Political censorship in Australian research processes – towards authoritarianism

Regular readers will know that I place great value in the disciplines we broadly describe as the Humanities. An understanding of knowledge that history, language, philosophy, geography, politics, sociology, anthropology, music, drama, classical studies and the like is essential if we are to advance societies and avoid the mindless descent into tribalism and authoritarianism. Last month, two things were revealed. First, the Federal Minister for Education vetoed successful grant applications for funding under the Australian Research Council processes, effectively politicising the process. He took exception to the topics. His decision was only revealed months later through interrogations during a Senate Estimates hearing. Second, an Australian university released a research report it had commissioned – The Value of the Humanities – which sought to articulate “the value of the Humanities to students thinking about their education and career options and to businesses faced with hiring choices”. It shows the immense value that teaching and research in the Humanities brings to employers, individuals and society in general. It makes the Federal minister look like a fool, although that was not its intent. A fool and one who is deeply insecure about allowing knowledge to proliferate. The latter is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime.

Some background blog posts I have written (among others) include:

1. I feel good knowing there are libraries full of books (October 29, 2010).

2. Education – a vehicle for class division (November 23, 2010).

3. Technocrats move over, we need to read some books (June 13, 2012).

4. The humanities is necessary but not sufficient for social transformation (December 18, 2012).

5. We need more artists and fewer entrepreneurs (January 10, 2013).

Research funding scandal

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is the national competitive funding agency which is funded by the Federal government and applications are rigourously peer-reviewed.

The success rate is low and the grants give high status on the recipients as a consequence. Universities love researchers who get these grants because apart from the individual status, the Federal government then adds further funding per dollar awarded.

I have long been a reviewer and have been systematically successful over my career in gaining these grants (mostly in the field of econometrics, spatial analysis and regional studies). The funding has allowed me to employ many people and keep my research centre – Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE) – going since 1998.

The protocol is that while the Federal Minister of Education signs off on the successful grants, he/she never intervenes in the independent decision-making organised and administered by the ARC.

However, there have been known but rare cases where a Minister has vetoed grant applications.

The former conservative education minister Brendan Nelson vetoed humanities grants for the 2006 funding round. You can read about that scandal in this article – Research floored by full Nelson (November 16, 2005).

Around that time, the right-wing commentators were running the line that “the ARC had fallen prey to “Marxists”, “leftists” and “peek-in-your-pants researchers fixated on gender or race”.

The Federal minister bowed to the pressure and secretly vetoed several grants in Humanities. Some of them were studies of sexuality.

It was clearly politicising the process – vetting risque Humanities – out of the process.

Of course, the risque nature of some research in those disciplines is why they are so interesting and challenging. It is why they broaden our humanity and increase tolerance and understanding of difficult issues.

But like Hitler burnt the books that made him insecure, the conservatives were intent on sanitising which research gets funded in Australia.

This scandal led the next government (Labor) to introduce a protocol that required the Minister to make “a special declaration so the decision was public” (Source).

But the politicisation of our research funding process is back.

In the current round, a scandal has broken out because the conservative Federal Minister of Education has once again secretly vetoed successful ARC grant applications.

The Hansard for the Education and Employment Committee – Senate Estimates Hearing, October 25, 2018 – reveals that the Minister rejected 11 successful grant applications comprising more than $A4 million.

The CEO of the ARC, Professor Sue Thomas was grilled by the Federal Senate Committee and this is what transpired (discussion and revelations start on Page 126 of the Hansard):

1. Eleven grants (6 general Discovery, 3 Early Career and 2 Future Fellowships) valued at more than $A4 million, that had been deemed worthy of funding by the independent process, were rejected by the Minister.

2. Most were from the Humanities and their titles were:

  • Rioting and the Literary Archive ($A228,155) – Discovery
  • A History of Men’s Dress 1870-1970 ($A325,592) – Discovery
  • Beauty and Ugliness as Persuasive Tools in Changing China’s Gender Norms ($A161,774) – Discovery
  • Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar ($A222,936) – Discovery
  • Music Heritage and Cultural Justice in the Post-Industrial Legacy City ($A226,811) – Discovery
  • Greening Media Sport ($A259,720) – Discovery
  • Prints, metals and materials in global exchange ($A391,574) – Early Career
  • Legal secularism in Australia ($A330,466) – Early Career
  • Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the black list, 1917 to 1950 ($A335,788) – Early Career
  • The music of nature and the nature of music ($A764,744) – Future Fellowship
  • Writing the struggle for Sioux and US modernity ($A926,372) – Future Fellowship

3. The Discovery and Early Career projects were rejected in the November 2017 round and the Future Fellowships were rejected in the June 2018.

4. The Minister in question declined to give the reasons for the rejection and refused to follow the protocol previously agreed that he would make a public declaration as to why any successful grants were vetoed.

In fact, the Senate Committee asked the CEO: “The government has not chosen to announce these decisions? They’ve not been announced anywhere else?” Answer: “No.”

Next question: “They’ve been kept secret.” Answer: “They just haven’t been announced.”

5. The ARC told the Senate hearing that there was “nothing untoward” about these specific applications and that “they went through the normal processes of the ARC and were recommended by” the ARC for funding.

