I had never seen the Institute Director so visibly disturbed.

That year was always going to be difficult for the Institute. Our $10 million set-up grant had been spent. Freely in the early years, then more frugally. The plan had been that in time, program revenue would stop falling short of operating costs. But it hadn’t happened.

So by 2016 the last thing Leo needed was unhappy stakeholders.

For years I’d watched him deal with the University’s internal politics – a minefield of tribes and territories – with a deft and patient hand. Apart from the occasional eye-roll or head-shake at the buttressed egos, brazen gambits and baffling bureaucracy that academic leaders face from time to time, Leo’s style was unflappably cool and calm.

But not that morning.

We’d met one-to-one only rarely that year. Leo’s schedule was busy, and each of us worked off-campus at times. That day I’d boarded the train more sleep-deprived than usual. To awaken my brain for the day ahead, I had sat with my eyes closed, listening to Bohemian Rhapsody:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landside,
No escape from reality…

As Gwil and Glyn had relayed from Canberra in March, my paper had “caused a stir” and been “much discussed!” at the conference (Chapter 4). But in the months that followed, our sector’s “world-lagging” messaging stayed on-script. In The Australian Belinda Robinson, the CEO of Universities Australia, would write that we ranked 27th in the OECD with funding of just 0.9% of GDP, well behind countries like the UK. Ditto the Group of Eight, in the Australian Financial Review: at 0.9% we were 27th and trailing Mexico and Spain. (And so it would go as the years slipped by. In 2017, sector leaders would attest to Canberra journalists that our public funding for higher education was “second-lowest in the OECD“.)

Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see…

My view had won few friends and zero influence. But for the rest of that year, I’d hear of no complaints from Canberra – even working at an Institute with Belinda Robinson on its Board. And yet, the signs were there that others did. As a sympathetic senior colleague would suggest in late 2016, I was the sector’s “most unpopular person”.

Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening me
Galileo, Galileo
Galileo, Galileo
Galileo, Figaro…

(Looking back, in an alternate universe Hare’s report may not have meant much more than 15 minutes of infamy. On such matters, it emerged, cancel culture on campus did not employ any visible or trackable procedure. Its targets were not subject to formal letters of complaint. Nor hunted down by social media mobs, as with other modern forms of heresy. Mostly my case would be handled through informal and invisible back-channels. The wider effect, as the months slipped by, was a slight chill in otherwise collegial work settings: minimalist responses (if at all) to emails, in tones of icy politeness; the odd blank stare or frosty glare in group settings; and creeping isolation.

In T-shirt terms: Harry Potter and the Deathly Silence.

He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity…

As soon as I’d closed the door behind me, Leo began pacing around his office with his head in his hands: “Can’t you see the big picture?” he expostulated. It wasn’t clear at the time which particular big picture he meant. But I could imagine a few possibilities. Risks to the sector’s under-funding narrative? Affronted patrons? Media allies? Phone calls from Canberra?

I had already replied to Richard’s latest cautionary email with a terse: Noted. If this were a Scorsese film about university politics, Leo’s task may have been to convey, with plausible deniability, that certain concerns had arisen. And to emphasise that my hapless attempts to defend my work were unhelpful. Or inappropriate. He didn’t expressly direct me to stop. And there were very few specifics on offer about the state of play. But by the end of the meeting he could report elsewhere that my latest response had been: Noted.

Returning to my office, I sat at my desk. Stacked on my bookshelf were a dozen editions of the Journal. Some were filled with our Masters student papers, that I’d edited for publication. In what now seemed a fitting tribute to spinelessness, I had kept them on their sides, instead of upright.

Can’t you see the big picture? Not for the first time, I wondered if I’d slipped into a parallel University. One that didn’t revolve around the idea of free and open exchange at all. Beneath the pile of Journal editions I took down an old copy of Australian Universities Review. A decade earlier I’d published an unusual article there, about changes in modern universities. It began with an outline of what had happened to Galileo, back in the 17th century.


