“We all know what happens to heretics, even when they’re right: they are denounced and isolated…”

It was Wednesday. On Tuesday morning my Conversation piece had appeared, as planned. I’d spend time that day and the next – with one sick kid at home, then two – replying to readers as their comments trickled in.

(My notes to Asa to say I wouldn’t be in the office predicted that I’d be next – and by the weekend I too was sick).

Otherwise, that week I was dealing with student assignments as the semester ended. And responding to messages about the conference the Institute was planning for Brisbane in August. One of our colleagues, Melissa Hendicott, was co-ordinating the arrangements and logistics for our working group, and a growing list of guest speakers.

As well there was that new project I’d signed up for, with Mollie and Matt. Since the idea came up for our August seminar, we’d been nudging this along mainly by email. When we’d met in the Centre tea-room the previous week, I’d mentioned my headache with the Journal. Matt was interested in the paper for his own work at La Trobe. As it wasn’t accessible online, I said I’d send him a personal copy.

On Tuesday afternoon, in between Conversation responses from my desk at home, I sent them both a follow-up note and a link to that day’s commentary.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 14 June 2016 2:17 PM
To: Matt Brett; Mollie Dollinger
Subject: Re: Student schedule

Matt, Mollie, I’ll put together my outline for the framing of the student/customer session and send it to you over the next day or two … Also the basic argument of the contentious OECD statistics article I mentioned is contained in two short Conversation pieces, one published today (links) ... In haste – Geoff

With an election imminent, that day’s piece opened with the idea that political battles left policy debates poorly informed: In any campaign, truth is an early casualty. Political leaders use simple facts and figures to prove one policy good, another bad. But reality is more complex… Then came the John F. Kennedy quote: The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie … but the myth. Then, having touched on the role of scholars and their duty to debunk such myths with independent analysis, it outlined how in university funding debates we often saw technically correct OECD figures that told only half the story. As examples it presented a recent (April) media commentary from the Group of Eight (they must have read the paper in March, then ignored its implications); and some graphs from Universities Australia material. It linked to some expert commentary as well – an Inside Story article by Rodney Tiffen. It didn’t quote Marginson directly, but linked to a Conversation piece some years earlier, that featured his view.

Finally, the conclusion: Simple OECD metrics often lead to mythical claims about relative under-funding … I didn’t think this would be popular with our university lobby groups in Canberra. Any more than the paper itself – much discussed! at that conference back in March. But I was keen to show the Journal group that here (as Orwell would say) the heresy of heresies was common sense.

George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press (unused preface to Animal Farm, 1945) Image: Wikimedia

As my Tuesday morning note to the Journal group had put it (Chapter 18): If anyone has continuing doubts about the paper’s analysis and argument, two short Conversation articles give the gist of it, one from last October and one from this week.

Along with other Conversation readers, experts outside the Centre soon offered comments in the online forum: Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute, Gavin Moodie from RMIT University, Tim Pitman from Curtin University and Matt Brett from La Trobe University.

That week there would be no comments from my Centre critics. Nor from anyone else Hare had mentioned in her March report. The long arm of the folklore wasn’t ready to gag me, it seemed. (Though in retrospect, in Canberra some would be more than a little concerned. Only later would I notice that in The Australian two weeks earlier, Belinda Robinson had highlighted OECD data to show how poorly funded we were. And to promote Universities Australia’s Keep It Clever funding campaign. And to point to cuts of $1 billion a year since 2011…)

But here I’d used UA graphs to illustrate my point. As well as a government graph in which spending rose since 2011. In the comments I’d called on universities to Keep It Accurate. In retrospect, a phone call from Canberra to Leo may well have asked: Can’t he see the big picture? (Chapter 15).

However, most Conversation readers who commented seemed appreciative. As one put it: Bravo, Geoff – I’d almost lost faith in the ability of universities to be critical of their own self-interested arguments... But another questioned my motives in publishing such a view. Was I trying to muddy the waters? Or suggest that universities should be funded less? The presumption that my critique betrayed the fight for better funding recalled the endnote of that email back in March (Chapter 5): If GDP goes up why shouldn’t expenditure on higher education also go up? … Presumably Geoff sees no problem. He’s certainly not complaining…

In the TC forum Andrew responded to this before I did. He pointed to his own view that OECD comparisons were a poor guide to funding policy: While agreeing with all Geoff’s technical points, the main point I make here is that even if they were accurate the OECD comparisons would still not be the basis of a convincing argument (link).

