The day after my detour through the Mad Max carpark, I sent Leo a copy of my second letter to The Australian.

I didn’t expect him to be happy. After all, the Centre’s April memo on its Communications Strategy was clear (Chapter 8):

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 … In 2015, the Melbourne CSHE, through its staff and honorary fellows, were featured or mentioned in 30 news stories, most of which were in The Australian and The Conversation. While the LH Martin Institute were featured or mentioned in 17 stories, most of which were also in the two formerly mentioned outlets. It would be beneficial for the overall reputation of the Centre that these relations are maintained and, in some cases, built further.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 25 May 2016 4:45 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Fw: letter of complaint re misreporting of academic work 

Leo, FYI. Geoff

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 25 May 2016 4:44 PM
To: (The Australian); Glyn Davis
Subject: Re: letter of complaint re misreporting of academic work 

… Further to my letter to the Editor-in-Chief on 13 May, I have had a letter in response … offer(ing) no apology or right of reply … In view of the nature of the response I now see no alternative but to pursue other options. I have copied this response for information to my university’s vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, with whom I discussed the matter this week. Regards, Geoff Sharrock

Not exactly relationship-building stuff with the Oz; but then, misreporting scholarly work doesn’t do much for relationships either.

As expected, there was no immediate reply from Leo. Meanwhile the work of the Institute and the Centre went on. The previous week I’d taught another batch of webinars. Students were submitting work for advice or assessment. Seminars were being planned, and papers circulated for discussion.

My relationship with The Conversation (as a fairly regular contributor in 2015) was faring better. In April I’d suggested to Claire Shaw that I post an update of those rough reckonings in my earlier OECD commentary, once TC editors were clear of the May Budget.

Without any Institute outlet, I was keen to give my substantive case another public airing. It might reassure the Journal that my peer reviewers hadn’t been wrong to support publication after all. As well, I could call out and correct the March media misreporting. And if needed, invite any Centre colleague who considered it inappropriate or unhelpful to publish my view to explain in an open forum why it was wrong – as distinct from uncollegial or unethical or possibly illegal.

(Back in March I’d referred Centre colleagues to the 2015 piece when alerting them to the Hare report (Chapter 4). But none had referred back to it since. And now I recalled that, when he wasn’t writing very long novels like Anna Karenina, Tolstoy had been a critic of the myths and dogmas of his day.)

Image source: Nikolai Ge, Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, Wikimedia Commons

By late May I’d reworked my April outline (Chapter 11). It looked ahead to the July election campaign and invoked the power of myth to frame facts and shape stories:

A winter election is coming. And with it, a blizzard of facts and figures. Each burning party platform has more moving parts than the start of Game of Thrones. As dead-eyed armies of modellers crunch all reforms in their path, our nights are dark and full of errors…

From there it switched to a John F. Kennedy speech to students at Yale in 1962, about how popular myths can distort the truth even when no-one sets out to mislead: The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic…

And from there, to the dilemma for scholars whose findings seemed at odds with their own sector’s interests – as was inevitable with university funding debates: Scholars have a duty to debunk such myths; but we also have skin in the game…

To tell a complicated story simply, I’d taken some graphs from the Journal paper. A Universities Australia view of public spending which ranked us second-lowest in the OECD back in 2011 (as a share of GDP, excluding HELP loans).

Source: Universities Australia, 2015

Then a government view of actual public spending growth in our sector (HELP loans included) with more recent local data.

Source: Department of Education and Training, 2015, 2016

And then (for those who want the big picture) a new, very simple graph to show how the UA graph masked real Australian spending growth with real GDP growth. I had more charts to add if needed – one from UA’s new Keep It Clever report. (My advice to UA would be: Keep It Accurate.)

Source: OECD figures are not what they seem in higher education, June 2016

The aim was to reprise my Journal argument in 800 words. And reaffirm its conclusion: Simple OECD metrics often lead to mythical claims about relative under-funding. These are not as real as they look “at a glance”. And to have an open debate with other commentators on what kinds of data seemed most relevant, and most reliable.

