Higher education taking heat in parliament

It is about to get way-warmer

A Senate committee is inquiring into, “evidence based regulation of farm practices impacting water quality on the Great Barrier Reef”

Research peak bodies appeared the other day and started off with a statement which acknowledged “cane-growers, graziers and other landholders in northern Queensland … we respect the concerns they raise about the viability of their properties, for the future of food production in Australia, and as agricultural professionals.”

The Australian Academy of Science, Science and Technology Australia and Universities Australia then added, “respect is important. It is also crucial that we show respect for research, respect for science and how universities can bring their expertise to help find a respectful way forward in this debate.”

where this came from: The inquiry was established a year back and reflects farmer angry that they accused of damaging the GBR.  And it occurred in the context of a suspicion of the science community.

Last year the National Party adopted a policy to establish an “independent science quality assurance agency,” to “provide quality assurance and verification of scientific papers which are used to influence, formulate or determine public policy.”

It was sponsored by LNP MP George Christensen, whose federal electorate is bounded by the Reef to the east and agriculture and mines to the west. (CMM September 16 2019). Mr Christensen is a strong supporter of Peter Ridd, the scientist who is critical of GBR research at James Cook U, where was a professor until it sacked him.

why this matters: As the science lobbies who spoke at the committee appear to understand, this committee points to a problem way bigger than the GBR – pointing to scientific method and peer review is now not enough to silence critics.

And now the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security will inquire into “foreign interference” in universities   

where this came from: In July, Independent MP Bob Katter announced he would push in parliament for a “full-blooded inquiry”, parliamentary inquiry into Chinese Government influence in Australian universities. Mr Katter pointed to Uni Queensland’s misconduct investigation and findings against undergraduate Drew Pavlou, who campaigns for human rights in China and is a fierce critic of the university’s links with Chinese government agencies, (CMM July 24).

But Mr Katter is pre-empted, with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton asking federal parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to inquire into “foreign interference in Australian universities”.

“Universities are granted significant funding and responsibility by the Australian people. But recent investigations have given us reasons to be concerned about the role of foreign interference on campus and in research.  Australians need to know that their tax dollars are being spent in our national interest,” committee chair Andrew Hastie (Lib-WA) posted to Facebook yesterday.

why it matters: Mr Dutton did not have much choice. The government could not have supported an inquiry specifically on Chinese Government influence, particularly after The Australian newspaper’s coverage of researchers with China-links. Beijing would have objected to being singled out and could have introduced trade restrictions on whatever Australian exports it hasn’t slugged already.

However, it would be unwise indeed to dismiss this inquiry as all politics. The intelligence and security committee is perhaps the most respected in parliament – for its by-partisan approach, the discipline of its members and the quality of it work.

Whatever the committee determines, that it is investigating what occurs at universities is not bad for their reputations – it is disastrous.

overall: There was harrumphing around the traps yesterday that both inquiries are culture-warring designed to diminish universities and what they stand for – which may well be so. But this does not make the inquiries any less a threat to the community-standing of the HE system.