Issue 5, May 2007 | David Ritter

Starving the Nation's Mind

One of the features of the premiership of that clever politician John Howard has been the profession of his ‘full bodied commitment to Australian values’1,  which he sees as ‘an outshoot of western civilization.’2   Assuming the mantle of protector of a shared deep cultural heritage, the Prime Minister claims that his is a dual vigilance, not only against external dangers to national security which threaten ‘our way of life’3 , but internally, as ‘a principled defender of … a traditionalist view of a good education and in opposition to the more fashionable, progressive views that have held sway in schools and universities.’ In relation to the latter in particular, the Prime Minister poses in defence of the libraries and lecture halls, declaring his belief that ‘the higher purposes of education’ lies ‘in carrying forward the best of the Western cultural tradition.’5   With Mr. Howard guarding the pass, we are encouraged to sleep easy in our beds: the world we Australians have and enjoy, the enlightenment traditions which we have inherited and build upon are solid and safe.  Don’t worry, Mr. Howard assures us, he is looking after the future.  And so we take comfort.  Good night, Dad.

Something, though, is going bump in the night.  Under cover of his assurances, Mr. Howard, the image-managed ‘Papa Small’ of the Australian nation, is not quite the model national parishioner he would have us believe.  In the context of education, but under cover of blandishment and lullaby, the Prime Minister is getting up to some things that are dark and nasty.  If one accepts the proposition that universities are among the principal bearers of the legacy of the enlightenment; of ‘western civilization’ (to adopt that ambiguous expression), then the Prime Minister is not the guard at the pass, but the vandal in the night.  He has led a government which has impoverished, bullied and denigrated the higher education sector.  John Howard has been the chief abuser in a persistent and real attack on the teaching and learning of literature, classics, history, science, mathematics, philosophy and the other pillars of the traditions which he disingenuously professes to defend. 

A principal form of the abuse has been the deprivation of public funding from universities.  The Prime Minister’s betrayal of the traditions he pretends to defend is real and measurable.  In a period of extraordinary economic growth and prosperity, Mr. Howard’s Government has systematically deprived universities of the sustenance they need.  In a time of plenty, rather than public investment in education, Howard has overseen the drastic reduction of Commonwealth funding.  In one recent article reflecting on international comparisons, Barry McGaw, the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at Melbourne University labeled the data ‘stark’.  McGaw pointed out that Australia is the only OECD country that reduced its public funding of tertiary education institutions between 1995 and 2003 — by 7 per cent in real terms — and that in 2003, Australia was 25th (4th last) in the OECD in terms of the percentage of GDP spent from public funds.6  What these figures make clear is that we can take it as demonstrable fact that this Commonwealth Government is systematically under-funding higher education in Australia.  For all his carefully affected sub-urbanity, Mr. Howard is not keeping the Australian house up with the OECD Joneses.

The basic duty of competent governments to use the good times to make provision for any future economic downturn is a matter of both morality and economics.  It is right behavior for a government to invest public money in higher education during a period of abundance.  It is a failure of this Commonwealth Government’s morals not to continue to support a system which has not only produced the conditions of current prosperity, but the proper maintenance of which is necessary in order to offer similar opportunities to future generations.  Lending fiscal weight to this argument, we know that future and ongoing economic prosperity depends upon higher education being adequately funded because the end-product of financially lucrative innovation requires adequate base public funding of higher education.  If you want Nokia, you must fund basic university maths and science.  Breakthroughs which eventually pump up the GDP inevitably have lengthy gestation periods of foundational work which rely on public funding.  In the context of the humanities, a critical mass of scholars engaging with the great conversations which continue down the ages is a vital component of social and cultural cohesion: truly the legacy of the enlightenment, which must be nourished not presumed.  The moral failure to provide for the humanist scholarly community while times are good is a complete betrayal of the very traditions Mr. Howard pretends to protect.  Although the Prime Minister masquerades as a vigilant ant, the failure to provide universities with the sustenance they need while the economic summer is high, reeks of the profligacy of the grasshopper. 