6. The Applicants were never notified that they had been successful but rejected at the Ministerial level.

The Labor Senator on the Committee called the Minister’s actions “political intervention”.

A conservative Senator claimed that he appreciated the Minister’s “careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars”.

It is also part of an overall decline in the number of grant recipients at a time the Federal government is claiming it is pushing an ideas revolution.

The Labor Senator the media that the Minister was (Source):

He’s pandering to rightwing extremism in an attempt to peddle ignorance … There is no case for this blatant political interference to appease the most reactionary elements of the Liberal and National party and the shock-jocks.

These are grants in arts, culture, music and history which somehow or other in his mind are not acceptable … what is his research expertise to justify interventions of that type?

Once the Minister’s decision was outed at the Senate Estimates process he channeled Donald Trump by Tweeting:

Which is a disgusting misuse of his authority.

For those not familiar with the process, these applications take months to prepare. We start the application process (that has to be submitted each March) around November or December.

People used to ask me why I didn’t take holidays in January (or ever) and the answer was I was always preparing these lengthy applications – sometimes upwards of 80 pages of documentation and case presentation.

When the Minister rejected the successful applications, the applicants were not informed that they had been successful but rejected at the political level.

For them, they would have just received the standard failure letter and felt the immense disappointment that accompanies that receipt.

That is why I believe the Minister’s actions were an abuse of his authority – in addition to the politicisation of the research process.

These decisions were taken before the Cabinet reshuffle.

The new conservative Federal Education Minister responded to the revelations and a written request from the Labor Committee Senator for an explanation, with this tripe:

Labor believes the government should just sign blank cheques because they don’t care about spending other people’s money.

We believe a good government respects hard-working taxpayers by doing due diligence about how their money is spent.”

Which is pitiful on moral, democratic and economic grounds.

The value of the humanities

As signalled in the Introduction, a new report was published in October 2018 which casts quite a different picture of the value of research and teaching in the Humanities.

It counters the popular narrative that you do an Arts degree to end up flipping burgers.

As my previous blog posts on this topic (see above) have indicated the bias within the Australian higher education system is towards the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas of teaching and research.

The Humanities (and social sciences) are being squeezed.

Further, even within Economics (a social science) the push is to narrow it down to Business studies.

A previous Dean told me several years ago that he didn’t want to see any social sciences within his ‘business faculty’. Idiot. I did a deal with the University soon after to leave that faculty and establish my research group as a separate organisational unit within the University under the aegis of ‘research services’. A first! It gave me independence as long as I kept earning research funds.

But this mindless push against the Humanities at all levels (political, university management) in favour of STEM and Business doesn’t accord with even the evidence that is used to justify the anti-Humanities bias.

The report from Deloitte-Access (DA), which is a management consultancy research group in Australia, makes it very clear that the Humanities deliver massive benefits to our societies.

They conclude that:

Humanities education and research has been a critical foundation of our society for centuries. Disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy have shaped institutions and policy debates and attracted generations of students seeking to understand more about how societies function and change.

But while previous studies have focused on the broader benefits of Humanities to enriching our societies, enhancing the democratic process, making people happier, the DA Study also focuses on more narrow ‘economic’ benefits:

1. employers, through having a more productive, innovative and multidisciplinary workforce;

2. the broader community, through better informed citizens and a better understanding of our place in the world;

3. graduates, through increasing their lifetime earnings by increasing wages and job prospects; and

4. our society, through the contributions of Humanities research to improved social outcomes.

Some of the conclusions are worth repeating:

1. “Humanities degrees involve many technical skills including quantitative analysis skills, policy development, software use and foreign language skills.”

2. “Precisely because of their diversity, and not being common to all degrees, these skills can be difficult to neatly summarise but are nevertheless highly valued by employers.”

3. “In addition, transferrable skills … which have at their core the ability to solve complex problems by taking a flexible and adaptable approach, have become widely acknowledged as important in driving business success.”

4. These skills include “Communication, Teamwork, Problem-solving, Innovation and Emotional Judgement.” You won’t get much development in these areas doing a Business degree!

5. “a study of firms determined that differences in the level of transferrable skills of employees accounts for 3% of the total factor productivity gap between the best and worst performing firms.”

6. “Changes in the labour market are making these skills more important over time …”

7. Humanities “undergraduates and postgraduates tended to be more confident in their analytic and written communication skills relative to those in other fields of education”. This enhances their overall “employability” and over “40% of Humanities graduates work in market sector industries such as professional services”.

8. “the majority work in the non-market sectors of health care, education or public administration … This reflects the broader public benefit of the skills they have learned … Humanities graduates possessed the right mix of skills to help solve complex policy problems … The need to address such complex problems is expected to rise in the future.”

9. Humanities “education establishes greater levels of pro-social values.”

10. “Holding an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in the Humanities is associated with a wage premium of approximately 11% and 30% … relative to those with a completed high school education”.

In terms of lifetime earnings, it is estimated that “an average individual with a Humanities undergraduate degree (not including law) earns approximately $200,000 more after tax than the typical individual with no post-school qualification)” which is below the estimates for graduates in other areas.

