recognised as a world-class university system.

Incorrect: The report shows (pages 56 to 59) that interest in the field of study is the top reason for choosing a course, and that a financially-based motivation model cannot explain why so many students with good ATARs choose humanities and performing arts, which have relatively poor employment and income outcomes.

The proposal is to shift the entire benefits and the risks of undertaking a university degree onto each individual student.

Incorrect: The report recommends a 50% cut in tuition subsidies for most courses; the taxpayer further takes risk through the HELP repayment threshold of $49,000 a year.

Read More »