As with the other responses that week, I’d explain my reasoning. Universities were set up to play a key public role in the production and protection of truth-claims; and scholars should seek to establish truth and knowledge, and to contest false claims. And governments won’t take our claims seriously if they don’t match domestic financial reality. As for my position on university funding: I don’t argue for less funding – though some have assumed I must be! I pointed out that when cuts loomed in 2014, I had argued against the proposed cuts in the Australian, the Conversation, the Australian Financial Review and in a submission to the Senate Committee inquiry into the proposed legislation. But I did not try to use OECD data to do this. I think it’s futile…

Tim’s comment was about the inherent limitations of OECD metrics, given the unusual design of Australia’s student loan scheme: Excellent piece, Geoff … The beauty of HELP is that it is neither wholly public nor private investment, but its beauty is hard to reflect in OECD reporting. Your piece is a timely reminder to us to use OECD figures as a starting point for a conversation, not as a definitive explanation...

An Institute colleague, Peter Bentley, agreed with the GDP point, and raised the wider question OECD metrics posed for policy: Thanks Geoff. Your Chart 5 is very effective in showing that annual changes in public funding as a % of GDP is very different to aggregate public expenditure. So, it is possible to have a well (public) funded university/ tertiary system despite this being a low % of GDP if GDP is high in aggregate. What intrigues me, and has been raised by Andrew Norton elsewhere, is why do we consider public funding to be an important measure with which to rank countries? Are public universities in Japan and Korea fretting over their public funding (as % of GDP) of tertiary institutions?

Source: OECD figures are not what they seem in higher education (Chart 5), June 2016

Responding from Toronto, Gavin offered a view on the relevance of public funding to equity considerations in international comparisons: Public funding of higher education is a relevant measure because a low proportion of public funding means a high proportion of private funding which almost always means tuition fees. This is salient because tuition fees without a well designed loans or grants systems imposes a further barrier on participation by under represented groups…

Along with the substance, the comment forum also gave me space to flag the media misreporting. But I didn’t mention the complaint or the blocked publication:

Thanks Peter … the analysis here was presented in much more detail in my ‘Beautiful lies, damned statistics’ journal article, though its argument was misreported in The Australian back in March. My main message is that we should abandon the practice of presenting a low ‘ranking’ in simple OECD public funding metrics as proof of how under-funded we must be, even though this perspective has become entrenched. As you mention, many would say also that public funding offers more stability since private funding generally incurs market risks as well as marketing costs. However in a publicly financed demand driven system such as ours, the fact that HELP revenue can be classed as ‘private fee revenue’ does not mean that institutions incur big risks or big administrative costs chasing students for unpaid fees etc. Once enrolled, the HELP revenue just flows in with the teaching grants…

Another reader was critical of cherry-picking in expert commentary generally: It is rare in public discourse to find a bona fides analysis of statistics aimed at improving our knowledge and understanding. Instead people with an agenda present cherry-picked statistics in ways that appear, unanalysed, to support the beliefs they want to propagate. I find it depressing that so many of the people doing this are associated with universities

In reply, I suggested that in short-form media commentary, some degree of cherry-picking was inevitable. And recalled that early debate in the Australian with Marginson (Chapter 12):

For longer form academic analysis, I subscribe to the general view put by Simon Marginson back in 2012 in The Australian: “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 data can be assembled in many ways to support one or another argument … The first approach is taken by the Grattan Institute in its recent report Graduate Winners, which seeks to mount an argument to cut the amount of public funding for university teaching and increase student charges. The second approach is used by the OECD in its annual publication Education at a Glance…The OECD’s approach is overwhelmingly better. Intellectually, the approaches are chalk and cheese; it’s like the difference between religious dogma and the enlightenment …” At the time I disagreed with Marginson about the Grattan report. But the principle he outlined is entirely correct, widely held, and in my view followed in the great majority of cases.