If Howard meant what he said about valuing higher education his government would fund it properly.  Instead, what the financial figures tell us is that ‘carrying forward the best of the Western cultural tradition’ is clearly not a priority for the present Commonwealth administration.   Encouraging the nation to rest easy, Papa Small is metaphorically drinking away next year’s school money.  While the economy delivers bumper times and behind his grand words, the clever politician Mr. Howard delinquently squanders Australia’s cultural and intellectual heritage.   So how do we explain the irony of the gaping gulf between the Prime Minister’s cosseting rhetoric on higher education and his government’s evident failure to properly fund universities to competitive international standards? 

In that recent classic of American political commentary, What's the Matter with Kansas?, the journalist and historian Thomas Frank explains how the Republican right in America have used explosive moral and cultural issues to galvanize political support, but in reality pursued a policy program which owes little to ideas of cultural morality and instead is almost entirely directed to freeing capitalism from all restraints of consumer, trade practices, environmental, labor, planning and other forms of public protection.7    The right’s position in the so-called ‘culture wars’ in America not only provides political dynamism but acts as camouflage for the real agenda, which is freeing all restraints on big capitalism.  Ironically, of course, letting slip the dogs of the unrestrained market further erodes the traditional values which the right purports to value, but the paradox is not noticed because of the effectiveness of the smokescreen.  In the context of university-funding in Australia, the cunning politics of Mr. Howard follow the tactical path laid bare by Frank.  That is, while Howard makes much of his purported commitment to traditional ideals of learning, he oversees the reduction of funding to the academy in real terms and is prepared to leave the fundamental core non-vocational disciplines naked before the unforgiving market.  Under the cover of false words about Shakespeare and science, the truth is that the Prime Minister regards our intellectual and cultural tradition, as just another commodity. While claiming to cherish the traditional values of the university, the real agenda is the unrestrained marketisation of higher education: the unleashing of Howard’s Brutopia on ‘the best of the Western cultural tradition.’ 

The New Critic believes that the adequate funding of higher education in Australia and more specifically of core non-vocational disciplines including science, history, literature, philosophy, classics and mathematics is a matter of the exercise of prudent government, proper morality, sound economics, strengthening the bonds of community and society and an investment in the public good.  More honestly than the Prime Minister, we stand in defence of the ideal of adequate public funding of universities, as the bearers of the best of our cultural and intellectual traditions.  In the first four issues of The New Critic we invited contributions ranging over matters of current interest, without seeking thematic unity, but this fifth issue is largely devoted to the theme of education policy as a sign of our commitment to enlivening public debate on the matter.  We invite you to read and consider.  Further themed issues are planned for later in the year.  In particular we are interested in receiving expressions of interest for contributions to a future issue dealing with Australia’s relationship with our giant regional neighbors: China, India and Indonesia.        

David Ritter
~ For the Editors of The New Critic

  1. Interview Transcript, 12 September 2006, Interview with Alan Jones, Radio 2GB, Sydney
  2. Interview Transcript, 24 February 2006, Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3AW, Melbourne
  3. Speech Transcript, 26 September 2006, Address to the ASPI Global Forces 2006 Conference - Australia's Security Agenda, Hyatt Hotel, Canberra at 
  4. This is the Prime Minister’s description of Quadrant magazine, speech Transcript, 04 October 2006, Address to the Quadrant Magazine 50th Anniversary Dinner, but I think might not unfairly also describe his self conception on this issue. 
  5. Speech Transcript, 08 February 2007, Dumbing Down by Kevin Donnelly, Book Launch, Parliament House, Canberra 
  6. B. McGaw, ‘Education: Why Spend More’, The New Matilda, Wednesday 31 January 2007.
  7. Currently available in Australia as T. Frank, What’s the Matter with America?, (expanded 2nd ed), Vintage, London, 2006.