Image: Cristiano Banti (1857) Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (Wikimedia Commons)

Here I’d sketched the rise of academic freedom in the Western tradition, drawing on the reading I’d done for my Ph.D. research on Leading Change in an Australian University. Since the 1990s at least, Australian universities often saw themselves as in some form of financial and intellectual crisis. This was due to the rise of what many described as economic rationalism or neo-liberalism on the part of governments and corporate-managerialism on the part of universities…

Observing the night sky from a cathedral turret, Copernicus deduced that despite common perception and expert opinion, the universe did not revolve around the Earth after all. In an age when a radical thinker might publish and perish, this view was first circulated privately in 1514 … A century later Galileo found how unshakable a shared framework of belief can be, once embedded in a society’s culture and institutions … In 1633 a provocative manuscript got past the Censor, went into print and caused offence. Galileo was tried and punished for teaching Copernican theory as a Truth, not a hypothesis, and his sentence was proclaimed in every university. For Western scholars today the lessons seem obvious. Intellectual freedom is essential to the pursuit of truth, the advance of knowledge and the well-being of civilised societies. Academia must be allowed its ‘license to kill’ what passes for common knowledge, and scholars their right to ‘speak truth to power’ with impunity. It took time to enshrine these principles. In a Prussian reprise of Galileo’s experience in Rome, the philosopher Kant was rebuked in 1794 for publishing unorthodox views on theology. In response he developed an argument for a limited form of academic freedom, framed as an essential function of a university …

My 2007 argument had been that modern university communities relied too much on “pre-Copernican” assumptions about the centrality of their own role in human progress. This, despite the advent of a “post-Copernican” era of knowledge production: … knowledge has become globally distributed, hyper-abundant and hyper-accessible … Users and producers of advanced knowledge can now work outside academia … Most of these developments can be attributed directly or indirectly to the good work of universities. The irony is their boomerang effect. Each advance chips away at the historic monopoly of universities themselves, as enclaves of expertise around which the universe of knowledge revolves. Their niche in higher learning, built over centuries, has allowed them to occupy a central role in regulating the canon underpinning national cultures; setting the boundaries between intellectual disciplines; supervising the production of learned works; and providing expert guidance to lay communities and government authorities …

The paper went on to outline how universities proclaimed their importance – and also their authority – in shaping the progress of human civilisation:

The Magna Charta Universitatum, declared in Bologna in 1988, expresses this idea of the university. It envisions a scholarly enclave, separate from society but central to its well-being, supported by society’s resources but immune from the mundane concerns of government, industry and other institutions: “The future of mankind depends largely on cultural, scientific and technical development … built up in centres of culture, knowledge and research … The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies … it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching … (it) must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power…

Image sources: AUCC Momentum report 2008 (Canada). Ptolemaic system (Wikimedia commons)

I had heard, years later, that at the time the Copernicus paper was at risk of not being published at all in Australian Universities Review.

And now, thinking back to my “big picture” meeting with Leo, I recalled his advice years earlier on an opinion piece I’d written for The Australian in 2012. This was a commentary reflecting on a small bucket of media criticism – including from Marginson – that had landed in the wake of that infamous Grattan Institute report (Chapter 12). (Andrew Norton was a former colleague: some years earlier we’d both worked in the vice-chancellor’s office, with Glyn.)

From: Leo Christiaan Johannes Goedegebuure
Sent: Monday, 8 October 2012 7:54 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Opinion piece 

Hi Geoff, Thanks for letting me have a read of your opinion piece on the Norton debate. I assume that your intention was to critique the critique on his publication, but that doesn’t come across too well. Rather it reads like you having a go at Simon which I don’t think is very helpful for the debate. It would have gained in strength if you had taken a more ‘distant’ position and argued why in general these critiques fail to convince. As it now stands it doesn’t offer an alternative explanation or interpretation to the equally selective picking of which you deem Simon guilty. This makes it personal rather than substantive, which is why I do not consider this one of your better pieces, sorry to have to say so. In its current form this indeed will draw some flack from across the corridor and will raise a few eyebrows in the outside world. If that is what you want, beware of the potential fallout. If you aim for a more substantive debate, I would consider rewriting the piece. Cheers, Leo

Reading this after dinner that evening, I saw that Leo had managed to miss my substantive point. The Marginson commentary had suggested that the Grattan report relied on “cherry-picking” domestic data, while ignoring OECD data. But that too could be “cherry-picked” to make a case – as I had done here, to illustrate. The end-note of my counter-critique made it clear that my main concern was with debate quality: None of this leads me to support less public funding for Australian higher education. But I wish someone would present better arguments than those I’ve seen.