By the weekend Matt had commented, to add the point that OECD figures didn’t show how well money was spent: Geoff – A great piece that has triggered a great conversation … as Australia continues to move towards universal levels of participation, that expenditure will need to rise, both public and private, but we’ll need to get much better at making sure we spend it wisely. There is little benefit from being above or at OECD average if it is spent poorly…

After months of defending it from allegations of bias or worse (Chapter 5), it was a relief to finally stir (scholarly) debate on the substance of my paper. In the meantime I’d sent Matt a copy. Having read it, he planned to refer to it in a submission from his university on the government’s new policy consultation paper.

At the end of the week I’d asked what he thought of it.

From: Matt Brett
Sent: Saturday, 18 June 2016 1:15 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: RE: OECD paper 

Thanks Geoff … To be honest I have been incredulous that the paper was pulled and that Julie Hare went at you the way she did. A total disgrace in my view. The paper was good – well argued – strongly backed be empirical data. The piece in the C and its resulting feedback demonstrates the quality of the original work. A specific angle which is much ignored in some of the analysis of spending as a % of GDP is the impact that the mining boom had on Australian fortunes … perhaps we could strip out the short term blips from GDP to get a different perspective on the data. Matt

By Wednesday that week, with the early Conversation comments under my belt, I was ready to follow up on those Monday messages from management. After seeing other experts take my case seriously and discuss its merits openly, the Journal blockage seemed even more absurd. Following Leo’s comment about a personal vendetta, Richard had suggested that your latest email makes this look like a very personal campaign. And had called on me not to consider legal action. At that point I hadn’t heard back from the Journal on the status of the complaint. Or from The Australian on mine. Or from Leo on any further discussion with T&F that week. As they say in the classics: all cancel culture needs is for good people to do nothing.

At that point, my view of the Swiss alp postures on the part of Centre management was shifting from slightly off-piste to somewhat pissed-off.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 15 June 2016 11:32 AM
To: Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Richard, By all means tell Marginson that I do not wish to pursue litigation to resolve this. Who would, if it can be avoided? But as explained to Leo and to you already, the matter of publication needs resolution. Marginson has blocked this since March and has shown no sign of shifting. Why would he? And who in my position would not have taken legal advice over the past three months, in the face of such threats and allegations? We all know what happens to heretics, even when they’re right: they are denounced and isolated and their views are suppressed, while even those who agree with them stand silent and look the other way, for political reasons. Not so far from my experience in this case. I do not appreciate all of the advice I’ve had to just be quiet and accept the treatment my paper has received, just in case pursuing a right of reply might upset Marginson even further.

Photo: Yousuf Karsh. Source: Wikipedia

And please do not insult the scholarly integrity of my work by entertaining the notion that this is all just some kind of personal vendetta against Marginson. A few years back I published a Hippocratic Oath for scholars: ‘seek to establish truth and knowledge, and to contest false claims.’ To me the duty to debunk is central to the purpose of a university. But John Henry Newman never promised that the collision of mind with mind and the exposure of error would be painless to those concerned. In case you still have any doubts, as the paper and yesterday’s Conversation article (and last year’s Conversation article) make perfectly clear, my analysis presents this as a sector-wide problem. Any 7000 word analysis that surveys years of Australian commentary could hardly avoid referring so often to the most visible and voluble expert in the sector.

Sometimes being offended by things like titles can be an alibi for refusing to engage with the substantive questions. The fact that there has been error and over-reach on the part of so many commentators is of course hard for many to accept. Since March I’ve had three types of response to the paper, from sector leaders and experts. The first is an open and honest admission of error to the author: ‘Guilty as charged’ as one put it; ‘Well yes, we do have a vested interest’ says another … The second response is to quietly alter one’s practice, but without acknowledging any kind of error … The third is to insist that the author is wrong, that the commentary has been misunderstood, and to refuse to concede even those errors that are obvious … Can you identify anyone associated with MCSHE in the first group?  Given the trashing it received in March, and the stir this created at the UA conference, this is one reason why I have been so anxious to restore my paper to the public domain. As far as I can tell, no-one yet at MCSHE has been prepared to tell Marginson that, like it or not, there have been flaws in some of his commentary along with that of all those others; and obviously he simply won’t hear this, or anything else, from me. Apart from that, I think Marginson needs to be aware that quashing my paper in the context of the present public debate can have other consequences for the sector’s credibility on funding claims. Had it not been pulled so quickly in March, my paper might have been more widely read, and actually digested by someone at the Group of Eight; and then Vicki Thomson might not have added to the pile of fallacious claims in her opinion piece in the AFR on 21 April. Geoff

