I woke up one day in early 2017, feeling terrible. Like Lucky Jim after a hard night’s drinking. Picking up my phone, I used it to peruse the bruising. My face was a plausible match for the way my head felt. As if at some point during the night, I’d been beaten by secret police.

I lay back and stared up at the hospital room ceiling. Since I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, once again I replayed that week in March, a year earlier…

The Institute’s Masters program had begun. The venue was booked, the catering arranged. Our team of experts and organisers all had parts to play for the four-day residential school. There would be presentations, panel sessions, group exercises and guest speakers.

This year we’d be living it up, down in the genteel bowels of University House. Here, many a deal gets done over a private lunch or dinner. (In the late 1950s, Prime Minister Menzies had agreed to an Inquiry that made the case for more university funding. And for a new, UK-style Commission to plan for growth. Had Menzies time-travelled half a dozen decades into the future, he might have found himself facing much the same kinds of demands.)


I had three presentations to give and some group exercises to run. On the Monday my topic was university course fees and government funding, and their effects on university business models. On Tuesday, leadership and management roles in university contexts. And on the Wednesday morning, strategic planning in times of disruption. Plus a pair of case studies, before and after lunch, on how to communicate spending cuts and organisational change – if you happen to be a vice-chancellor.

(Yes, gentle reader – riveting stuff! On the other hand, with 2020 hindsight these topics did gain salience. By May this year, the shape of things to come looked like a university sector suddenly going pear-shaped as revenues plummeted. Closing our borders to escape the coronavirus exposed the Achilles heel of our high reliance on international students. Then in June, the government decided it was time to reshuffle our domestic student deckchairs with new course fees and funding rates.)

The first two days had gone to plan. We were midway through the program and getting some sense of each other’s views and roles and backgrounds. Then came what my inner farmboy would recall as Wednesday, Bloody Wednesday… What our students were not to know that day was that this was the start of another story – and one with its own little back story. In 2015 I’d published a critique of local comparisons of higher education spending in OECD countries. In Australia we’d had a decade of funding growth. Even after the 2008 global financial crisis.

Source: Department of Education and Training, 2015

As a share of GDP our rate of public spending was below the OECD average rate. It had been for years, but there were reasons for this. And after the crisis, high GDP growth masked our spending growth while low GDP growth masked lack of spending growth in other places. So why did we make so much of being second-lowest in the OECD? If Australia spent 0.7% of our GDP while Italy or Greece or Portugal spent 0.8-0.9% of theirs, so what?

Data source: OECD National Accounts at a Glance

But “second-lowest” was a neat way to say Look! How under-funded must we be? It was as if readers of the OECD’s Education at a Glance never checked its National Accounts at a Glance. To illustrate the problem, I’d posted some rough reckonings in The Conversation. Not, as they say, rocket surgery. As the weeks passed, no-one disputed the point. One reader commented that: “Actually I may be responsible for much of the second last in the OECD stuff. That’s a stat I found when working for Universities Australia. I am fully aware that it tells only part of the story. But it has taken off on its own since…” Intrigued, I sifted back through local commentary. Year after year, a single table of figures in a long report full of tables was taken as proof that yes, Australia kept failing to invest, and was being left behind.

The story relied on a kind of unconciously Orwellian doublethink. As each OECD report appeared, local knowledge of local trends would fade instantly, into irrelevance. Like readers of Proust, old hands would recall how universities had once been well-funded (in a sense), decades earlier. The latest 3-year-old data would be headlined as news just in from Paris – a sharp glance from abroad on our grim local realities. As for Europe, any awareness of the ripple effects of the financial crisis on tertiary spending in other places would also disappear from view.

With tables and charts I set out to show that the Australia/OECD higher education story relied mainly on what I would call “cosmopolitan impressionism”. In this narrative our sector’s main concern seemed to be that Australia was a low-spending OECD laggard. But this view was blind to the effects of GDP growth disparities. I put together a paper for an academic journal. Watching The Beautiful Lie on the ABC – a modern reprise of the delusion and folly of Anna Karenina, set in Melbourne – gave me the idea for its title. After peer review the paper was accepted. As the Journal deadline approached in February, I rechecked my quotes and references.

It was quite a piece of work: 7000 words in clear prose, densely packed with charts and figures. Once published online, I sent links to some colleagues and two higher education journalists – Tim Dodd at the Australian Financial Review, and Julie Hare at The Australian.

Hare had published my views on topics like these before. Three on the risks of an earlier government plan to cut funding and lift course fees for Australian university students. One on the problem of “lies, damned lies and OECD comparisons“. After a few exchanges, she emailed to say that The Australian would publish her report the following day:

“Another very late change in plan and you are on the page. Cheers, Julie”.

