In the year of COVID-19, the mantra has been ”We’re all in this together”, but we have a Federal Coalition Government which did not wait too long to revert to its modus operandi – reward your friends and punish your enemies.
Whether it be looking after the fossil fuels sector at the expense of renewables, pursuing punitive social welfare policies or giving business more than just a helping hand while also trying to cut wages, all under the cover of responding to the economic crisis, the Morrison Government can’t help itself.
And a sector that knew right from the beginning that it was out on its own was tertiary education which lost a multi-million dollar income stream when its overseas, mainly Chinese students, were locked out when the Federal Government had to close the borders due to the pandemic.
There has been no JobKeeper or help for the universities even though their business model, more or less encouraged for years by the government, was damaged by actions and circumstances outside of their control.
Some Coalition members, most of whom have degrees, seem to have an instinctive hostility to universities as part of some ongoing culture war. There’s no doubt bad policy ideas will come in for criticism from that direction, but that comes with the territory, no matter what party is in power.
The bad headlines keep coming for the ANU, as it rolls out its jobs and restructuring proposals to the University’s various Schools as part of its Recovery Plan.
One would have thought that education, particularly the engines of innovation that are the universities, would be a key sector to drive the overall economic recovery.
But the impression is that the Morrison Government cares more about baristas than scientists, or artists for that matter.
The government will counter that it has coughed up an extra billion dollars for research right across the sector but that won’t cover the shortfall or stop the job cuts, or make up for the attrition suffered over many years previous.
It has abandoned its debt and deficit language by necessity and is spending hundreds of billions of dollars, much of which is going to favoured areas in the private sector. In that context, the universities might feel a little shortchanged.
The Government’s fees overhaul favoured STEM subjects, but doubled the cost of ”useless” Humanities degrees in a bid to feed more graduates into in-demand areas, something business, as utilitarian as ever, is constantly on about.
For a mob that is always quick to accuse others of social engineering, the Coalition is happy to play ”mad scientist” for its business mates.
Never let a good crisis got to waste is the axiom, and the Federal Government is not about to do that, pushing an agenda that is forcing universities to trim their budgets, restructure courses and refocus as directed.
And in research that will inevitably mean a continued leaning toward short-term projects that can be easily or obviously commercialised, and make some money for the university.
The losers will be long-term ideas that may not have an obvious application, and of course, the Arts and Humanities, never seen as particularly valuable by the widget-driven business types, even though many of these graduates end up in the knowledge and managerial areas, including politics, or provide the juice to the nation’s cultural life.
It seems we are stuck in a never-ending battle between those who have a higher view of education and its goals, and those who see universities as factories churning out the right kind of graduates to fit seamlessly into the economic machine, despite the fact that we live in an unprecedented era of change and the keys should be flexibility, agility and, above all, imagination.
Universities, such as our national campus, will adjust and get on with doing their jobs as best they can but there will be a price to pay. When and in what capacity the lucrative international student market returns is anybody’s guess, particularly with the current Chinese freeze-out.
But as the Morrison Government continues its divide and rule, winners and losers approach, it is clearer by the day that we are certainly not all in this together.