Well Leo, I thought – if a call for better arguments “raises eyebrows” in our line of work, so be it. In the meantime, one way to test his concern was to let the parties know what was coming. Later that evening I sent a copy of my piece on Media responses to Graduate Winners to Marginson and Norton, cc’d to Leo and another Institute colleague.

(In the event, The Australian would give it a less neutral headline, to publish two days later as Public funding needs a more convincing case.)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 8 October 2012 9:00 PM
To: Simon Marginson; Andrew Norton
Cc: Leo Christiaan Johan Goedegebuure; Peter James Bentley
Subject: opinion piece on media responses to Grattan report 

Simon and Andrew (and Leo and Peter), Today I submitted an opinion piece to The Australian, reflecting on media responses to Graduate Winners. While I disagree with the central proposal in Andrew’s report, intellectually speaking I’m not yet sure exactly why. And I have not been persuaded by much of the public commentary in response to it, which does not seem to me to do the report justice. In this I would include your critique of it last week, Simon, which I’ve used here as a vehicle to explore things I think have been lacking in much of the media response. Given the space constraints, I have not tried to reference other commentators on every point tackled here … These are clearly very complex issues … if anyone thinks I’ve misconstrued their argument or intention, please let me know. Regards, Geoff

In their media commentary, Norton’s critics have generally relied more on rhetoric than reason. Simon Marginson’s comparison last week … of Graduate Winners with the OECD’s Education at a Glance is a case in point, suggesting that the former offers dogma and the latter, enlightenment … Marginson argues that public benefits from higher education such as civic engagement and social cohesion are significant; that these will shrink if public funding shrinks; and that Graduate Winners ignores these facts and assumes we have nothing to learn from global comparisons. Marginson’s work is typically cogent and incisive, and many in the sector would be happy to see him hit Norton on the head with a 570 page OECD report. But his critique is more symbolic than substantive. Graduate Winners is not dogma, immune to logic or evidence. Rather, it is heresy. The allergic reactions it attracts reflect the strength of a common orthodoxy, that the production of public goods requires public money…

This led to some calm, collegial and informative email exchanges with Marginson the next day. The day after, Hare published my piece in The Australian, along with Norton’s reply to the Marginson critique (Chapter 12). (Later Hare would publish a reply to both of these responses from Marginson, and another from me on the general limitations of OECD metrics.) On the morning my critique appeared, I had an email from a former Institute colleague. Professor Sharon Bell now worked at another university. She had more criticism to add on the Grattan report; and helpfully, had cc’d her note to Marginson. In response to this I was able to raise Leo’s concern directly:

As my piece today sets out to illustrate, we can all present shorthand positions and cherry-pick support for them one way or another … and of course to some extent the 800 word format of HES compels this, just to get your points made. So I guess in the end a longer form forum is needed. While I’ve been making the general point that GW’s arguments can’t be lightly dismissed, I think the big risk at present in not responding more comprehensively is a change of government next year and eventually, a crude adoption of the GW model in some kind of Rob Sitch ‘Hollowmen’ cost-cutting exercise. Recent UK experience with fee hikes – a system wide drop of 54,000 enrolments this year compared with last year, if I recall correctly – might be a place to start on this front. And by the way Simon, I’ve been asked already if you would read my HES piece as some kind of personal attack … I would assume not at all, but please do let me know if it came across like this. Regards, Geoff

In reply, Marginson had cc’d the Centre’s Associate Director, Sophie Arkoudis. From the points he raised, I took it that he’d read my piece as taking the wrong side of the substantive policy debate, rather than a more neutral middle position.