In Melbourne, we were just finishing Day 2 of the Institute program. It was a fine Tuesday evening. We were having drinks and dinner on campus with our students and guest presenters. Afterwards, I took a late train home.

Then at 5.00am the next day, it was suddenly clear what “you are on the page” meant. In Canberra that week, our sector’s annual conference was underway. My story about local misreadings of OECD metrics wasn’t the news. To my surprise, I was. My whole case was a kind of blasphemy: “an extraordinary attack” on every commentator I’d quoted. Hare had misquoted the paper to frame its critique as a conspiracy theory. On this view it accused colleagues, professors, university vice-chancellors – and their host for the conference that week, Universities Australia – of wilful “misuse” of OECD data to misrepresent our relative level of government funding for higher education.

Geoff Sharrock says OECD data misused to back funding claims

Julie Hare, The Australian, 9 March 2016

In an extraordinary attack, a University of Melbourne academic has accused current and former colleagues, including one of the most celebrated professors of higher education in the world, and the peak body Universities Australia of misusing OECD data to promote a false understanding of government funding of the higher education sector. Geoff Sharrock, a program director at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, claims in an article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management that “commentators pluck simple metrics from the statistical tables in Education at a Glance” to “present flawed and misleading interpretations of OECD statistics” ... In the article, “Beautiful lies, damned statistics: Reframing Australian university funding”, Dr Sharrock singles out former University of Melbourne colleague Simon Marginson, citing 11 instances in which he claims the professor, who is now director of the University of London’s Institute of Education, used OECD data to claim a critical failure in federal government funding of higher education. Dr Sharrock says commentators’ use of OECD data, particularly a table showing public investment in higher education in Australia to be the second lowest in the OECD, often naively or knowingly misinterprets it to push a particular political agenda … He also points the finger at Universities Australia, University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker, Melbourne CSHE colleague Emmaline Bexley, University of Sydney sociologist Raewyn Connell and government expert Rodney Tiffen, and former Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young, among others.

Dr Sharrock told the HES in an email he expected his paper would “stir debate”. “It may be met with denial initially: it goes against the sector’s prevailing narrative, which has been a bit misleading and bit self-serving,” he says. “It debunks the myth that, compared with other OECD countries, Australian unis have been chronically underfunded. It disputes the view that Australia has been second last in the OECD for university funding, as some have claimed. It argues that the headline metrics most often quoted from Education at a Glance don’t prove much at all.” “Australian funding looks low in part because its GDP growth has been so strong, and there are other factors as well. Lots of people will want to dispute one detail or another, but they can’t really avoid the main conclusions.” In his conclusion, Dr Sharrock paraphrases Oscar Wilde, writing: “OECD statistics are ‘rarely pure and never simple’. For funding advocates, Education at a Glance has been a cherry picker’s picnic. But the more deeply we probe to tell apples from oranges, the more fruit salad we find. Despite many claims of a serious funding problem for Australian universities based on international comparisons, the evidence for this is not as strong as it seems ‘at a glance’.”

Sitting there at my desk in my pyjamas, I started sending emails. I hoped to head off the impact with at least a few key people. Otherwise the conference in Canberra would see scholars up in their armchairs. And perhaps an unruly lunch mob, had I been there. I sent two quick notes, attaching the paper and a link to the Conversation article. The first was to the Centre colleagues that Hare had named. I cc’d our Melbourne vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, and our Centre director Richard James, both at the conference that day. And my Institute director, Leo Goedegebuure. He had read the paper and was on the board of the Journal. A second, shorter note was to the CEO of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson; and two of the vice-chancellors Hare had named, Ian Young and Stephen Parker.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 5:14 AM
To: Emmaline Bexley; Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Christiaan Johannes Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis
Subject: paper on OECD comparisons

Emmaline, Simon – Julie Hare’s report in today’s Australian overstates and overdramatises what my article is about. The paper expands on a Conversation article I published in October last year. https://theconversation.com/oecd-comparisons-dont-prove-our-unis-are-underfunded-47412 Yes, it is designed to stir further debate about this, and to counter some common and flawed assumptions. But it does not use the term ‘misuse’ and for the most part is a technical analysis of how misinterpretations and misrepresentations arise. It argues that the OECD statistics most often cited – often to argue for better funding, as one would expect – are widely misunderstood, and are sometimes used selectively. It also argues that, once analysed in context, statements which rely on these metrics in isolation do appear to present a flawed picture of how Australian universities are financed. The article does not claim that Simon wilfully misconstrues OECD data, or that every comparative statement he has made over the years is problematic. But it is critical of the way the underfunding narrative has been framed through an OECD lens in some of Simon’s commentary, and the way other commentators have adopted this framing over time. It argues that failing to consider differences in GDP growth does affect one of Simon’s claims at least, of a $6b shortfall. It is also critical of an attempt to discredit a Grattan Institute report for its reliance on domestic data rather than OECD data. A copy of the article as published online last week is attached. There are some minor inaccuracies, to be fixed before the print edition is finalised. If anyone thinks I’ve got this all wrong, publishing a detailed counter-argument should help to inform future funding debates. Regards, Geoff

