HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 24 FEBRUARY 2021
As a former professor at the Australian National University, I hadn't expected that I would have the opportunity of being in a parliament when two consecutive higher education bills were being debated, this one being the Education Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021. It's an exciting day for higher education indeed to have received so much focused attention from the parliament. But there is some slight tension between these two bills. We have just finished debate on a bill ostensibly about academic freedom of speech and we are now debating the Australian Research Council, a body in which the coalition has meddled, thereby reducing the freedom of speech of academics and reducing the tradition of careful, impartial scholarship and independent peer review.
Academic freedom of speech is a great thing. It was Gough Whitlam who said:
Academic freedom is the first requirement, the essential property of a free society. More than trade, more than strategic interests, more even than common systems of law or social or political structures, free and flourishing universities provide the true foundation of our western kinship, and define the true commonality of the democratic order.
Just imagine how much more significant those words would have sounded delivered in Whitlam's mellifluous baritone.
Is there a free speech crisis in Australian universities? The government sent former Chief Justice Robert French to investigate, and he came back and said:
From the available evidence however, claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated.
The only reason we had the former bill before the House was that the government did a dirty deal with Senator Hanson and One Nation to pass laws to cut universities and jack up fees.
And yet, when it comes to the Australian Research Council, the government has been unwilling to follow through on the principles of freedom of speech and academic integrity that demands that the Australian Research Council not be politicised. As a former academic, I spent many hours putting together Australian Research Council grants, of which I'm grateful to say a number were successful, and a number of hours also assessing the grants of others. It's a painstaking process. There is committee upon committee set up to carefully ensure that, when a grant is put forward to the Australian Research Council, it is scrutinised by Australian and sometimes overseas assessors to ensure that it is operating to the best standards of scholarships. Australian Research Council grants are difficult to get. The rejection rate is high. Many good applications are not funded.
What scholars expect is that when they put forward a grant proposal their track record and the ideas they put forward will be appropriately scrutinised by their peers. What they do not expect is a process that comes in from left field and knocks them out.
This occurred in 2005, when the then education minister, Brendan Nelson, set up a secret committee at the instigation of the then Quadrant editor, PP McGuinness, to scrutinise grants to work out whether they accorded with the secret committee's views. That resulted in at least three grants—perhaps as many as 20; we still don't know the number—being knocked out by then minister Brendan Nelson. It was a travesty. It went against the principles of academic freedom, intellectual integrity and the independence of the Australian Research Council. Yet 13 years later Senator Birmingham did it again—with, it must be said, the connivance of the Australian Research Council; he ensured that a number of grants were knocked out. These included early career awards on: Price, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange; Legal Secularism in Australia; and Soviet cinema in Hollywood Before the Blacklist 1917-1950. It saw the rejection of future fellowships on The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music, and Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity. It saw the rejection of discovery project grants on Music Heritage and Cultural Justice and The Post-industrial Legacy City and Greening Media Sport.
The victims of this partisan political meddling by Senator Birmingham were overwhelmingly in the humanities, but those who spoke up came from across academia. There was outrage, naturally, from the Australian Academy of the Humanities, with Joy Damousi saying:
The Australian research funding system is highly respected around the world for its rigour and integrity … This interference damages Australia's reputation on the world stage. Withdrawing funding by stealth threatens the survival of a strong humanities teaching and research sector, something no democratic society can do without.
There was also criticism from the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, saying 'the integrity of the research funding system relies on a robust, independent peer review process'.
John Shine, from the Australian Academy of Science, said:
Much of the value provided by research to policy makers and the public is due to its unbiased and independent nature and this should not be eroded.
Mike Ewing, from the Australian Business Deans Council, said:
The intervention disregarded, and undermined the integrity of, a world-class peer-review process in favour of a politicised agenda.
We heard from Catriona Jackson, the CEO of Universities Australia:
The current system is internationally-recognised as the best practice process for awarding research grants. Political interference in funding decisions undermines the integrity of the system.
Colin Sterling, the chair of Innovative Research Universities, said:
We have heard many calls in recent weeks for universities to defend intellectual freedom on campus. This includes the freedom for academics to pursue and express ideas without fear of political interference or retribution. It seems that we must redouble our efforts in defence of the humanities, arts and the social sciences.
Likewise, from Vicki Thomson of the Group of Eight:
This is a government that demands freedom of speech on campus but at the same time walks all over academic freedom; a government that, without transparency or explanation secretly vetoes some $4 million in research projects that have undergone a rigorous peer review process and have been judged worthy for recommendation to the minister by the ARC.