From: Simon Marginson
Sent: Wednesday, 10 October 2012 10:46 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Sharon Bell
Cc: Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: RE: HES

It’s water off a duck’s back Geoff! … When you have been roared at by Bill Kelty in front of large unions meetings three times in two days (as I was in 1984) nothing that comes after that seems like a ‘personal attack’! I think though that your position is contradictory – I don’t want to cut government funding but I think the argument for cuts wins the debate …

This was reassuring. But I didn’t contend that the case for cuts was persuasive. Just that it hadn’t yet been refuted. Nothing I read in the weeks after that took the substantive debate any further. So later that year, in my first-ever article in The Conversation, I would compare the government-commissioned Base Funding Review reform proposal with the Graduate Winners proposal. (Having worked in government, my TC disclosure statement said that as I worked in a university, I might be perceived as having a potential conflict in university funding debates.)

As with later commentaries, I forwarded this to Glyn – who I knew encouraged open debate, whether he concurred with a view or not.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Monday, 10 December 2012 10:32 AM
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: media article on Base Funding Review and Graduate Winners

Glyn, Attached, for interest, is a 1500 word piece due out in The Conversation in the next week or so. It compares the Base Funding Review proposal on undergraduate funding and student fees with the Grattan approach. Reading the two reports in tandem has been helpful. I hope to generate some (more) informed debate in the Conversation forum, after a couple of forays in the Australian, where word limits are a real barrier given the complexities. Of course, anyone who disagrees with both Simon and Andrew in this area must be on the right track … Best, Geoff

Against the Review’s claim that public funding should reflect the public benefits of higher education, Graduate Winners argues, crucially, that these would still flow to society, whoever pays. Since the non-financial public benefits of higher education are indirect, neither report’s argument is falsifiable. Where the Review sees public benefit flowing across the range of disciplines, Graduate Winners makes its best case where professional training meets defined demand, as in Medicine. It is less persuasive in fields not geared to specific professions, but aiming for widely educated, highly responsible citizens regardless of occupation. Studying the Humanities for example is far less amenable to economic calculus or market optimisation. We may as well try to price wisdom, outsource virtue, or run a cost-benefit analysis on sin … In the end, public funding and student fee policy will turn on two questions: how as a society we construct a fair go for each new generation; and the role we want higher learning to play as a nation-builder and public good generator, beyond meeting market demand for expertise.

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Monday, 10 December 2012 2:13 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: media article on Base Funding Review and Graduate Winners 

Geoff, Thanks for the chance to read your article for TC. First, congratulations – you have captured, expressed and made comprehensible a huge amount of confusing data. Further, you point to an essential difference between the two reports about their definition of public and private benefits. As you note correctly, these are non-falsifable conclusions. Second, there is an interesting closing point you might consider: what happens to universities if neither report is adopted? If the BFR is correct, tertiary education is underfunded … Regards, Glyn

As Christmas approached I would wonder again about Leo’s concern, that open disagreement with the view of a colleague was likely to lead to workplace flak and fallout. At the time it seemed as much a reflection of management-level tensions between the Centre and the Institute as anything. We shared facilities, not always amicably, and some of our programs crossed paths in terms of content and audience.

That year, while running the Institute’s Master of Tertiary Education Management program, I’d also been teaching a subject in the Centre’s Graduate Certificate in University Management for University staff, which Bexley had been running. Reflecting on Leo’s warning that my media piece might draw flak from “across the corridor” I recalled that a year earlier one of Marginson’s Ph.D. students had published an entertainingly disdainful critique of my own work in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

I had made no complaint at the time: the Journal had also published my reply. But as with the Graduate Winners debate, it raised interesting questions about how scholars and managers handled the politics of viewpoint diversity – particularly in a small world like ours. So I sent a note to Bexley to suggest including this topic in our class material the following year. I cc’d my note to Peodair and his Centre supervisors, Simon and Richard.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Monday, 17 December 2012 2:30 PM
To: Emmaline Bexley
Cc: Peodair Leihy, Simon Marginson; Richard James
Subject: GCUM in 2013 – Two Hippocratic Oaths debate