Dear Belinda, Stephen, Ian – Julie Hare’s report in today’s Australian overstates and overdramatises what my paper is about. The paper expands on a Conversation article I published in October last year https://theconversation.com/oecd-comparisons-dont-prove-our-unis-are-underfunded-47412 Yes, the paper is designed to stir further debate about this, and to counter some common and flawed assumptions. But it does not use the term ‘misuse’, or argue that OECD data is being wilfully misrepresented: for the most part it is a technical analysis of how misinterpretations and misrepresentations arise. It argues that the OECD statistics most often cited – often to argue for better funding, as one would expect – are widely misunderstood, and are sometimes used selectively. It also argues that, once analysed in context, many statements which rely on these particular metrics in isolation do appear to present a flawed picture of how Australian universities are financed. In sum, the article is critical of the way the underfunding narrative has been framed, and it argues that due to a combination of factors such as differences in GDP growth, the simple OECD metric most often cited is not actually very meaningful. A copy of the article, published online last week, is attached. There are some minor inaccuracies to be fixed for the final print edition. If anyone thinks I’ve got this all wrong, their counter-arguments should help to inform future funding debates. Regards, Geoff Sharrock

With that, I thought, my paper would get to every vice-chancellor at least. And be read and discussed by others in Canberra. What I didn’t know was how The Australian would report on responses from the sector as the week went on.

Then I showered and shaved and dressed, made sure that the kids were on track to get to school, and headed for the train station. I needed to be at the Melbourne campus ahead of time to be ready for Day 3 of the Masters’ program.

The first reply was from our Vice-Chancellor: “Noted with sadness Geoff – sorry your analysis has been treated in this way. Regards from Canberra, Glyn.” The next was from Gwil Croucher, another University of Melbourne colleague in Canberra that day: “Geoff, This certainly did create a stir. But it is revealing the way the Oz reports your criticism … Shows a pretty fundamental misunderstanding on their part about the nature of academic debate … Are you at UA this year?”

By then I was standing on a platform as the next train to the city slowed to a halt. The carriages were crowded. Stepping aboard, I hung and swayed uneasily, from a ceiling strap. On my phone I was plugged into Miles Davis, playing an ominous soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold. As the train lurched along, I felt queasy. A few stops on, a cluster of schoolchildren flocked off. I found a seat. Parking my bag at my feet, I flicked through the morning’s messages and pecked out some quick replies:

“Thanks Glyn. On the upside, the paper is more likely to be read and argued about. Enjoy the conference…” “Thanks Gwil. I’m not at UA this year, but teaching day 3 of our 4 day residential program here on campus. Enjoy the conference, I look forward to hearing what was discussed when you get back…”

As I pressed Send another reply arrived. This time from afar, and far from friendly. In London there was umbrage. Simon Marginson had a list of objections. To the paper’s title in particular. I saw that he’d added the journalist’s name to his list of recipients. In all, a written endorsement for Hare’s reporting that day in Canberra, from “one of the most celebrated professors of higher education in the world”.

Struggling to digest the implications of this, I stepped off at Flinders Street Station. As usual, I found myself being frogmarched by a wave of office workers onto a platform escalator. From there we were swept upward, to spread and dodge and weave our way across the station concourse, toward the turnstiles that led onto Swanston Street.

At a break in the flow I paused to buy a hard copy of The Australian. Same article, different heading: “Funding claims rely on data ‘misuse'”. I glanced at my watch. I was going to be late. As if pursued by a bear I exited onto Swanston Street, scrambling with a crowd of stragglers to get across as the lights went red. I skipped onto an impatient tram as its doors squeezed shut on the sardines shuffling within.

Image source: https://www.viator.com/en-AU/Melbourne-attractions/Flinders-Street-Station/d384-a397

More hanging from ceiling straps, as the tram moved off. I jammed the newspaper into my bag. In my ear Miles Davis was still trumpeting someone’s tragic misadventure, in Paris in the 1950s. Ignoring a trio of tourists debating when to get off, I stared out the window. We passed St Paul’s Cathedral, the Town Hall and the Manchester Unity Building. Then stopped for a while opposite the State Library, outside Melbourne Central. The tourists made their move. More passengers flocked on. Then moving again, we passed RMIT University, and trundled on up the slope towards Parkville.

