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Simon Birmingham’s intervention in research funding is not unprecedented, but dangerous

Jon Piccini and Dirk Moses write in The Conversation (26.10.18) about former education minister Simon Birmingham's worrying, but not unprecedented, personal intervention into a number of research funding decisions by the Australian Research Council.

'Senator Simon Birmingham’s personal intervention during his time as education minister in 2017 and 2018 to deny funding to 11 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants, all in the humanities and worth a combined total of A$4.2 million, has sparked outrage.

'Revealed in Senate estimates on Thursday, the vetoed projects included $926,372 for a La Trobe University project titled “Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity”, $764,744 for a Macquarie University project on “the music of nature and the nature of music”, and $391,574 for an ANU project called “Price, metals and materials in the global exchange”.

'On Friday, Birmingham defended his intervention, suggesting most Australian taxpayers would prefer their funding be directed to other research.

'In a statement, Ian Jacobs, the vice chancellor and president at UNSW, from which three grants were vetoed, said “the unjustified and unexplained decision to solely deny funding for research that contributes to scholarship in arts and humanities is deeply troubling”.'

Government to use research funds for places at regional universities

Roger Scott writes in the Pearls & Irritations blog (17.11.18) about the federal government's proposal to pay for increased student places at smaller regional universities with money earmarked for research funding at larger capital city campuses.

'One of my mentors once wrote a dreadful book called Parity of Esteem. He was accidentally appointed as the inaugural Principal of the Canberra CAE, after applying for a lesser position in Administrative Studies based on his leadership experience in Nigeria and at the University of Mauritius. Sam Richardson’s title referenced the underlying aim behind the creation of a binary system in the 1964 Martin Report. This was designed to meet burgeoning demand for tertiary qualifications by re-branding existing teachers colleges and institutes of technology as Colleges of Advanced Education.

'At the time and subsequently, nobody in the business believed that there would actually be parity but it was a political convenience, particularly in non-metropolitan locations. Staff there had been pressing their MPs for the prestige and commercial benefits of joining a network of CAEs which included major metropolitan players like RMIT. CAEs offered exciting job opportunities in an era of reduced job openings in existing universities and staff built reputations based on the quality of their vocationally-focussed offerings.

'... research is now seen as a political target by proclaiming a new essentially political criterion – ‘public interest’ – as a back-up to the recent ad hoc intervention by the Minister in the government’s own evaluation process. Perhaps he is assuming that the sort of people who value tertiary institutions in places like Toowoomba and Rockhampton are foot-soldiers in the culture wars and sceptical of the benefits of research.'


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