Emmaline … Looking ahead to next year, in your first GCUM subject I see your class has been discussing my 2010 paper, Two Hippocratic Oaths for Higher Education. An extra reading you might consider including here is Peodair Leihy’s 2011 critique of it, Professionals, Oaths and Flashbacks in the University. While of course I don’t agree with some of Peodair’s characterisations of my paper – obsequious, showy, oblivious, incendiary etc – I do think the critique illustrates very well how vexed these questions of university management, scholarly identity, etc. can be … A class discussion might also lead to a consideration of aspects of scholarly professionalism and collegial approaches to work: such as how far you can or should go when publicly airing intellectual disagreements with people you may then associate with A topic along these lines in the first GCUM subject would then lead neatly into some of the issues I take up in the second subject, about which hats people are expected to wear in different roles, who they see as their primary audience or constituency, and how complicated all that can become … there are also some obvious recent examples: Simon has criticised Andrew Norton’s report in the media, while working with Andrew in parallel on a publication; and in turn I have criticised Simon’s critique, while Simon was teaching my students in the MTEM program. Having worked with Andrew previously, I’m about to publish my own critique of his report in The Conversation … Take care, all. Geoff

It was our last working week that year, and everyone was busy: in the event we never returned to this as a teachable topic. But that year’s Graduate Winners debate, with Marginson and others, had helped me sift the substantive policy issues. Over the summer break I drafted a 6000 word paper to expand on my Conversation analysis, to submit to the Journal. But in early 2013 (as Glyn had speculated) the government declared that it wouldn’t be adopting the Base Funding Review model. Nor (we could infer) the Graduate Winners one. So in January I sent my paper and a 700 word summary to Tim Dodd, who published the piece at the Australian Financial Review.

Base Funding Review and Graduate Winners funding model analysis,
Australian Financial Review February 2013

Meanwhile, Marginson had been editing the Centre’s new book on Tertiary Education Policy in Australia. I’d drafted a chapter months earlier on a topic that had seemed promising, but didn’t work out. So I sent my new 6000 word analysis of the two funding models across. He was happy to add it, if I could trim it to 5000 words. In the final cut I set out the funding “quadrilemma” that seemed to arise with every reform attempt:

The anomalies arising from a public subsidy/student fee formula based on provision costs alone, or on putative private returns alone, highlight the design challenge or ‘quadrilemma’ for policy makers. How can governments ensure that policy settings will meet every public institution’s need to finance each discipline sustainably, while making public course places affordable for all, while recognising that graduates in some courses stand to benefit much more than in others (and still more than those without any degree), and while spending public money cost-effectively? Clearly, no simple formula can suffice…

By 2014 there had been a change of government. The “surprise package” in that year’s May Budget was a radical plan to cut teaching grants and deregulate course fees for Australian students. Taking part in the earlier Graduate Winners debate prepared me to post some short and sharp running critiques in The Conversation that year.

(As an aside, gentle reader, the government’s proposal was rejected months later, in the Senate. But even now Australia has not solved the funding conundrum for higher education. After yet another round of reforms last year, today’s rates for fees and grants still seem unfair to students in some fields, and inadequate to course providers in others).

Now back to 2016. At the start of May there had been little to say about the Budget on the night (Chapter 11). With an election looming in July, the government had not announced any significant policy reforms for higher education. But there was a new government discussion paper on possible future reforms, out for consultation. So the next day I sent a post-Budget “state of play” piece to Leo and the Institute’s Deputy Director, as a possible post on the Institute’s website.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 4 May 2016 4:00 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure; Ruth Caroline Schubert
Subject: May budget and HE reforms at a glance – comment for LHMI website

Hi Leo and Ruth, Here is a quick 800 word piece for our website, mainly about the Birmingham discussion paper, with some links back to the 2014 package and developments since then. Your thoughts? Cheers, Geoff

Richard had circulated the Universities Australia outline of Budget items. And the government’s new discussion paper. This reproduced that Education Department chart of higher education funding growth over time (Chapter 4), which my paper had used to show what some OECD metrics didn’t.

