The Australian newspaper has trumpeted that the Premier of South Australia’s call for that state’s three public universities to consider merging had been ‘rebuffed’. Before considering the merit or otherwise of such a merger, it would be wise to find out what the Premier actually said, and the context in which it was said. And, in which media outlet the issue was reported.
Jay Weatherill holds his office despite not receiving a majority of the vote, nor having a majority of seats in parliament. In Australian politics that isn’t common, but it does happen. His position is fragile to say the least, but as the only member of the Labor Party in a state or federal leadership role he is expected to keep the Liberals on their toes. One of his targets is the reform of higher education recently proposed by the Liberal federal government.
In June this year, Weatherill labeled the plan to cut payments to public universities by 20 per cent per student as ‘the Americanisation of our universities and projected a loss of $78 million to South Australian public universities over the next four years. He argued that if students have to pay 20 per cent more than they currently pay, some would not be able to enroll.
The architect and champion of the cuts to higher education is the federal Minister of Education, Christopher Pyne, who is often described by his opponents as inept but nonetheless a relentless and loud voice in the media. As it happens, Pyne’s electorate, Sturt, is in South Australia. He attended two of the three universities in the state – the University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide. Had he also attended Flinders University, he would have achieved a trifecta! Pointing out that university students in his electorate would be disadvantaged by his budget proposal is, politically speaking, not to the Minister’s advantage, notwithstanding being true.
The Australian, the country’s only national newspaper is openly pro-Liberal (and also owned by Rupert Murdoch an American born in Adelaide), and predictably, Pyne’s willing ally. Internationally Murdoch’s media empire is renowned for its political bias as much as for its questionable ways of gathering and reporting news. Its Australian arm is not without its share of controversy.
Bear in mind too that Weatherill is Premier of a state that has been hit hard by the closure of several major industries, including auto manufacturing plants. The state desperately needs to re-invent itself and create new industries. Weatherill's call was not that the three universities should merge into one institution but that they coordinate the commercialization of their research and that they get more strategic about exploiting their output for the benefit of the state. Weatherill’s suggestion was more about pooling business resources than merging academic activity. It doesn’t seem such an outrageous suggestion.
But the headline – the eye-catcher – of the article in The Australian suggests Weatherill was proposing that the three universities merge, creating what one of vice chancellors referred to as a “behemoth of 80,000 students”. Well actually it would be closer to 70,000 and until recently, Monash University had more than 60,000 students, so it wouldn’t be all that much of a behemoth in the Australian context. And in any case, Weatherill wasn’t suggesting a merger at all. But, and here is the point, the article allowed Pyne to label the idea as dumb and he would scupper any such “left-wing plot” to save the educational future of his electorate.
As it happened, none of the three vice chancellors bought into the game. All three diplomatically said that their institutions were always happy to look at collaborative practice and rationalization of resources although actual amalgamation, they agree, is not an option. In truth, Australia’s universities have bigger concerns. Pyne has threatened that if the Senate does not agree to the bill, he will slash billions of dollars from the research budget – a move that has galvanised vice-chancellors, especially those who run the research intensive Group of 8 universities. Ian Young, the group’s chair, has labeled the new proposal as a ‘doomsday scenario’.
The Federal Government’s proposed changes to higher education are, overall, very unpopular, even if some institutions with high international standing are keen to uncap their intake limits and set their own fees. The Senate has already indicated that it will oppose the bill and the government will have to persuade the cross-benchers to change their mind if it is to be enacted. A lot of smoke will have to blow over a lot of mirrors for that to happen, and Murdoch’s media outlets are happy to fan the flames whenever they can.
Pyne remains unrepentant, claiming on the one hand that the budget cuts will “enable the universities to become the best in the world” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, while on the other hand petulantly threatening to undermine Australia’s research capacity if he doesn’t get his way. In the meantime, vice-chancellors just have to hope that their universities don’t get burnt.
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