When politicians insert themselves into the nation’s research peer review process, they not only break convention almost as sacred as the separation of powers, they trash Australia’s research capability and its university sector in the eyes of the world, with the stroke of an ideological pen.
—Vicki Thomson, chief executive, Group of Eight Universities, Australian, October 31, 2018
People employed within the cocooned world of Australian academic life often suffer from delusions of grandeur, as the spokesperson for our oldest group of sandstone universities clearly demonstrates above. Thomson was complaining about the revelation that, of the more than one thousand grants handed out by the Australian Research Council for the 2018 academic year, the then Commonwealth Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, had used his legal prerogative to veto the award of eleven grants for projects that clearly bore the stamp of either Marxist or anti-imperialist ideology. Thomson’s notion that the “eyes of the world” are on academic funding policy in this country is delusional and her claim that the academic peer review process is sacred or in any way comparable to the separation of the executive and judicial powers of the nation is beyond parody.
The peer review process for academic publication has long been corrupted by politics, at least in the humanities and social sciences. In Australia, the process began in the 1970s with the emergence of feminist theory and Aboriginal history which, together, led the march of identity politics through our public educational institutions. The corruption was inherent in the key principle on which both fields agreed: all academic work is politicised and hence academics are entitled to pursue political ambitions rather than the scholarly objectives that were once the norm.
Keith Windschuttle’s column appears in every edition of Quadrant.
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As the feminist historian Marilyn Lake asserted in 1982: “The point is of course that whether its practitioners are aware of it or not the writing of history is a political activity. Emphasis, inclusion and omission all derive from a political perspective.” Or as Henry Reynolds wrote in 1978: “History should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian, it should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.”
From then on, discipline after discipline converted peer review into a process of political approval, with the chief criterion being whether the work under review conformed to the currently approved ideological line. Today, the Dean of Arts at what was once Australia’s leading academic institution, the University of Sydney, is Annamarie Jagose, who lists her research interests as “feminist studies, lesbian/gay studies and queer theory”—fields that never existed in traditional academic life. In 2012 she received an ARC grant for her study, Real Sex in the Cinema, to examine fifty films containing scenes of unsimulated sex in order to gain “insights” into “transformations in sexuality that are central to the experience of modern identity and gendered selfhood”. This is what is acceptable in a Dean of Arts today.
So in November last year, when the new federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, declared the ARC’s grants process should be subject to a new test, requiring the applicant to explain how the project would benefit the nation, he was simply replacing existing left-wing political standards with one that bore some resemblance to the wishes of the taxpayers who fund it all. In applying this criterion, Tehan was not breaching some sacred trust, he was just doing politics, like those who receive the grants.
At the time, Tehan revealed the Commonwealth was providing no less than $3.6 billion to the higher education research sector in 2018-19. This was in addition to the $17 billion in funding to run universities. The astonishing statistic for research prompted me to spend some time on the ARC website, searching the spreadsheet that details the 4000 grants made to academics from 2016 to 2018.
This was not an edifying exercise for someone who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s employed in humanities and social science departments where the very light teaching loads common then—six to twelve hours of lectures and tutorials a week, with the rest of the time purportedly devoted to research, plus a sabbatical on full pay every six years with no teaching—meant that academics had the best possible opportunity of any profession to do the research that attracted them.
The only guidelines that prevailed before this were those defined by the great Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans of the Australian National University, in his article “Do We Need Universities?” (Quadrant, December 1987): “A university is a place where scholars seek truth, pursue and transmit knowledge for knowledge’s sake—irrespective of the consequences, implications and utility of the endeavour.” He said there were only two absolute requisites a university itself should provide: a community of genuine scholars, and a good library or laboratories for the scientists.
In my time as an academic, three of the six books I produced were widely set as texts in undergraduate humanities and social science courses around Australia—Unemployment (1978), The Media (1984) and The Killing of History (1994). I never received one cent from the government to write or research any of them. Indeed, it never occurred to me to apply for money to do what I was already being paid to do. Like other academics, I had plenty of time outside the classroom to do the required research and writing. All I needed was Ryckmans’s two essentials—compatible colleagues and a good library.
So it was a surprise to find that after I resigned from academe in 1993, several former colleagues started to tap into a newly expanded research grant scheme. What was at first a trickle in the 1990s, with grants of $30,000 to $50,000, became a flood a decade later. For instance, I was amazed to see the aforementioned Marilyn Lake getting $480,000 to write a book which, under what was once normal academic practice, would have needed no research funding at all. This was a study of racism in the 1890s in Australia and other “white men’s countries”, based largely on the published writings of a select group of intellectuals from the period. When it came to actually writing the book, Lake persuaded Henry Reynolds to be co-author of what became Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (2008).
But this was small beer compared to what happens today. In the 2016-18 ARC grants list, the standout researcher in the humanities is Joy Damousi, a historian at the University of Melbourne. Over this period Damousi secured three grants totalling $3,160,223—yes, three million dollars.
Damousi’s political interests are clear from the titles of her earlier books: Women Come Rally: Socialism, Communism and Gender in Australia 1890–1955 (1994); Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia (1997); and Freud in the Antipodes: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australia (2005). She also co-authored with Marilyn Lake a feminist anti-war history, Gender and War (1995).
In 2016-18 Damousi is either the sole or lead author for three separate projects: a study of women on farms funded for $379,000; a project on child refugees worth $2.47 million; and research into the plights and sufferings of academics who labour in the humanities departments of Australian universities for $306,467.
Now, the last thing I would want to suggest is that Damousi, Lake or any of the others mentioned here are unworthy of their grants. They have obviously done what it takes to win these endowments, in the face of presumably stiff competition. They played the system the way it was meant to be played. The big question that remains is how did ministers of education let this system get to the grotesquely generous stage it has reached now, when academics of earlier generations did the same kind of work for no grants at all?
Using Ryckmans’s guidelines, here is my recommendation to Dan Tehan. He should veto grants to all fields in the humanities where the research can all be done from an academic’s office and campus library, and where the only effort required is to read books and look at computer screens. In preparing this column I tallied the grants made in just three fields of this kind:
- Literary Studies, 2016-18—$9.59 million
- Cultural Studies, 2016-18—$9.13 million
- Media Studies, 2016-18—$6.61 million
Hence, if Tehan decides not to fund any further applications from these fields, he would save his government $25.33 million in one fell swoop. He would also save a lot of wasted academic and bureaucratic time and effort that goes into writing the successful and unsuccessful applications for these grants.
If the minister likes this idea and cares to approach the Quadrant office, we could suggest a number of other academic fields where even greater savings could be obtained. At a rough guess, this approach could probably save around $100 million from the next three-year round of grants. That would make a real contribution to the national interest.