By early June, Claire Shaw had agreed to run it. The TC brief landed on a Thursday morning, as I was bouncing between work meetings. A coffee catch-up with Heather Davis, our Masters program director. Then a steering group teleconference hook-up to plan a conference up in Queensland, in August. Then a meeting with two PhD students, Mollie Dollinger and Matt Brett, to plan one of the Centre’s lunchtime seminars on how best to map and meet student expectations in university settings.

When the TC brief popped on my phone, I was bemused to see they’d tagged its theme as “misuse of OECD data”. Bloody hellthat headline again! As soon as the teleconference ended, I sent a quick note back to Claire.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 9 June 2016 12:06 PM
To: Claire Shaw
Subject: RE: Your brief On the misuse of OECD data from The Conversation 

Hi Claire, Thanks for this, but one important point. We can’t call the piece ‘misuse of OECD data’ – it’s about fallacies/misunderstandings, not knowing or wilful ‘misuse’. It will be important that no editor mislabels the argument on this point. Cheers, Geoff

From: Claire Shaw
Sent: Thursday, 9 June 2016 12:13 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: Your brief On the misuse of OECD data from The Conversation

Hi Geoff, That’s not the headline, that is just what I’ve titled the pitch, so don’t worry! I’m starting to edit it now … Cheers, Claire 

After my meeting with Mollie and Matt, I checked Claire’s cuts and changes and queries. (Apart from offering a great platform, the great value-add from TC editors is their ability to translate often abstruse academic writing into plain and simple English, to make sense to general readers without distorting the “expert” case. Hence the TC motto: academic rigour, journalistic flair). Overall it looked good, with some minor points to fix.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 9 June 2016 3:48:41 PM
To: Claire Shaw
Subject: RE: Your brief On the misuse of OECD data from The Conversation 

Thanks Claire, I’ll get to this tonight – tomorrow, and pick up the points you’ve raised. Generally the piece and its headline will have to put the case more carefully than this, given previous media coverage of my long journal article on this topic back in March – a media report complete with misquotes from my paper –  as an ‘extraordinary attack’ on all kinds of people … In one case there has been a vague threat of legal action … So I’m particularly sensitive to the nuances here. The general problem I’m highlighting in the piece is a blind spot in public commentary not just among sectoral groups, but among scholars (experts), including those I have worked with. My diagnosis here, as in the journal article, is that there has been widespread error due to inherent complexity, and oversight of GDP growth disparities in particular; but not a conspiracy of dishonesty or wilful misrepresentation … This means I can only approve the article on the basis of the final version including the headline … Cheers, Geoff

By the next afternoon it was ready for sign-off.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 10 June 2016 2:40 PM
To: Claire Shaw
Subject: Re: Request to approve OECD figures are not what they seem in higher education 

Hi Claire, All good, it’s now approved … Thanks for the help reframing this – a difficult one to write. Will this appear first thing Monday morning? … Cheers, Geoff

Claire confirmed that it would run on Tuesday, after the long weekend.

I didn’t share my draft with anyone at the Centre or the Journal. In our last discussion about this, Leo had said that the main concern of the Journal owners (the Institute and the Association for Tertiary Education Management) was that T&F wasn’t letting the editor make editorial decisions, due to legal risk. In other words, whatever the outcome with my paper (which was not in his hands), there was a wider governance issue. He said he’d be discussing it further the following week, with the publisher and ATEM.

As the long weekend began, I realised that it had been more than two weeks since my second letter to The Australian (Chapter 16). I hadn’t heard anything back. Nor had there been any feedback from Marginson since my last Centre group email, four weeks earlier (Chapter 14).

All up, it had been three long months since all this began (Chapter 2). Enough time for the Journal to step up on academic freedom. And for Marginson to accept that here at the University of Melbourne (as our latest branding puts it) great minds collide (Chapter 14). And for The Australian to put those fine-sounding Press Council principles into practice, and do the right thing.

My Conversation piece was locked and loaded. I’d done more than enough explaining. It was time to go a bit Mad Max and force the issue. Not with a whimper, but a bang.

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