ANU needs to be removed from day-to-day politics

More about ANU and its School of Music, this time published in the Canberra Times.

What is a university supposed to be? GEOFF DAVIES wonders if Ian Young knows

The determination of Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young to downgrade the School of Music leaves serious doubts that he understands what a university is. His stated reasons are still unconvincing, and leave the suspicion of an unstated agenda. The rest of ANU must be concerned.

A university is not a collection of self-funding vocational courses. By repeatedly suggesting parts of the ANU that could be cut if the SoM were not, Professor Young is not only employing a crude divide-and-conquer tactic, he is implying that each ”cost centre” should have a balanced budget.

A university preserves, extends and shares the knowledge and achievements of our civilisation. It needs to stand somewhat removed from day-to-day politics and fashions. It needs to be able to remind its host society of longer views, deeper wisdoms and greater accomplishments. Its people need the independence to speak against popular but ill-informed views, as such cases as thalidomide, Azaria Chamberlain and global warming attest.

It is true that government funding formulas increasingly treat universities as a collection of vocational courses and business consultancies. The ignorance of such policies begets more ignorance, as deeper knowledge and skills are neglected, forgotten and lost.

In this situation a vice-chancellor has the choice of simply implementing the short-sighted and destructive approach of politicians, or of choosing to maintain as much of the essence of a university as possible. The latter would require being more flexible with available funds than the government formulas.

By choosing to call such flexibility ”cross-subsidising”, Professor Young manifests the same short-sighted utilitarian attitude as the politicians. Evidently he has no greater vision of the purpose of the ANU than they do.

Certainly he has no notion of the value of the School of Music to ANU’s reputation, locally, nationally and internationally, a value he has already trashed. ”Elite”, he calls it, clearly implying the derogatory meaning of that ambiguous word, and insulting some highly esteemed musicians in the process.

Professor Young was not sighted during the recent Canberra International Music Festival. Evidently he has little notion of the immense contribution made by SoM students and staff, nor of how inspiring it is for the students to perform with top performers and composers, nor of how outstandingly they acquitted themselves. The amount of funding in question, $1.4 million dollars, sounds like a lot, but the ANU budget is about $1 billion. The School of Music could be maintained for a little over one 10th of one per cent of the university budget. The rest of the university need hardly notice, and it would get good value for the money.

This highlights the disingenuousness of Professor Young’s rhetorical alternatives, such as the discontinuation of a philosophy or an anthropology program. His statements raise other questions.

When Professor Young first announced his intention to seek ”savings” across the campus he claimed the goal was to channel the savings towards greater excellence. Why then does he choose to cut dramatically a program of undoubted excellence?

And where might he see the need for boosting ANU’s excellence? The Canberra Times‘ Public Sector Informant of June 5 noted that former Prime Minister Rudd wished ANU to replicate Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and implied the issue is still alive.

The current chancellor, Gareth Evans, is of course a former Labor minister. It was one of Evans’ ministerial colleagues, John Dawkins, who initiated the utilitarian and managerialist assaults on universities with his ”reforms” of 1987.

If politicians wish to indulge their favourite subject then they have the power to direct appropriate funds to the task. It would be sad indeed if the tall SoM poppy were sacrificed for the sake of more studies of the rather petty and sordid world of Australian politics.

Of course we don’t know if that is the intention, partly because the ANU Council chooses to conduct such discussions in the confidential part of its meeting, though it is managing public money. The council anyway is dominated by ministerial appointees and so is a thoroughly politicised body.

The rest of the ANU academic body ought to find all this concerning. The logic being manifested by ANU management is that programs will follow the money.

The money, public and private, favours such programs as management, business, government and economics.

The humanities suffered heavily a decade or so ago, during a previous outbreak of managerialism. The arts are suffering now. Who will be next? And will the ANU still deserve to be called a university?

3 thoughts on “ANU needs to be removed from day-to-day politics

  1. George Shaw

    Thank you Geoff. I appreciated your observations about Prof Young’s ‘divide-and-conquer’ tactic and his inconsistent pretensions to ‘excellence’ while gutting the SoM. Even more galling is the ANU Council’s endorsement of this vandalism, but I shouldn’t be surprised given the track record of ‘luminaries’ such as Chancellor Evans.


  2. Geoff Davies Post author

    Posted by Christian on the earlier ANU post, before I got this one up. So I’m adding it here too. – Geoff D

    Submitted on 2012/06/20 at 10:15 am
    Dear Geoff,

    I came upon your site after reading your opinion piece “School of Music not a simple issue” in the Canberra Times, 20 June 2012.

    I agree with you on the main thrust of the article, but I think there are other aspects that need to be considered when talking about funding.
    To me, one of the primary issues is the sheer number of people that are going though universities at present. Universities have transitioned from an institution that educates and develops a relatively minor portion of the population to now one which is expected to educated a large fraction of society. The Gillard policies serve as a good illustration of this in mandating what portion of the population is to be expected to attain a bachelors degree.

    The problem is that universities still follow models that belong to an era when there were significantly less students. One of the underlying assumptions that I disagree with is the research-teaching nexus that is often quoted. This results in all universities having to maintain expensive research departments. The expansion of the university sector following the Dawkin reforms makes this an unsustainable proposition, when coupled with the current and probably future budget realities. It might be that we choose to call a teaching only university something other than a university. I don’t particularly see any problems with this and I reject assertion that a tertiary educational institution must have a research function if it is to have a teaching function.

    I only highlight one issue here, but there are a raft of others relating to the need for significant institutional reform and adjustment. I am not advocating the elimination of the humanities by the way, but rather placing the system on a framework and model that fits the current realities, which in turn will enable these areas to be properly funded.

    Getting back to the article, the ANU VC could perhaps manage funds better, but I think that there are greater issues at play that go to the heart of what a university is in modern times. Cross-subsidization is a short term solution only. If it becomes an ingrained practice, it will affect the entire university and eventually the quality and viability of the very subjects that are being protected through the cross-subsidization.




    1. Herbert Niesler

      Hi Geoff,
      Herbert Niesler here, from RSES days. What a surprise to see you on Steve Keens web site. Well done, we need more geophyscicists taking over economics. The economists have been playing around with it to long and have done a crap job at it. Keep up the good work.



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