At the Melbourne campus I walked past my building. I didn’t feel like dropping in at the office that morning – and anyway there wasn’t time. As I headed for the venue I decided that any further replies to emails would have to wait, until Day 3 was done.

In University House the mood was relaxed, and our students enthused. But as I talked my way through PowerPoint slides on Mintzberg, MOOCs and budget crises, more messages trickled in. I caught myself pausing mid-sentence, distracted by the thought of what each new ping from the phone in my jacket pocket might bring.

In the breaks I flicked through them quickly, bracing for further flak. But some were positive. A few from Melbourne colleagues on campus that day, or in Canberra. Others from people I’d never met:

Geoff, really enjoyed the article you inspired in today’s Oz. well done. Great analysis, which will have long term benefits. Thanks Geoff – and not surprisingly, the article has been much discussed here! Hi Geoff It was you! I was given your paper for blind peer review but didn’t pick that it was you. Geoff, Thanks for the clarification. Your conclusion does not surprise me. Dear Geoff, Congratulations on such a well-crafted article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. I shake my head in disbelief every time I see the OECD statistics misused… 

The angry ones were the hardest to ignore. In the coffee breaks I found myself drafting long explanations in my head. And in between presentations, stealing time off-stage to write notes to myself. That evening I would start replying. Even for those who’d read the paper, it seemed that I had a lot of explaining to do.

To me Hare’s report was an invitation to a public beheading. Or a least, an awful lot of social distancing. I kept waiting to read a scathing critique in The Australian. But that week there wasn’t any public response at all. Nor any the next. The following week I arranged to meet a colleague for coffee, and hear more about Canberra: “I’ll be the one in dark glasses and bulletproof vest, carrying a copy of The Pelican Brief.”

Thus far I’d seen the flak as an over-reaction, easily resolved by clarifying the paper’s argument. But soon it emerged that the Journal publisher was concerned. Due in part to the media coverage, the paper might have to be retracted, for legal reasons. Hoping to head off any further complaints I drafted a reply to The Australian report.

On lies, damned lies and OECD comparisons

Draft, 22 March 2016

My journal article is not as sensational as Julie Hare’s report (9 March) suggests. The HES headline appears to quote me directly: Funding claims rely on data ‘misuse’. The article did not use this term. Nor did it say that vice-chancellors or Universities Australia, in relying on advice to inform the advocacy that their leadership often entails, knowingly cite flawed OECD figures. The paper examines how hard it is to compare the way we finance our university sector with other approaches elsewhere. In our public debate, OECD comparisons often misconstrue the significance of a particular set of statistics. From this, flawed claims often follow about how poorly funded our universities must be … the common denominator for “second last” status is GDP. For years, Australian GDP growth has outpaced the OECD’s. Since the financial crisis began in 2008, the growth gap has widened. From 2000 to 2014, Australian GDP grew by 50%. But in Greece, Italy and Portugal it grew 1% or less; in Denmark, 8%; Germany, 15%; and France, 16%. The OECD average was 26%. GDP disparities this large alter the basis on which our apparent decline in public spending has been tracked year by year, against an assumed but elusive OECD “norm” …

But at The Australian, Hare didn’t want to print my response.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 24 March 2016 11:54 AM
To: Hare, Julie
Subject: OECD paper 

Dear Julie, Can you confirm if you’re considering publishing my response to your report on my paper? … You’ll appreciate that I’m concerned about this – and so are others – because you have framed it as an accusation of ‘misuse’ – in one case serial misuse – which is not the intent of the paper, and not what it actually says. I look forward to hearing back. Regards, Geoff

Geoff If I publish your article, it implies my interpretation of your article was wrong. I don’t believe it was wrong. You might not like that interpretation but it’s valid … Julie

Julie … you’re entitled to your interpretation of my paper. But as its author I do think I have a right to respond with my own interpretation. Then readers can read the paper itself and make up their own minds. I hope you’ll reconsider … Regards, Geoff

A week went by before Hare reconfirmed that she wouldn’t print my reply. By then it was clear that the Centre where I worked didn’t want me to reply to Hare’s report either. In a university context, having my work trashed with no process for redress seemed Kafkaesque. Who knew that my rough reckonings on OECD statistics could trigger such rough reckonings? The plot was about to thicken…

Further reading…

The argument, discussed in The Conversation:

Geoff Sharrock, October 2015, OECD comparisons don’t prove our unis are underfunded

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s