Refutation, refutation, refutation! In the days and weeks that followed the Canberra conference, my paper didn’t prompt any public comment at all. No-one on the “attacked” list came out to rebut its case in The Australian.

But privately, the first complaints had landed within hours. By the end of Day 3 in University House, I was keen to get away from the Masters program. I needed time to process what had happened. And to prepare for what might prove to be a Night of the Long Emails.

It’s hard to debate a 7000 word paper full of charts and tables by email. On the other hand, these were people I knew. They had my 2015 Conversation outline of the GDP problem. In the Journal I’d elaborated: OECD reporting of the effects of the global financial crisis has highlighted further how GDP growth affects its indicators … Estonia cut its public spending on educational institutions significantly, by 10% … (but) Estonia’s comparison rate of public spending actually rose for this indicator, because Estonian GDP had fallen by more than 10% …

My conclusion was that governments shouldn’t take the sector’s “second-lowest in the OECD” story seriously. And in funding debates it was better to rely on domestic data which gave a clearer picture anyway: The overly simple metrics on which such claims rest are not a reliable basis on which to compare the public financing of universities across OECD nations …

But my Centre colleagues saw no such problem. Experts had cited these metrics for years. And were well aware of the issues I’d raised (?). My case was no more than a “straw man attack” – misrepresenting views and disrespecting expertise. Having aired their umbrage, they saw no need to debate the substance further.

From “The Freedom of the Press” – unused preface to Animal Farm, 1945

The tone was set by an early response to the email I’d sent that morning. It reaffirmed Hare’s report in The Australian, that this was a misguided attack piece.

From: Simon Marginson
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 7:42 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis; Emmaline Bexley; Hare, Julie
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

I will refrain from a point by pit refutation. No doubt Geoff Sharrock would like to have a running debate for months about his paper, but there’s too much bile and bias in it for me to enter into a reasoned argument. I note the numerous instances of the use of selective quotation out of context—never a promising beginning to a discussion. The heading ‘beautiful lies’ is too close to abuse to pass without comment. I must register a mild objection at the use of this terminology by Geoff, which is unpleasant, unnecessary and inaccurate. I also mildly object to being singled out as his primary target, as apparently the principal advocate of a view about low public funding in Australia. This argument has been put repeatedly by many commentators, for many years, including (frequently) by the OECD itself. Why not have a chat about it to Barry McGaw, the Australian former head of the OECD Education programme? He’s on the record on this point.  Further and briefly:

  1. It takes a massive act of intellectual courage to deny the relevance of international comparisons in the present environment, but it is equally unwise. I see that kind of parochialism in the UK at times. It comes from UKIP and the Brexit side of the Tory Party.   Self-referential in a globalised world. I find that quite remarkable these days, and it has always puzzled me why Geoff has persisted with that line of thought. It just isn’t intellectually tenable. It is hard to defend any in-principle restriction on the kind of knowledge that contributes to responsible, intellectually coherent explanation.
  2. No one has ever denied that Australia has relatively high private funding, or that its total funding for higher education is at or above OECD average levels. This partly explains the apparent contradiction that Geoff claims to discover between the argument about low public funding, and the relative health and success of Australian universities.
  3. Private funding has different implications for facilities, spending and choices than does public funding, as every vice-chancellor knows. Much of what is earned in private funding is fed back into the extra costs of raising it. Increases in public funding can go straight to improvements. Market dependence is less happy for universities. Universities all over the world could tell Geoff this (but presumably he doesn’t believe the relevance of international comparisons, only comparisons with the Grattan Institute!)
  4. The fact that class sizes/staffing ratios have not improved while Australian higher education has been flourishing etc might cause Geoff to think. Position in the rankings is generated by sustaining and improving research but in a resource strapped environment something has to give. 
  5. If GDP goes up why shouldn’t expenditure on higher education also go up? It is widely agreed that the failure to use the additional resources generated by the resources boom, for education and infrastructure, was a major missed opportunity. Presumably Geoff sees no problem. He’s certainly not complaining.  All the best to all Simon

There wasn’t time to reply that morning. I’d just finished my second presentation in University House when the second reply landed. I sat down and sighed as I read it.