The analogy from Catriona Jackson is apt:
You don't expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia's Olympic team. In the same way, we rely on subject experts to judge the best research in their field, not politicians.
I know from speaking to former colleagues at the Australian National University and other universities how dispiriting it was for those who had pored over grant applications for hours, who had flown to the consideration meetings and spent time in airless rooms eating stale pastries and sipping coffee as they worked through hundreds of applications for grants, winnowing out those they felt were just not quite as good as the very best grants—then to have them knocked off by a minister who probably didn't even read the applications, a minister who probably just looked at the titles and decided to knock them off.
Minister Fletcher, who is at the table, is chuckling away. For him, this is just a laughing matter. He doesn't mind that his government wasted the time of academics. He doesn't mind that his government got in the way of the independent peer review process.
As Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester, a pair of applicants whose grant was rejected, said:
One cannot help but wonder: did the minister or any of his staff read our application or any of the other ten he chose to reject?
They pointed out that they had been told by the Monash Research Office:
This proposal is in the Top 10% of unsuccessful proposals within the discipline panel.
But that was not the case. It was not the decision of the Australian Research Council. The Australian Research Council, in fact, recommended that their grant proposal—Greening Media Sport—be funded. It was the minister who decided to knock it off.
I think it is particularly disappointing that the Australian Research Council connived in the cover-up of how these grants were knocked off. As an independent body, the Australian Research Council should have had the gumption to say very clearly, 'These 11 grants were recommended by us and knocked off by the minister.' They pretended to applicants that their grants were not sufficiently meritorious. That was a lie. It just wasn't true. The Australian Research Council should not have done that. They should have been very clear with applicants that those applications were successful on the grounds and criteria under which they had been submitted and they were knocked off by the minister.
It does speak to the lack of any sensible process on this that Minister Tehan, when he succeeded Minister Birmingham, made the decision to backflip on a number of these grants. He said, 'The projects are now markedly different.' I suspect the only thing that was markedly different was the minister. We moved from one minister to another and caprice from one turned into a modicum of generosity from another. The decision by Minister Tehan was the right one. It recognised the importance of the Australian Research Council grants process being upheld.
It would make far more sense to simply rein in the ministerial veto—either to have no process for the minister to veto grants and to have the Australian Research Council's independence entrenched in legislation in a way that would prevent future ministers from meddling in grants when they didn't like the title. Or, at the very least, to require a minister who knocks off grants to tough it out and give a statement to the parliament—to be absolutely honest to this parliament—as to why they're not listening to the advice of their own independent body. Why would we waste the time of academics reviewing independent research grants and setting up a process that ultimately the government doesn't follow?
My personal view is that there shouldn't be ministerial veto. The Australian Research Council process should be respected. We don't have this sort of meddling with other grant-giving bodies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council. We haven't seen it in the past in the allocation of science grants. There's no reason that we ought to see it in the case of grants in the area of the humanities and social sciences. It would give much greater integrity to the process and it would give greater strength to the Australian Research Council if it had formal independence. But, if we can't have formal independence, let us at least have some honesty and transparency from ministers, like Minister Nelson and Minister Birmingham, who have chosen to knock off grants because they didn't like the titles.
Academic integrity is of supreme importance. It matters not just to universities but to us as a society. We are better off for having academics who are able to pursue projects based on the rigour and the importance of those issues within their discipline.
We can never be sure where particular lines of academic inquiry will lead. Think of the development of wi-fi in the CSIRO. It was developed not because the CSIRO were looking to create a technology that would some day be used in all our homes and our smartphones but because they were interested in the mathematics of fast Fourier transforms. That mathematical inquiry led to a technology which sits in all of our pockets. In the same way, allowing free academic inquiry has led to breakthroughs in every discipline one can think of. It is a key principle of a strong democratic society, and it should be respected wherever you stand on the political spectrum. Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam knew of the importance of universities. They recognised not only how universities add to our productivity and make us wealthier and more egalitarian but also the power of universities to change minds and allow us to better understand the human condition.
We are currently engaged in a world in which we face significant challenges ranging from climate change to China and to consideration of our national identity. We've seen a significant debate over Australia Day this year. We have conversations in this place which are informed by academic research. We have conversations in the public arena where academics play a critical role. Encouraging the integrity of the academic process is fundamental to a strong, vigorous and exciting society. It is critical to Australia better understanding ourselves and better understanding the world in which we live.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.