I’d seen no public commentary on the new paper from anyone at the Centre or the Institute. So I was surprised that Leo and Ruth were lukewarm on the idea.

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Sent: Wednesday, 4 May 2016 9:00 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Ruth Caroline Schubert
Subject: RE: May budget and HE reforms at a glance – comment for LHMI website 

Thanks Geoff. I’ll discuss with Ruth first thing tomorrow. I’d be happy for this to go out on our social media … But given that much if not all that you cover has been out today through comprehensive media coverage I don’t think it will have to feature on the website itself as a news blog. Cheers, Leo

As I wasn’t working on campus the next day, the outcome of their meeting came by email, from Ruth. Apparently they’d agreed that my summary would not hold much interest for the sector. And that I should focus on other things of more interest to the Centre, such as a funding cut to the sector’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

From: Ruth Caroline Schubert
Sent: Thursday, 5 May 2016 10:53 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: May budget and HE reforms at a glance – comment for LHMI website

Hi Geoff I just called in to see you … My suggestion is to contribute to the debate that is certainly of more interest to the University sector and that is about the OLT.  It is a politically important issue for the Centre and the University. I think you would get more interest and traction within the MCSHE and our own university if you focus on that. You can also do some good work internally gathering comment from concerned academics, after MCSHE has had considerable success with this, and Richard was approached by a number of stakeholders last year to consider a take over the function. I think this would be more newsworthy in the current climate. Thanks, Ruth

My response was that I knew little about the OLT: others at the Centre would be better placed to comment. Over the next weekend I put more work into my summary of the wider funding, fees and student debt issues flagged in the discussion paper, and sent this to Leo to consider.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 9 May 2016 1:05 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: May budget HE reform options – how they differ from 2014 

Hi Leo, I’d like you to consider this revised summary for the LHMI website. It’s a clearer overview, with a bit more detail on the specifics of what is included or excluded, and with links to the main reactions of the four peak bodies. Let me know if this looks like a more suitable post. Cheers, Geoff

May Budget higher education reform options: how they differ from 2014 As we know, the May Budget delays until 2018 the introduction of key parts of the higher education reforms announced with a bang two years ago, but rejected twice in the Senate since then. Instead the government has released a discussion paper to canvass old and new options. Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education seeks submissions by 25 July. An expert advisory panel will be appointed to advise on the design and implementation of the policy.

Cost savings The 2014 proposal to impose an average 20% subsidy cut to teaching grants remains. In 2014 this implied a shift from around 60/40 to 50/50 in the sharing of course costs, between public subsidies and domestic student fees, if total course revenue remained constant. The discussion paper puts the status quo at 58/42 on average. It notes that the current split varies widely in both directions, as the Base Funding Review highlighted. The general policy question of a ‘fair share’ split of costs is endlessly debatable. This is because domestic undergraduates already pay different annual fee amounts in courses with different income prospects. Students also pay different shares of total course revenue, from around 30% to 80% depending on the field of study. Another possible cost saving would reverse the 2014 proposal to extend uncapped subsidies to sub-bachelor degrees, as recommended by the 2014 review of demand-driven funding. On the other hand, the discussion paper considers extending uncapped subsidies to some or all coursework postgraduate degrees, subject to budgetary considerations.

Fee flexibility Full fee deregulation as proposed in 2014 has been ruled out, removing the risk of claims that $100,000 degrees would result. As the Department of Education and Training website puts it: “The Government will also not be pursuing full fee deregulation for Commonwealth supported places. It will consider future arrangements, including options for some form of fee flexibility, as part of its consultation on the future of higher education.” A more limited form of fee adjustment is proposed, in two basic forms. The main one is to revise the split between public subsidy and student fee on a course by course basis, to offset subsidy cuts. A revised framework would lower the subsidy and raise the cap on student fees in many courses. More flexible pricing could take the form of identifying ‘flagship’ courses for a limited cohort of students (say 20% of the total) for which universities would be free to set prices. This opt-in or compact model is a variation on the 2011 Base Funding Review proposal to allow institutions to identify courses funded at rates 50% higher than the standard rate, with the extra costs met by higher fees and higher public subsidies on a 60/40 basis. The difference this time is that uncapped student fees alone would meet the higher cost. To manage the risk of over-pricing, a monitoring and review mechanism would be needed, or a schedule of public subsidy cuts where fees rise above a prescribed threshold.

