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Why is the Australian government letting universities suffer?

On March 30, the federal government announced JobKeeper – a A$130 billion wage subsidy for employees to limit the economic devastation of COVID-19. Employers are eligible for the A$1,500 a fortnight payment to staff if the business’ revenue had fallen over a specified period by 30% or 50%, depending on their size.

This excluded most universities. But the government soon announced the threshold for JobKeeper would be lowered to 15% for charities, giving hope to universities, which are not-for-profit organisations. That is, until the government clarified “this lower turnover decline test does not apply to universities”.

And while some universities were still eligible by their calculations, the government made two other changes to JobKeeper that seemed targeted at ensuring university staff couldn’t get any help from the government. This is despite Universities Australia’s estimate around 21,000 jobs will be lost.

While the government has provided some help to universities in the form of its higher education relief package – which guarantees funding for domestic students already budgeted for – it won’t fill the gap in revenue lost due to international students.

Read more: For most universities, there's little point to the government's COVID-19 assistance package

This will likely result in mass staff lay-offs and may risk some universities’ financial viability. It will also severely curtail Australia’s research capacity.

So, why has the Australian government taken successive steps specifically to exclude universities from its business continuity funding?

Research and the culture wars

Australian conservative politicians have a long history of attacking researchers.

We saw this in the Coalition’s “waste watch” committee, to keep track of allegedly unnecessary spending, established by John Howard when he was opposition leader in 1986. One of the committee’s prominent targets was a project to research working mothers’ child rearing in Ancient Rome.

The Coalition’s antagonism towards research was evident in their secret rejections in 2005, 2017 and 2018 of more than 11 grants recommended by the Australian Research Council for research in history, music, and art history. Education minister in 2018, Simon Birmingham, mocked one of the grants on Twitter.

The Coalition’s attitude is also on display in attacks by some MPs on climate change research, presumably because it challenges the primacy of narrow economic interests.

But conservatives have long supported universities as institutions. Many senior Liberal politicians have multiple university degrees: Scott Morrison has an honours degree in science from UNSW; Josh Frydenberg has four degrees – one from Oxford and one from Harvard; Mathias Cormann has two; Dan Tehan, three; Marise Payne, two; Simon Birmingham, at least one; Christian Porter, four; and Greg Hunt at least three.

So in many ways, universities support conservatives’ personal, material and political self interests. And yet the Coalition is undermining them by, in part, rejecting a motion moved by Labor and the Greens to extend JobKeeper to universities.

Read more: More than 70% of academics at some universities are casuals. They're losing work and are cut out of JobKeeper

Conservatives also appear to oppose universities on ideological grounds. Examples include former Prime Minister Tony Abott’s criticisms of ANU for divesting from fossil fuel industries; education minister Dan Tehan’s review into universities allegedly suppressing the right kind of free speech; some conservative politician’s dislike of universities declining to host a Ramsay Centre celebrating Western civilisation, and failing to sufficiently celebrate Anglo-Australians’ historical legacy.

This is part of what is commonly called a “cultural war” against organisations such as the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the ABC, the creative arts, museums and other cultural institutions that don’t support conservative ideology.

From elite to universal systems

There is also a structural explanation for conservative governments’ antipathy to contemporary universities. This is related to universities’ transition from elite to mass to universal systems of education.

These transitions were described by the distinguished US higher education scholar Martin Trow. In his important 1973 paper, Trow explained that elite, mass, and universal systems of higher education have different approaches to admission, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and quality assurance. They also have different social roles.

He explained that participation is a privilege in elite systems, where fewer than 15% of the relevant age group enrol in higher education. Participation is an advantage in mass systems of higher education, where up to half of the relevant age group enrol in higher education. But not participating becomes a disadvantage in universal systems, where more than half participate in higher education.

Read more: Universities have gone from being a place of privilege to a competitive market. What will they be after coronavirus?

Conservative governments were happy to support elite systems of higher education. In 1959, the Liberal Menzies government greatly increased university funding. It also developed state universities into a national system by establishing the Australian Universities Commission which regulated universities’ enrolments and recommended the allocation of federal funds.

Conservative governments also supported higher education’s transition to a mass system from 1967. But they preferred most of this expansion to be in institutions different from universities. These Colleges of Advanced Education were funded for teaching by Menzies and subsequent governments at a much lower rate than universities, and were not funded to conduct research.

The colleges were incorporated into existing universities or formed their own universities in 1989.

A liberal strand of conservative higher education policymakers in Australia and the UK also supported the transition to universal higher education from the early 2000s. They removed government limits on university enrolments to give freer play to higher education markets and to students’ interests.

This demand-driven system encouraged the expansion of universal or open access systems, as Trow later called them.

Read more: Demand-driven funding for universities is frozen. What does this mean and should the policy be restored?

But conservatives, such as former education minister Simon Birmingham, complained such policies led universities to lower standards by admitting low quality students.

As Trow also noted in 1973, the demand for higher education has importantly been social as much as economic. But conservatives complain universities offer “useless” degrees, such as in Arts, not sufficiently tied to graduate jobs.

The incumbent conservatives in Australia and the UK prefer to limit higher education to students and programs they deem worthy. They have reimposed enrolment caps in Australia and the UK.

For this strand of now-dominant conservatives, universal higher education should be like any other universal service: targeted, transactional, fee-for-service and preferably privatised.

Excluding universities from JobKeeper is another way of keeping universities in their place.

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