PS Leo, I think you have conflated the publisher’s late April response with their late March response. When the paper was pulled in March this did not contemplate possible legal action by me against the newspaper, which I understand was one of their ostensible concerns in late April. In March their concern was that Marginson might take action for defamation, and this they saw as reinforced by the adverse media reporting. But perhaps I’ve just misunderstood what you meant.

Leo didn’t respond. But Richard came back promptly. He didn’t indicate if he or anyone at the Centre had asked Marginson to withdraw his complaint. Nor if he knew that since March, the complaint had been presented to me as a legal threat (Chapter 7). Instead he advised that he’d only meant how my latest response looked from where he sat.

From: Richard James
Sent: Wednesday, 15 June 2016 12:03:19 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons 

Geoff, There is no time in my working day for responses to lengthy email, I hope you understand that.  I feel you haven’t read my comment carefully.  I said that your email made this look like a very personal campaign, I did not say that it was so.  I stand by this observation, which was offered to you with goodwill. I was not aware of any stir at the UA conference, nor am I aware of any discussions or strong viewpoints within the MCSHE. Richard 

There was no point recalling the denialism I’d encountered within the Centre back in March. Nor how bizarre the Journal situation was, from an academic freedom point of view.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Wednesday, 15 June 2016 12:36 PM
To: Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Richard, Thanks for clarifying the intent of your message … you’ll appreciate that I’m sensitive about the ‘personal attack’ framing by Hare and by Marginson … I trust I’ve clarified why I have sought legal advice, and also that I am not about to take legal action. I am most anxious to resolve the publication issue, and also anxious not to have my work misrepresented any more than it has been already. Geoff

This led to another prompt reply. Not to ask if Leo could clarify whether the Journal was about to enlighten up. But to suggest I should now offer reassurance to the complainant.

From: Richard James
Sent: Wednesday, 15 June 2016 12:52 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons 

Geoff, I assume you have advised Simon? Richard 

I’d already told Richard: by all means tell Marginson that I do not wish to pursue litigation … At that point I still hadn’t heard from The Australian. And as far as I knew, T&F still viewed the complaint as a legal threat.

On all fronts I’d spent time responding in an open way to whatever the problem seemed to be. And made zero progress in a process that by now seemed spookily slow and oddly opaque. It didn’t seem reasonable to expect more at this point, before any response at all from the other side. Nor did I want to signal to The Australian that I wasn’t serious about their misreporting. So for now, I’d stay with the strategic ambiguity of some performative outrage on my own side. Let them all see that week’s Conversation debate unfold. And see what The Australian made of the letter I’d sent three weeks earlier. And consider what rights the defendant might have in this matter.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 15 June 2016 12:59 PM
To: Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons 

Richard, No. I have not yet heard back on whether he is prepared to withdraw his complaint to the journal. Geoff

There was nothing further that week or the next on the complaint from Richard. Or from Leo. Or from the Journal.

But the next day that email appeared on the train home: Geoff, I am sorry I have not been in touch earlier… It was from The Australian. They’d realised there were problems with that March report. And now they wanted to discuss how to remedy them. Finally.

Without going into detail, gentle reader, within a few weeks, with some back and forth on specifics and some help from The Lawyer, we’d worked out how to set the record straight, media-wise. By the end of July I was satisfied on this front, at least.

In the end, the way The Australian handled my complaint would be more consistent, rational and reasonable than that of the Journal I’d been working with for years. Perhaps they weren’t such bastards after all … relatively speaking.

Further notes

For a list of university sector under-funding claims based on OECD data see:

Australian mystery: higher education spending rose – how come no-one knows?

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