I got a book for my birthday: How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman. I knew democracy was old, but I didn’t realise it could die. The book explained how fragile and precious democracy is. A weekend or so ago I was glued to the election coverage in Australia and I rejoiced because, yes … democracy was the winner.

Australian democracy is great. Voting is compulsory, the simple preferential system in the lower house is brilliant, and I love how our collective community has asked itself – why don’t we have a sausage sizzle on the side?

I also love the how-to-vote cards. I’ve often wondered if we really needed these, but with the “above the line” and “below the line” voting in the Senate I was eager to check just how many squares I had to number. I also liked watching the interactions between the supporters of different parties outside the voting booths. Occasionally, there was a bit of competitiveness but never anything serious.

I hope we are witnessing a new dawn for democracy. Way back, after the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, and later the fall of the Soviet block, the future looked bright, but democracies are not perfect. Gradually a malaise seemed to settle over the west, over Europe and the US. The election of Trump, the Brexit vote, and the failure of democracy to deliver on complex problems like climate change, perhaps caused people to lose hope. Was it possible that democracy would end?

But Trump did leave the White House. And the pandemic reminded us that society matters. The successes were mixed but in most countries governments committed to communal economic measures to help with the impacts of COVID, and citizens obeyed health orders to protect themselves, but also for the common good. Some leaders, like Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, with her new, more caring and empathetic approach, shone out on the world stage.

Then suddenly the alternative to democracy exploded. Putin invaded Ukraine on the remarkable pretext that he was liberating the country from a Nazi leader who is Jewish. Suddenly the world united against this abomination. The world also witnessed the horror. The obliteration of Mariupol – a city which was simply made an example of and was levelled – and the deaths and suffering of Ukrainian families and their pets, and also of conscript Russian soldiers, and of course the Ukrainian fighters. The galvanisation of Europe and the free world was something that many did not expect. Democracy was back.

And in Australia the in-person votes, the postal votes, the absentee votes were all being counted. Early in the evening the result was clear. Our former prime minister stood up to speak. I wondered if he would disappoint but he congratulated his opponents and importantly he acknowledged the importance of Australian democracy.

In his place the Australian people elected a populist or a tall poppy, but rather a small poppy, who had been brought up by a single mother who was a disability pensioner in public housing. Along with him ten Indigenous people were elected, several people of diverse ancestry, and many women. Democracy was doing its stuff and moving with the times. Young people, unjaded, and with new ideals, were speaking, and women voters were driving change.

So, what does this mean for universities?

It’s important that universities never become a partisan political issue. In the old days both sides of politics supported universities. Coalition governments delivered Backing Australia’s Ability, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the Higher Education Endowment Fund, the Medical Research Future Fund, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda. Labor built on these initiatives, and introduced the Demand Driven System to expand opportunities, provided unwavering support under Kim Carr, and pledged to fund the full costs of research after the Cutler Review.

Now the democratic cycle provides an opportunity to reset. It is time to shrug off divisive ideologies.

When the whole world is investing in knowledge in science, developing understanding via the humanities and social sciences, how on earth did our past government appear to think the biggest issues at Australian universities are free speech and foreign interference, not teaching and research?

Why were universities locked out of JobKeeper?

Why was Performance Based Funding introduced and then immediately supplemented by the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund (that does a similar thing but adds to the administrative burden)?

Is there any evidence that the Orwellian named Job Ready Graduates system has anything to do with job ready graduates, and what unintended consequences will follow – universities are incentivised to teach less science and engineering as the teaching costs in these disciplines are no longer covered, and humanities and social science degrees are out of reach of all but the wealthier students?

In 2007 a new Prime Minister appointed the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne to coordinate the 2020 Summit – an effort to look to the future and harness the power of Australia’s thinking. Again, knowledge and education are the answers. And if we are to tackle climate change, health, inequality, inclusion, reconciliation, and corruption, we are going to need answers and we are going to have to use our brains.

Hooray for democracy.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life, UNSW Sydney



to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education