Greg Craven - 'Pyne's fine words fell on deaf ears'

12 Mar 2014 Article

Article originally appeared in The Australian on 12/03/2014.

Pyne's fine words fell on deaf ears

Greg Craven – 12/03/2014

THERE is nothing more frustrating than trying to speak to people in a language they just cannot, or will not, understand. Try having a conversation in rational English in Paris, or with a Collingwood supporter.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne may have reflected on this after his speech to assembled university leaders at the Universities Australia conference dinner the other week. Most vice-chancellors just do not speak “Liberal”, and it showed.

Generally, the sector was unmoved by Pyne’s speech. The widely shared consensus was that it was long, and had a lot about Bob Menzies, who normally is a figure of mixed horror and mirth among the quadrangles.

In fact, it is unlikely Pyne will give a more important speech during his time as Education Minister. Just for a start, when was the last time your heard Canberra’s satrap responsible for universities endorse their “autonomy” no less than seven times in a single outing?

Pyne’s invocation of Menzies was not simply – or solely – an attempt to claim the higher ground of higher education for the conservative political tradition – it was the basis for the articulation of a conservative theory of university independence.

Pyne traced his “new” freedom for universities back to Menzies’ insistence that they be enabled and entitled to pursue “unfettered truth”.

This is a mandate worth more to the academy than any enhanced block grant. Or should be.

In fact, Menzies himself was echoing far older notes. Pyne channelling Menzies is Deakin channelling Newman channelling Burke.

Each understood, in their own times and their own ways, that free universities freely pursuing truth profoundly promote not only the contemporary desideratum of innovation, but the fundamental goals of civilisation and a free society as such. This is the ultimate object of academic freedom, not any mere individual right of self-expression.

The chief point of Pyne’s speech clearly was to centralise universities within the historical liberal project and to assert them as social and constitutional organisms as vital to civic society as a free press and an apolitical army.

The latter is a proposition with which not only all true conservatives but most of the clear thinkers on the opposition benches would heartily agree.

It is a judgment on Pyne’s listeners rather than him that when they hear the trumpet of liberty rather than the tinkling of a cash register, they tune out. Lest this be dismissed as mere theory, consider Pyne’s scorecard so far.

Already he has moved to implement the deregulatory measures designed to free up universities recommended in the Kwong Lee Dow and Phillips reports, also supported by his political opponents.

But more, he is busily recasting the brief of the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency so that it accurately reflects the “light touch regulation” so desperately needed by – and promised to- Australia’s free universities.

His speech directly traces these concrete measures to the university autonomy he endorses as an intrinsic part of liberal theory.

Pyne does understand, however, that liberty is not licence. Like the sector itself, he accepts that autonomy must occur within a framework of accountability, and this requires a regulator. But not a boa constrictor.

The really interesting thing to consider is where this general commitment to university autonomy might lead in terms of wider policy. After all, independence is the greatest claimed asset of the academy, and Universities Australia in recent years rightly has articulated what this means in terms of freedom to teach, to research, to enrol and to hire.

One thing certainly is clear. The profoundly flawed original approach embodied in the creation of TEQSA has been repudiated.

TEQSA was planned as a regulator in the absence of the articulation of any fundamental governance principles around the delicate and critical sector to be regulated. Such principles only were grafted on to the legislation at a late stage in its development, and there always was the danger – ultimately realised – that the body so created would resist the transplant.

The logical path would have been to articulate the fundamental principles and have them drive the regulator, rather than the other way around.

Pyne’s speech, and his actions so far, strongly suggest he gets this as Tony Abbott gets Speedos.

If so, a number of intriguing possibilities emerge.

At the moment, Pyne merely is doing running repairs to the system of higher education regulation through his changes to TEQSA.

If he wanted to put the whole house in order, the best blueprint ultimately would involve not an act recasting TEQSA, but one placing the regulator in the context of the sector it regulates.

This would be not a TEQSA act but a universities act. It would set out the basic principled characteristics of a university, critically including its purposed autonomy, and require the regulator to assure the sector in accordance with its character. The horse would come firmly before the cart.

Properly drafted, this statement of character would become the Menzian charter of independence of Australian universities, the independence that ultimately underlies the academic freedom and quality that has made Australian university education the object of desire around the world.

Nervous bureaucrats and proud ministers need not reach for their bolt-cutters. Legislative provisions like this would not guarantee any particular measure of funding, nor would they prevent commonwealth parliaments and executives from recasting the sector as and when desired.

They would serve not only as a regulatory charter but as a moral beacon that would light the way for both governments and universities in their protection of our national intellectual endeavour.

More, for a Canberra clearly contemplating devolution of school instruction to the states but the retention of the commanding slopes of university education, an act of this type could provide a regime allowing the commonwealth to preclude state intrusion into its higher education patch. This would include stopping state re-regulation of freedoms strategically conceded by Capital Hill.

This would not mean that the commonwealth would need to “take over” – let alone “acquire” – universities, as is sometimes suggested. The commonwealth has more than adequate constitutional capacity, under the corporations and other powers, to overlay universities with a uniform tissue of freedoms and corresponding responsibilities, without having to extract them from the states. Unless this is what a state wanted.

This approach could be enormously attractive to universities. It would involve not only recognition of their autonomy but uniformity of regulation, auditing, applicability of laws, taxation and funding.

It could be extended to efficiencies in areas like planning, capital development and workforce.

So there is more to freedom even than autonomy. Freedom’s just another word for everything left to gain.

Greg Craven is vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.