HELP scheme costs The 2014 package included a modestly lower income threshold of $50,000 for HELP loan repayments. The option this time sees graduates starting to repay at significantly lower incomes. This follows a Parliamentary Budget Office report on the rising public cost of HELP; and a Grattan Institute proposal to drop the first threshold to $42,000 from the current $54,000, and raise the repayment rates sooner as incomes rise. (A worked example of the Grattan proposal with indicative repayment amounts at different income thresholds can be seen here (link).) The government discussion paper suggests a repayment commencement range of $40,000 – $45,000 along with new repayment rates (which currently start at 4% of income at the low end); and also that high income earners could repay at a higher rate than the current maximum of 8%. Other HELP cost reduction options include applying a loan fee of say 5% or more to all loans; assessing household rather than just individual income for repayment purposes; restricting access to HELP loans for those who have retired from the workforce and are unlikely ever to repay; and recovering debts from deceased estates. A notable absence compared with the 2014 package is an option to charge real rates of interest on HELP debts. Like last year’s “higher education review of reviews” paper from the Department of Education and Training, this paper highlights the rapid expansion and rising public costs of the sector. It situates this in the current context of a significant budget repair task, without the ‘budget crisis’ rhetoric of 2014.

Timing and process during election campaign Consultation on the new paper extends beyond the federal election on July 2. If re-elected, the timing and format of the 2016 approach offer scope for the government to claim a degree of mandate for the eventual reform package. Along with its greater complexity, lack of prior consultation was a problem with the surprise package of 2014.

Responses from peak bodies Despite concerns about continuing policy and funding uncertainty, Universities Australia welcomes the deferral of subsidy cuts, the consultative approach, and the ‘no surprises’ approach overall. The Group of Eight also welcomes the discussion paper approach as a ‘circuit breaker’. The Innovative Research Group welcomes the approach for providing better clarity and a ‘solid basis’ for consultation.

But again there was no management interest. With no ready outlet, I’d been wasting my time.

Perhaps Leo and others didn’t want anything from me on the Institute website for a while. In a Conversation commentary posted that evening, I saw that Gwil (with two hats to wear, as a policy adviser to the vice-chancellor and a lecturer at the Centre) had covered similar points. So at least someone at the University had given the Budget aftermath some coverage. But in the event, none of us would cover the OLT funding cuts. On these, the main commentary that May would come from Monash University. And the clearest media analysis on policy reform issues would come from Gavin Moodie at RMIT University, and Andrew Norton at the Grattan Institute. (As the months passed, Gwil would comment on more in The Conversation.)

And now it was late May. To keep him in the loop, I’d sent Leo a copy of my Friday 13th letter to The Australian (Chapter 14). And the Journal had my latest 12 May rejoinder to Marginson. But I’d seen no response from Marginson on this. Nor was there any sign of movement at the Journal. Nor had Leo offered any view on the merits of my complaint to the newspaper.

For its part, The Australian had been prompt to acknowledge receipt of my letter. They duly read my paper, reviewed the way it had been reported, and sent a polite response in late May. But in their view the Hare report was fair. After all, my paper had “Beautiful lies” in its title. And lines such as “Marginson’s own dogma ate everyone else’s homework”.

But the point about dogma is that people may well believe it, due to confirmation bias. So by then it seemed as if, on every front, the whole process surrounding my case had succumbed to some form of herd immunity to reason. No matter the merits – or the flaws in Hare’s reporting (Chapter 9) – the simple politics of the matter was that since my paper was such heresy, its author did not deserve any open hearing or right of reply. However unfair the flak and the fallout that had followed.

I found the situation depressingly at odds with the idea of academic freedom I’d been teaching in our programs. And along with the distress, I felt rising indignation. Beneath those mild-mannered suits I wore to work, by now I might as well have been rotating a Galileo T-shirt along with my Potter and Gervais ones.

