William H. Taft / Helen Herron Taft Silver-plated Portrait Scissors, ca. 1908 [Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library]
William H. Taft / Helen Herron Taft Silver-plated Portrait Scissors, ca. 1908 [Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library]
I’ve been ranting on Twitter over the weekend about the higher education cuts that were announced on Saturday by the federal government. Yes, on Saturday. I was gratified that the response to the announcements was immediate, vociferous, and diverse.

In summary:

Over the next budget period, the Gillard government wants to cut $2.3b from the university system. Many others have already responded, and these pieces provide the detail about what is being cut:

Professor Richard Teese, from the University of Melbourne, believes the cuts to universities are particularly cynical because Labor can bank on the fact there will be minimum electoral backlash. He says university funding has traditionally been something few voters have cared about. “They can raid university tills with electoral impunity and get marks for funding schools, which are seen as far more important,” he says.

These cuts come on top of the $1b or so in research funding that was taken from the system in the latter part of 2012.

Australia does not invest in the university sector in a particularly competitive way; it certainly isn’t investing in universities and research with the fervour necessary to keep up – let alone surpass – our ‘competitors’. I scare-quote that word because, really, we need more, and we needed it yesterday.

It’s only since I started working on the development/administrative side of this sector in 2011 that I have become more clued up on higher education research policy and what actually goes into building a healthy research culture at national and institutional levels.

Actually, that’s not true. It’s only since I started The Research Whisperer with Jonathan that I’ve delved so much deeper into university issues, and the ecosystem of teaching, research, bureaucracy, and institutional brand-building.

It’s not as if I was unaware of the general context, but – oddly enough – when I was a full-time academic I bothered less with the full picture. I felt disconnected from highered structures, thinking of them only in cynical terms and dismissing any effect that I could have on them. I wasn’t a member of the NTEU, partially because of that constant struggle to feel that you can be a part of anything when you’re only ever on fixed-term appointments.

In the listing of the types of cuts that the government has proposed, the one that blew my (naive) mind was the ‘efficiency dividend’ that would be in operation for 2014-2015. I threw my confusion out on Twitter, and was answered by @jaynepersian and @baibi that ‘efficiency dividend’ basically means ‘government funding cuts’. Seriously. Farce begets farce.

After slightly more ranting on my part, a conversation between @deborahbrian and @foomeister shepherded an enlightening link my way. It was to the government’s Measures of Agency Efficiency (PDF) document. FYI, this kind of reasoning underpins the entire document:

“The Efficiency Dividend is based on a simple rationale: as the public service continually becomes more productive, there is room for cutting public sector inputs by the rate of increase in productivity (or something less) without changing the level of output. This can allow the derived efficiency gains to be redirected to higher priority areas, as determined by government.”

I’m aghast that someone actually came up with this Brazil-esque guff as policy. It’s a narrow-minded, weaselly way to justify bad things that governments might have to do. Whether cuts are essential or not, don’t dress them up as Good Things.

On a higher level, pitting your tertiary and secondary education sectors against each other as funding adversaries is one of the worst kinds of political gaming.

Applying the ‘efficiency dividend’ to universities has the potential to defund already depleted research infrastructure and usher in waning competitiveness on the innovation front. When cuts come in, institutions get financially conservative. This is hardly setting up a romping, robust innovation playground where Australia can lead in many areas of research, nor does it encourage the development of a resilient research culture that can absorb and learn from failures.

Treating the university sector as a predictable machine with guaranteed outputs demonstrates ignorance of what is involved in creating and building research cultures. It doesn’t consider the depth and complexity of connections necessary for succesful research capacity. I’m currently writing a post for Research Whisperer that delves into these aspects in more detail. Meanwhile, Carlos Duarte (Director, Oceans Institute, UWA) writes about “Australia R&D about to Trip over Red Tape” in The Conversation today, which is a valuable European perspective on the Australian funding situation.

Kate Bowles (@KateMfD), who blogs at Music for Deckchairs, has written a great post on this efficiency dividend issue.

I know that asking for consistency and transparency in government is another naive gesture. Still, the $2.3b cuts shocked me. People can quibble about whether these really are the worst cuts in recent history but – for me – it’s the cuts and the signal that the government has deprioritised universities and their culture that concerns me.

With the fanfare associated with the Asian Century and the government’s stated desire not only to engage more effectively with Asian regions but also to lead in research and innovation, one would think defunding higher education is a regressive, counter-productive move. It devalues the rhetoric about investing in a research future that is anywhere near competitive with the rate of investment that so many other countries are applying to their research sectors.

I don’t doubt that Australia has the human resource and resourcefulness to be such a leader in research and innovation.

But the sector can’t focus on leading if it expends so much of its energy on compliance and fending off its own government’s erosion of its infrastructure and working conditions.