Opinion: Politics has lost interest in excellence

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DEFENDERS of the Australian National University School of Music have come up hard against the utilitarian attitudes of the ANU Council, which refused last week to question the vice chancellor’s plan to gut the School.

The Council is a politicised body, and Australian politics has itself largely lost interest in excellence.

Not for this generation of mainstream politicians the risk of reaching for radical insight and innovation, the wisdom of broad, long and deep views of our societies, the excellence born of talent and dedication, and the inspiration that flows from all of these.

Australia has never had a consistent aspiration to greatness or excellence, or even just to the solidly competent.

We have episodes of grand designs but then lose courage and descend back into muddle and mediocrity, as the histories of the Sydney Opera House and of Canberra itself attest.

We are still immature colonials at heart, unwilling to be first at anything, unwilling to grow up and step into who we really are, unique by virtue of our unique context.

Founded in 1948 during one of our past fits of aspiration, the ANU began brilliantly by quickly reaching the international forefront in many of its research activities.

That level of achievement continued for decades. It was possible because very good people were hired and given their head. It’s success was obvious to casual observation and documented through the usual forms of academic evaluation.

Then the economic rationalists and managerialists took over.

The managerialists brought their empty mantras of efficiency, accountability, flexibility, streamlining, quality assurance (ha!), innovation (ha!) and so on. This mentality is risk averse. It focusses on so-called under-performance, all the while trampling risk-takers and misfits, some of whom will be the new super-performers.

Economic rationalists were placed in the Council and upper management. ANU management spent the year 1999 attacking its own academic staff, motivated by the “labour market flexibility” ideology.

This misguided neoliberal nonsense would put all academics on short-term contracts. If ANU is to be an actual university, then it must cultivate and protect independent thinking. That is why academic tenure was instituted.

I wrote at the time that if that attack succeeded then the ANU name should be changed to Australian National Training and Consulting, Inc.

Though the current vice chancellor’s immediate predecessor, Ian Chubb, was a dictator internally, to his great credit he did resist such ideological pressure from outside, and he did seem to have some understanding of the essence of a university.

Now we are back to the bad old days.

The ANU is being strangled by ever-growing demands for micro-documentation of outputs and justification of funds.

Academics spend large amounts of their valuable time in meetings, pushing paper and writing proposals, most of which are not funded. Administrative staff numbers have grown dramatically, and have become a major cost burden (which is not a criticism of the many good people involved).

Academics are amazingly dedicated and resilient, and there are still many excellent people within ANU. However it becomes ever-more difficult to match the early brilliance, notwithstanding the recent Nobel Prize, which was for work done well over a decade ago.

The Humanities have already suffered heavily from previous assaults. The School of Music is a more delicate flower, and more easily crushed. When Vice Chancellor Ian Young first announced his intention to seek savings across the university he claimed the purpose was to focus resources more strongly on excellence. Why then is he attacking one of the ANU’s undoubted centres of excellence?

Evidently his motivation flows rather from the lazy and myopic option of requiring all “cost centres” to be self funding. So commerce, management and economics will prosper (the latter despite its obvious monumental failures).

Research will continue to shift from long-term, high-risk and fundamental to short-term, incremental and serving the country’s existing financial power centres. Training and consulting anyone?

The ANU Council is the governing body, and its central purpose ought to be to protect and cultivate the essence of the university. Since I was an academic representative on Council, 1990-1993, it has been downsized twice, allegedly to make it more efficient.

Yet meetings take just as long, there are just fewer present who have any direct knowledge of the very diverse issues that arise in a university.

The downsizings really were to make Council easier to control, by reducing the number of loose cannons and the chance of a significant knot of dissent.

The power in Council is firmly held by those appointed by the Federal Minister, on the recommendation of internal committees of appointment that are dominated by… those appointed by the Minister.

It is inbred and thoroughly politicised.

Perhaps the best option for the School of Music is for it to be reclaimed from the ANU by Canberrans. In the absence of local filthy-rich benefactors, perhaps available government funding could be supplemented by an innovative financing model that draws on the more distributed but still substantial local wealth.

For the ANU I fear the road is still long and hard. There is little sign yet of another outbreak of idealism and vision in Australia, of the kind that ought to have continued to support all of our national institutions, including the ANU, the School of Music and Canberra itself.

In the meantime, those of us who think politicians should care about more than pandering to exploitative people and activities can only increase our efforts to overcome the selfishness, materialism and, above all, fear that underpin our current, prolonged binge of venality.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Why do the benefactors have to be local and why do they have to be filthy-rich? The ANU is a national university with an international reputation. St George bank is a major benefactor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Why can’t a similar benefactor be found for the ANU SoM?

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