From: Emmaline Bexley
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 12:33 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Simon Marginson; Sophia Arkoudis; Richard James
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

I’ll weigh in, but I have knocked down the cc list a fair bit here. I agree with Simon’s points about your interpretations, and will not take time to add more. It really would have been worth your talking to Barry, or indeed any of us that you mention. Geoff, you do not raise any points about the different economic contexts in which nations’ education systems rest, or about the differences in credential distributions between countries, or in the variations in revenue mix, or great variety of institutional types and typologies within and across nations, of which the rest of us are unaware. Since so many of us cite the OECD report, it might have been reasonable to conclude that we, too, read it in detail. People refer to the data because, all things considered (and I think I can speak for all of us that we really do consider these things), it is a very good tool to get at broad, system level differences. It would be impossible to ‘publish a detailed counter argument’ since your own argument rests almost entirely on the assumption that your colleagues are unaware that system level data by necessity puts to one side variations within systems. A response would hardly be a compelling read. You agree that per student public funding has fallen over the long term. If you read the pieces colleagues have written, and that you cite as evidence that we use “unedifying factoids plucked from the latest edition of Education at a Glance” in our “‘expert’ commentary” (nice use of quotation marks) you will find that this is generally in the context of questioning the social policy rationale for such a diminution in funding. Your argument is not with the substantive points your colleagues raise, it seems, but rather a pernickety complaint about the way they couch those points. Putting aside our differences of opinion about what conclusions might be drawn from the OECD data, it is the overarching narrative and tone of the piece that floors me. It tells us nothing we do not already know about the data, and it’s only novel contribution is its straw man attack on colleagues. The ‘Implications’ section is breathtaking. As Jane Austen might say, it is ungentlemanly. Emmaline

So…they were right and my peer-reviewed analysis was wrong. And I hadn’t been much of an ally to the greater good for uni budgets or progressive social policy. But neither had faced the problem: why rank rates of spending on this basis while ignoring GDP growth? By now I was having trouble repressing my inner farmboy: Yeah-nah, it’s complicated, sure. But second-lowest in the OECD? Bullshit. Yeah-nah, lots of people read it that way. Sure, it can look that way, I’ve seen the charts. But let’s face it, it’s a furphy. The real problem here is bugger-all analysis, piss-poor transparency and a shitload of confirmation bias. If you’ll pardon my French...

(I decided not to share these thoughts – it might have seemed uncollegial. And I’d read somewhere that “frank and fearless feedback” in group situations could backfire, with email in particular. So instead I set out to recap the points they’d missed, express regrets for having caused offence, and explain the paper’s ironic title…)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 at 05:46
To: Simon William Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure, Richard James, Glyn Davis, Sophia Arkoudis, Emmaline Bexley
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon, thanks for reading this so quickly, and for including me in your response. Be assured, I do not seek a point for point running debate over a period of months. Perhaps the scholarly refutation of my analysis, if feasible, could come from a PhD student with an interest in this area. Meanwhile, without defaulting to a point by point argument here, a few clarifications of my paper and the perspective behind it may help … this week’s paper does not argue that all OECD comparisons are irrelevant; its analysis is based in part on reconciling different sets of OECD and domestic data to illustrate the extreme difficulty of meaningful like for like comparisons. This is particularly the case with the OECD metric cited most often in our domestic public debate … When offered in isolation, without accounting for different rates of GDP growth let alone anything else, the accuracy and relevance of these metrics come into question … I’m sorry if you (and others) feel deeply offended by all of this; please do not mistake my irony for bile. Obviously the title of the piece refers to the ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ comment attributed to Disraeli; and it also invokes Mark Twain’s observation about how strange Australian history can look to visitors: “It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”  Regards, Geoff

Neither of my colleagues was interested in Twain or Disraeli – or irony in general.

Geoff The implication in your published paper that there has been some kind of academic fraud (it is not stated, but it is implied) is highly unfortunate. But your paper is now out there and nothing will change that fact. It is likely that your own reputation will be affected at least as much as the reputations of those you have sought to denigrate. I do not have anything further to add to what has already been said. All the best Simon

Oh Geoff, That’s just silly. You can’t pretend that stating “On a topic where anyone working in a public university might as well be wearing a fluoro vest labelled ‘CAUTION: VESTED INTERESTS AT WORK’, why should governments take this kind of ‘expert’ commentary seriously?” was not crossing a scholarly, collegial (legal?) line … Let it drop. You’ve gone too far and behaved very poorly. Let it rest. Emmaline

