In any normal academic debate, a reply in the Journal later that year could have noted that one of my paper’s assumptions was wrong. In the OECD report it drew on, the Australian rate of spending had risen. But in the next OECD report, later that year, it fell back. While my case didn’t rely on this, any correction may have offered comfort to those on the other side.

But here there would be no normal academic debate. While I had hoped that my paper would “stir debate” – as Hare reported – that prospect had been derailed by what a professor at another university called meta-argument allegations – taking offence or making accusations instead of debating the substance, on its merits.

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

As the publisher’s alarm about legal risk showed, I had two problems: not just the complaint, but the media misreport. Each echoed the other. The Josh advice to pull the publication from Taylor & Francis Online was a matter of urgency given the coverage in the media (and social media). I was struck by the irony: my note to advise the professor not to believe the media story drew a reply that firmly reinforced it, copied to the journalist herself. And now T&F was highlighting legal risk, in part because the media story reinforced the complaint.

Meanwhile, armed with the opinion of one of the most celebrated professors of higher education in the world, Hare with her editor hat on would refuse to print my own account of my paper’s case in The Australian (Chapter 4): If I publish your article, it implies my interpretation of your article was wrong. I don’t believe it was wrong...

My inner farmboy was thinking: bloody hell – should’ve just sent it to Tim Dodd at the Fin Review. By now besieged on two fronts, I put most of my time into the concerns Centre colleagues had raised. I didn’t think they’d read my paper closely. But it seemed fair to clarify the details they’d taken amiss. Before the T&F advice on the legal risk landed, I had sent the first of a series of follow-ups to the points Marginson had raised in our first exchange, two weeks earlier (Chapter 5).

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 22 March 2016 3:50 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis; Emmaline Bexley
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon, As you probably know from Julie Hare, the paper she reported on two weeks ago was subject to some minor amendments, before it is to be published in print. One was about an ambiguity where I’d introduced one of your commentaries; I asked Julie to avoid quoting this section in her reporting. I infer from the fact that you cc’d your initial response to Julie that there had been prior communication between you on this; if so she may have passed the amendment on to you at the time. Over the last week I have checked back through the quotes used in my paper, to confirm if any were taken out of context in a way that distorts their meaning. With the possible exception of the amended section, I don’t believe they are. I have also sought a further amendment, to address a valid criticism raised by Emmaline, which concerns the “vested interests” line toward the end of the paper. At that point I failed to add that along with sectoral interests, most of the advocacy I’ve seen seems animated more by its concern for student interests as funding cuts loom; and by wider visions of how a better-financed sector can add value more broadly. On this point I’ve offered Emmaline a sincere apology for the omission, which I should also extend to you. More generally, I have taken steps to tone down the final section of the paper, bearing in mind the points you have made below. That said, I stand by the technical analysis and overall conclusions of the paper. And I’m now advised that you have put pressure on the journal to enforce a retraction, or include a statement formally dissociating the journal from what you describe as “Sharrock’s breach of ethics”. With respect, that seems a little extreme. I expect the journal will offer you the usual right of reply instead, after taking advice on this. All the best, Geoff

There was no reply from Marginson. Meanwhile I’d found time to write a short summary of my paper’s case for the Australian in response to Hare’s report. I sent a copy to those handling the complaint to the Journal, to inform their legal advice.

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. … 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 Since Julie Hare’s report, I’ve had quite a bit of email. One criticism concerns a line my paper drew between sectoral interests and OECD comparisons. I failed to add that most of the claims I’ve seen seem animated more by a concern for student interests as funding cuts loom; and by wider visions of how a better-financed sector can serve Australia’s future. For that omission I’ve offered some apologies, and taken steps to amend the article before it moves from online to print publication

I also sent a copy to the Vice-Chancellor, and others that I’d emailed on 9 March who’d been named in Hare’s report. The VC responded the following morning: An eloquent response Geoff … and a generous acknowledgement of concerns while clear about those points which stand. Best wishes – Glyn

I sent a copy to Richard and Leo as well. I had already asked Leo to let me post this on the Institute website, if Hare refused to print it. But Richard didn’t support any response to the Australian. While it made no direct mention of Marginson, I assumed he was concerned that my reply might rekindle the debate about the paper and its wider implications, that we hadn’t been having.

