The Australian National University and the University of Canberra are starting the new academic year firmly under the ministerial thumb.
The changes virtually sneaked through at the end of the parliamentary sitting last year in an avalanche of legislation. They affect all universities, but the ANU and UC are affected most.
The changes put an end to parliamentary setting of funds for individual universities administered through the states. In its place is a system where the Minister alone determines the funds. The difference may not sound much, but read on. It will have a huge impact in the independence of universities and ultimately academic freedom, which is one of the important legs of our democracy.
Some academics refer to it as the Dawkinisation of the universities. It has a nice ring about it.
The Minister, John Dawkins, puts it another way. He says his new arrangement will give the universities greater freedom because their grants will no longer be divided into capital and running costs. They will get composite grants which they can apply as they like.
However, a look at the legislation shows differently, especially for ANU and UC. ANU and UC used to have funds applied under their own Acts. Parliament would give them money, and it would be there for all to see as part of the budget. ANU and UC coudl then spend their appropriation much as they pleased. That position was repealed in a schedule to the Higher Education Funding Amendment Act. ANU and UC are now dragged in with other universities. Their funding, too, has been changed.
Under the old system, each university got an identifiable grant which was handed to the states to administer. It was appropriated by Parliament and the amounts for each university could be seen in the legislation and the Budget papers. The amounts could be argued between the Commonwealth and the states, argued as part of the Budget process and if the Senate did not like what was happening to a particular university or universities in general, it could request an amendment.
Under the new system, Parliament will appropriate (and, indeed, has appropriated for the next three years) a single amount for all universities. All reference to the states has been eliminated. Instead the Minister gets to divvy up the single amount among each university. Worse, the Minister does this “”only in accordance with the educational profile of the institution provided to the Minister”.
This “”educational profile” is an insidious thing.
In a democratic society which prides itself on academic freedom, the money should be just given to the university and the university be told to get on with it, subject to some reasonable accounting procedures. Under this new system, however, the universities are required to provide the Minister with their “”educational profile”. It obviously includes things like student numbers and types of courses. But it can also include things which have nothing much to do with educational excellence, but more to do with the Minister’s social agenda: how many handicapped, black, or homosexual students is the university taking? Is the university complying with the Minister’s view of management? Or the Minister’s political objectives, such as starting a school for Environmental Pursuits at the University of Western Sydney which draws students from marginal seats, and so on. There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Dawkins intends to do this, but the potential is there for a future minister.
Once the educational profile is provided, of course, the university must apply its funds accordingly. And the Minister can insist on it. The university cannot tell a few white lies to get the money and then spend it on its own agenda, on silly things like academic excellence in pure mathematics, engineering or English literature.
No; the universities will be made by the Minister to lie in the funding beds they have made.
Further, as there is only a finite global appropriation, each of the 35 universities will now engage in an annual competitive suck-up to the Minister to ensure they get more money. A university can only get more money by taking it from another university. Thus the more brown-tongued a university becomes, the more subservient to ministerial wishes in presenting its “”educational profile”, the more money it will get, and the less its more independently minded competitors will get.
For example, the legislation has already cemented in $2.89 billion for 1993, $3.2 billion for 1994 and $3.28 billion for 1995. There will now be an obscene, competitive scramble by each of the 35 universities to ensure that their share of 1994′s $3.28 billion is a big as possible, üat the expense of other universities.
Under the old system you could see what each university was about to get as the Bill went through Parliament. The Bill for 1993-95 funding is now law, but no-one knows what each individual university will get. That will be determined by the Minister. Yes; the determination can be set aside by Parliament, but as anyone who knows much about parliamentary procedure, ministerial determinations get dumped into parliament in bucket loads. They are hard to overturn and there is much less opportunity for debate than in the case of legislation. Moreover, Parliament can only mover that the whole determination be disallowed, not that particular parts be adjusted. So the Minsiter can shrug and blame the Opposition in the Senate for delaying all university funds.
In short, this legislation is divisive, it can wreck universities’ autonomy, it eliminates the states’ role and puts unnecessary power in the Minister’s hands. It has the potential to be an insensitive, centralised and dangerous power.
The universities in Australia are too important to be put under ministerial thumb. In this election environment people who cherish academic freedom should start extracting some political promises.