In fact, the paper had framed the problem as “dogma eats homework”. Near the end, I’d noted that Dr Marginson criticised dogma and cherry-picking by other researchers. Objecting to the same kind of criticism didn’t seem very consistent. And it had been a long day. My work had been misreported. Those now busily dissing and dismissing it were missing the point. (Perhaps, as a pro-Brexit politician put it later that year, I’d “had enough of experts who get things wrong“). My inner farmboy was thinking: Yeah-nah, should’ve added a footnote on that bloody Twain ref. Oops. But we’ve all heard of “lies and statistics”, OK? And as a sector we do have a vested interest, yes? And the fact that you’re offended doesn’t make you right, right?

(Again, I decided not to share these thoughts.)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 8:46 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis; Emmaline Bexley
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon Enough lecturing. For the record, the main aim of the piece is to expose error and overreach – yours included – in the public debate. It challenges common assumptions that are often accepted at face value, and also are well suited to sectoral advocacy for funding. Some of the commentary from within the sector is analysis, some is advocacy, some is both. That’s all. I do not expect you to admit any error or overreach. Fine. And since you raise it, if I wanted to suggest some kind of academic fraud, I might publish something along the lines of your own public commentary: “THERE are two main approaches to the use of data in education policy research. In one school of thought the core objective is to mount the most compelling argument in support of predetermined goals. Before information is collected, the desired outcome is in place. The researcher (here an advocate) conducts selective studies and cherry-picks data from other studies, for facts that support the case. Contrary facts are quietly pushed under the carpet … For the other school of thought, the core objective is to assemble a range of data throwing light on the realities of education, economy and society. Minds are open and data collection takes place at one remove from policy agendas…The first approach is taken by the Grattan Institute in its recent report Graduate Winners…The second approach is used by the OECD in its annual publication Education at a Glance…” No need to respond, at all. Geoff

From: Simon Marginson
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 9:08 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis; Emmaline Bexley
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Geoff I stand by my reasoned critique of the aforementioned Grattan report, from which you quote selectively. That critique did not include personal attacks on individuals, nor did it entail an implication of academic fraud. I have no obligation to continue to discuss your paper, or any other matter, with you. I would be grateful if I could ‘unsubscribe’ from this correspondence, to the extent that you are involved. Thanks Simon

And that was the last I’d hear, directly. I didn’t reply to recall Andrew Norton’s reply to Marginson in The Australian back then: Marginson presents me and my Grattan colleagues as ideological hacks who selectively chose evidence that supports pre-determined conclusions…

The next day was the last in our Masters program. It had gone well. We farewelled our students, tidied up and returned to our offices. Earlier that week I’d drafted some minor amendments to the paper: I now added a footnote to go with its title, and some edits to address the distress. Perhaps my Centre colleagues would cool off over the weekend.

A few days later, I followed up with a reply to Dr Bexley’s “straw man attack” reading. I apologised for any distress caused, and said I’d amend the paper to clarify the points that she had raised. I then spelt out why “33rd out of 34 OECD countries” wasn’t a meaningful way to compare spending. At this point a message from the Centre director (Richard James) and the Institute director (Leo Goedegebuure) asked us not to include the Vice-Chancellor in our exchanges. Dr Bexley didn’t want to discuss it anyway: I’d also quite like not to be included in these rants.

Years later I would read these replies as examples of how not to refute a critique. Together with their exits from the exchange, the responses illustrated how many ways there are for scholars and other experts to avoid facing a substantive case.

Examples of defensive reasoning, without refutation (some lines are paraphrased)

By 2016 I’d published quite a few papers with the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Over the weekend before the Australian reporting I’d been dealing with their production people on minor edits, after they’d published my paper online.

I’d kept the Journal editor posted about these, and on the Australian reporting. But not on my exchanges with Centre colleagues. However, the following Monday I received an early morning email from him:

Dear Geoff, I suppose it was only to be expected that pressure would soon be brought on the editor. Simon Marginson has requested that in the event that you do not retract the article, that I include a statement disassociating the Journal from “Sharrock’s breach of ethics”. What do you say? Regards, Ian

So far that year my work had been peer-reviewed, edited, published, trashed in the media and dismissed by colleagues disturbed by my lack of faith. And now a demand to retract. But I had a train to catch, and classes to prepare. And as it turned out, a very long way to go…

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