From: Richard James
Sent: Wednesday, 23 March 2016 6:05AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: your HES report on my article on OECD comparisons

Geoff, Others may not agree, but personally I see little value in sifting through the issues – it’s time for everyone to move on. I fear that further public commentary will simply draw attention to and inflame an already sorry situation. All the best, Richard 

After all that had happened, I didn’t see how an outline of my paper, correcting a misrepresentation and ending on a note of apology, could be seen as inflammatory. My reply didn’t mention Marginson or Bexley directly, or refer to Centre colleagues at all. But Leo agreed with Richard. He wasn’t prepared to put it on the Institute website. At the time I didn’t see why they seemed so unfussed by the fact that one of their own scholars had had his work trashed in the media. Or why, in view of Hare’s hatchet job (see Chapter 9), they were so unwilling to allow me to set the record straight. After all, a lot of senior people in the sector were named in Hare’s report, as targets of my “extraordinary attack”.

But perhaps they’d heard from more people about my paper than I had. (Or perhaps, as I would often wonder that year, I had slipped into a parallel university where open exchange was frowned upon, in cases like mine.)

After receiving the legal advice from Josh later that week (Chapter 7), I updated the professor and the others at the University on my response to the Australian reporting.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Saturday, 26 March 2016 12:58 pm
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure, Richard James, Glyn Davis, Sophia Arkoudis, Emmaline Bexley
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons – reporting in the Australian

Simon Attached for your information is my response to Julie Hare’s reporting of my article. Among other things, this makes clear that its intent is not to accuse you (or anyone else) of academic fraud. It reaffirms my initial advice … Julie Hare advised that she still believes her initial interpretation was valid. In my request to reconsider this stance, I’ve made the following points:

  • The paper went through blind peer review with four reviewers, none of whom saw it as an accusation of academic fraud on the part of commentators, such as yourself.
  • The 11 instances of your commentary referred to in the media report are not given in my paper as a series of examples of ‘data misuse’. Most are there simply to map how our relative under-funding narrative has developed over time, as the % of GDP gap has grown in the OECD’s statistical table.
  • The OECD comparison narrative in Australia began as detailed reporting and analysis of trends and their implications. But more recently (as I see it) the narrative itself has become its own form of ‘dogma’ … even when our domestic spending rises, in recent commentary it still often looks like it’s falling …

What surprised me about your initial response … is that some of my analysis simply reiterates points made in 2009 in Brendan O’Reilly’s commentary, “Misinformed debate on public funding for universities” … the main contribution of my paper has been to highlight GDP growth disparities as a generally unrecognised contextual factor … there are amendments to be made to the article before it goes from online to print. These will correct some minor inaccuracies and seek to address the concerns that have been raised … If you believe I have misrepresented any quote of yours in the current version of the paper, or misread its implications … I’d be grateful if you would let me know, so that this can be addressed. Assuming the journal offers you a right of reply in the print edition, this would avoid any need to argue points already conceded; or dwell on minor inaccuracies inessential to the argument and its wider conclusions. Regards, Geoff

Despite the earlier calls from Richard and Leo to leave Glyn out of this, I had decided not to comply. I didn’t see the point. And it was soon clear that I’d get more moral support from the VC than from local management.

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Sunday, 27 March 2016 12:12 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons – reporting in the Australian

Thanks Geoff, and my condolences – it is not pleasant to be caught in such a controversy, even less so when the gulf proves hard to bridge.  You have been clear in your responses and honest about any failings in expression or analysis.  It is hard to ask more of anyone. Regards, Glyn

There was still no response from Marginson, that I could see. The T&F legal advice had me worried. Over the Easter break I spent time rechecking my quotes against the professor’s commentary, and the OECD reports. I was keen to be sure that if a legal case arose, I could defend what I’d written.

On April 2, I sent him another email with some minor “fact-checking” queries. Again, I invite you to point out any error you find on my part. Regards, Geoff But again, there was no reply. By April 6, I’d completed my final fact-check. I’d found more OECD data to confirm my case. And to show how, at times, the professor’s claims were inaccurate. This time I would suggest withdrawing the complaint.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 3:36 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons – rechecking of quotes

Simon Further to earlier messages, I’ve now finished rechecking my paper’s use of quotes from your work; and I have one further detail to add. The page 12 quote … was given as an example of ‘exaggerated’ funding decline relative to international peers (in that it overlooks the effect of GDP growth disparities between Australia and the OECD when comparisons are made): ‘in 2010 Australia spent 1.6 per cent of its GDP on tertiary education. . .We are no longer ahead of the pack. In 1995, Australia likewise spent 1.6 per cent of GDP on tertiary education. The OECD average was then 1.2 per cent. It has now risen to 1.7 per cent. The world is increasing participation and increasing spending. We are just increasing participation. . .’