Image: See Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice (2015) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35217015-galileo-nun-orta-parma

Recall, gentle reader, that things did not end well at all for Galileo. And the process itself was grim. Ordered to travel from Florence to Rome to face the Inquisition during the plague in 1633 (three weeks on the road, with mandatory quarantine), he was forced to renounce what he believed and fall into line – or else. Sent back into house arrest, he would spend the last decade of his life in lockdown. (When it comes to cancel culture, we can infer, there’s nothing new under the sun.)

After his death, a book of riddling sonnets would publish his final poem, Enigma. It began and ended: I am a monster … my life and my name will disappear. Some scholars thought this must refer to Galileo himself, and the soul-destroying trajectory of his high-flying career. Or perhaps comets, which he’d written about a lot. But recently* one scholar has concluded that in Enigma Galileo describes – obliquely, given the politics of the time – the oddly contorted view of the universe conjured by the Ptolemaic system. Due to its lack of proportionality, this system was a monstrosity. What would disappear – in the light of evidence and reason – was the skewed, pre-Copernican belief system still being imposed in Galileo’s own time. As Thomas Kuhn would point out in The Copernican Revolution: “A conviction of this sort is difficult to break, particularly once it has been embodied in the practice of a whole generation of astronomers who transmit it to their successors through their teaching and writing…”

In other words, even with access to telescopes and better ways of making sense of the evidence, other scholars still had to peer through the prism of accepted doctrine, and adjust their views accordingly. In their search for truth and knowledge, the prevailing dogma ate their homework.

Image: See Alice Dreger, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice (2015) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35217015-galileo-nun-orta-parma
Translation of Enimma: Mark Peterson

Meanwhile, Galileo had learned a hard lesson from his punishment: not to state frankly what he truly believed, at a time when speaking truth to power could so easily blight a career. Or worse, result in being put to death.

He’s just a poor boy from a poor family,
Spare him his life from this monstrosity…

By late May it seemed clear that there would be no help on any of this from the Institute or the Centre. The Journal could still point to local media coverage as evidence to support its handling of the complaint – and as another reason not to publish my work without permission from London.

Any way the wind blows…

Overall, the matter was being handled at a pace so unfathomably glacial, it felt like the process had become, in itself, a form of punishment. Having waited so long, I was now determined to resolve it one way or another. My next move would be to publish a follow-up Conversation piece, on OECD metrics. That way I could at least open the substantive debate in a public forum. And if needed, have my say there about the media misreporting, at least.

As for the response from The Australian, I decided to try one more time. My only ally in the loop on this appeared to be the vice-chancellor. Perhaps if Glyn were willing to write a follow-up letter, The Australian would take my concerns more seriously…

Notes

*‘Mostro son io’: A Galilean Riddle and Its Solution was submitted to Academia Letters in August 2021 by Professor Mark Peterson. Below is an excerpt from the final (personal correspondence).

With Copernicus in mind one makes sense of Enimma. ‘Mostro son io’ is clear because, after all, that is exactly what Copernicus had said. The monster is not found on Earth, and therefore it is in the heavens. And why is this arrangement of things a monster? Because its parts do not agree, as Copernicus had also said. Who are the hunters following the tracks that these limbs have left behind? Astrologers who compute the positions of the planets using the Ptolemaic model. What does it mean to go from the darkness into the light and disappear? Most concretely, perhaps, it means that the planets (the ‘limbs’) are not seen in the daytime. The sonnet seems to say more than this, however. In light of the truer Copernican model the older model fades away, the ‘disunited’ limbs give way to the unified orbits of Copernicus, the old model loses its status as a description of the universe, it is dead. This, it seems to me, is what Galileo concealed in Enimma. Forbidden to publish, Galileo had nonetheless found a way, through Malatesti, to publish a very Copernican statement. If the censors did not understand what Galileo had written, though, it is equally true that no one else did either…

For Australian readers stuck in COVID-related lockdowns in 2021 (see recent updates in Chapter 13), a great recent cover of Bohemian Rhapsody by Pentatonix can be seen here.

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