What my paper didn’t say at that point is that my interpretation of this as an (unintentional) exaggeration is consistent with other data provided in the OECD’s 2013 Education at a Glance report, from which you draw … A table on page 208 … shows Australian public spending rising 42% from 2000 to 2010, against the OECD average of 40% … it is hard to see how these OECD figures can be reconciled with any general claim of no increase in Australian spending over that period, based simply on a % share of GDP. In sum, while there are some minor details of analysis and expression in the paper that I hope to be able to amend, once again I stand by the article’s substantive critique and overall conclusions. From this and earlier messages, I hope it is also quite clear that the paper as it stands seeks to present an analysis of common fallacies, not a series of accusations of fraud. If you decide to reconsider the demand you have made, that the journal enforce a retraction of my article, I suggest you contact the editor Ian Dobson directly. Regards, Geoff

(If all this seems a bit technical, gentle reader – well, it is. But it is not that complex. You can see what I mean by looking through some charts here – including those below…)

Data source: OECD 2013, page 208
Data source: OECD 2013, page 179

Again, no reply from the professor. But this time my note drew an immediate response from the Centre Director. For reasons that still weren’t clear to me, he reaffirmed that he wanted the Vice-Chancellor kept out of the loop on this.

From: Richard James
Sent: Wednesday, 6 April 2016 3:47 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons – rechecking of quotes

Geoff, I will not reiterate all of my earlier advice to you which you have found unwelcome, but I feel obliged to stress as strongly as I can that copying in the VC is unhelpful here. Richard 

By now it was clear too that Hare would not publish my reply. On this front, Leo had made it clear that as far as her misreporting was concerned, I was on my own: I do not want to further give oxygen to this discussion … I have no problem with your article. You send it to Julie who did something else with it than you expected. That can happen …

In other words: kindly shut up Dr Sharrock – your views on OECD statistics have caused enough trouble already. Angry professors aside, the following week the politics of all this seemed clearer, when the Centre circulated its new Communications Strategy:

The Melbourne CSHE and LH Martin Institute maintain good relations with a small group of influential higher education reporters and media, which include the influential Higher Education supplement of The Australian, The Conversation, Campus Review and relative newcomer Campus Morning Mail. These relations have helped promote us as go‐to experts on matters affecting tertiary education … It would be beneficial for the overall reputation of the Centre that these relations are maintained and, in some cases, built further. 

As the Australian‘s higher education editor, Hare was seen by Centre management as a strategic ally. The fact that she had misreported my critique, and the concerns I was raising about it, didn’t seem to count. Part of my problem, it emerged, was that Hare too was a firm believer in the OECD metrics I’d been calling unreliable. In her view, even in countries like Portugal, governments invested far more than in Australia, in the only way that counted: as a share of GDP. And at the time, many leaders and experts in the sector – including some at our own Centre – seemed happy to concur.

But the problem was simple: if each country spent 1% of GDP each year, real spending growth in Australia soon outpaces many others. In the metrics people kept citing, Australia’s GDP growth masked its spending growth. Portugal’s lack of GDP growth masked its lack of spending growth. So any claim that Portugal spends more as a share of GDP meant little.

Data source: OECD National Accounts at a Glance
Data source: Education at a Glance 2019

The following year I lost my job at the Institute (others were to follow). This brought my association with the Centre to a rather abrupt end. But later in 2017 I would learn that the Centre had made Hare an Honorary Fellow.

2 thoughts on “Diary of an academic infidel – Chapter 8

  1. How the Centre can make a journalist at The Oz, one of the fiercest opponents of any public spending in the sector, an Hon Fellow is completely baffling. The Murdoch press loathe and detest the sector, and pretty much all it stands for. Why reward their minions?

    Meantime, as a very longstanding observer of the HE sector, and with a career of over 30 years now, and even as a former colleague of yours, I am still loathe to make my strong support for your position on funding too public – there are so many senior people whose narrative it contradicts. And they won’t hesitate to silence a voice, as we have seen in your case.

    Peter

  2. Peter, thanks for reading. In fairness, the journalist reports very widely on HE, and not in ways that simply reflect any Murdoch press view. In fact the journalist now writes for the Fairfax press. Most of her reporting seems well-balanced to me.
    Regarding positions on university funding, I don’t oppose funding increases, at all – just poor use of evidence. When people ask whose side I’m on in debates like these, I usually say: “I’m on the side of accuracy – a basic precondition for the pursuit of truth and knowledge.”

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