This is largely because “Individuals with Humanities qualifications tend to move into industries and occupations of employment that do not fully reward this increased skill level in the form of increased wages”. So the wage differentials are largely due to occupational and sectoral biases.

11. “The industries in which the majority of Humanities graduates work (Education and Training, Health Care and Social Assistance and Public Administration and Safety) have the the highest levels of job satisfaction across all Australian industries, approximately 86%.”

12. “Individuals with a tertiary qualification in the Humanities are, on average, 3.8% more likely to participate in the workforce.”

The Report provides detailed descriptions of the skills acquired in a Humanities course of study by discipline and the value of such skills in a changing labour market.

The jobs that will withstand automation include those where critical thinking and problem solving are paramount. These are core transferrable skills developed within the Humanities.

The trap that the Minister falls into when he tries to whip up public scorn of projects such as the study of “Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar” is that he focuses only on content rather than process and other aspects of the research activity.

As the DA Report shows:

Humanities Ph.D.s are not necessarily being hired for their content expertise, but for their process skills: the ability to do excellent research, to write, to make cogent arguments. These skills, it turns out, are in high demand

And, please don’t think that I judge the content of the aforementioned study to be of no value.

There is value just in the aesthetic of study. That might not be of value to business but it is of immense value to a civilisation.

Learning about beauty, complexity, cultural diversity, historical artifacts, and such are such broadening human achievements that they alone make the study worthwhile.

The DA Report also notes that:

A Humanities education allows individuals to develop a number of capabilities that foster greater levels of tolerance and trust, in both institutions and in others.

Again essential building blocks for social stability and a world of kindness.

These ‘collective’ characteristics are considered dangerous by neoliberals because they make it harder for them to justify policy structures and corporate behaviour that widens inequalities, pushes millions into unemployment and poverty, pays below poverty line wages and the like.

Neoliberals want us to believe that competition, a dog-eat-dog world is part of our DNA.

A humanities education, typically shows us that we are more collective than that. We favour equity and sharing.

Those sorts of values, however, threaten the neoliberal order.

So we get these right-wing idiots making out that studies like those rejected by the Federal Minister are just ‘left-wing’ plots to undermine our fierce, competitive spirit.

More broadly, the DA Report provides a long list of “social and economic impacts of Humanities research”, which they believe a “significant”.


The Humanities face an on-going battle in our universities to remain viable.

Bean counting university managers try to quantify everything in terms of ‘commercial’ prospects, which is not a metric that is particularly applicable to anything important.

And the neoliberals are continually trying to undermine the place of the Humanities because they have deep-seated suspicions of any activity that broadens our minds and allows us to learn about history etc.

So there is political interference, exemplified by the Minister’s vetoing of successful grant applications.

Studies such as the DA Report are useful antidotes to this venal tomfoolery.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I heard the author of the study mentioned in Birmingham’s Tweet talking to Philip Adams. As he said, the area he looked at was, arguably, the wellspring of ‘Western Civilisation’; you know, that one The Ramsay Centre are so in awe of.
    Yeah, it’s not too far removed from book burning. Fahrenheit 451.

  2. Humanities does not fit into the neoliberal mind set! how can a dogma that constantly scaffolds market dominance above all things!

  3. @micheal lacey: It doesn’t fit nationalists, authoritarians, racists, plutocrats,etc. either. That’s why the have always been under relentless attacks from almost every corner of the political spectrum.

    I relate to Bill’s post in a very special matter. As an engineer, I spent a fair amount of years in the halls of a “University” and soon realized it didn’t really merit that name any longer. Universities were called such, because they aimed to transmit “universal” knowledge to their students. In the past you wouldn’t find an engineer who couldn’t tell his Plato from his Aristotle, nowadays you’ll find many a freshman who built his own GPS from spare parts he took of his broken down microwave, but who’ll leave the University without having read a book not written by Dan Brown. Aside from two “non-technical” mandatory assignments, I received none of that universal formation. I felt compelled to complete a PhD because I felt like nothing but a highly trained technician. However, after the PhD, had I not pursued other interests in my spare time, I would have ended being an even more highly trained technician. Regardless, I often found myself justifying the work of scientists in all subjects to regular people, not right-wing authoritarians or staunch neoliberals, since they considered the matter irrelevant and a “waste of money”.

    I never really got around to formulate an explanation for what appears to be this almost innate distrust of science or those people think of as “intellectuals” ( who often wouldn’t even call themselves such), but it damn sure is omnipresent. It does get even worse when the subject under scrutiny moves towards the more “subjective” humanities. It’s enough to see the amount of heat that gender studies get for the mere fact they exist to grasp this concept (I’m more than sceptic about the scientifical standards and the politicizing in the field, but that is a problem with the scientists and not the science).

    I’ll spare everybody today from my regular quotations (but if you want some good ones on anti-intellectualism try Isaac Asimov, Albert Camus and, more recently and for all of the wrong reasons, Micheal Gove).

  4. Hermann, Dan Brown? Really? OMG.

    Bill, Deloitte-Access is an arm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the largest accounting firm in the world, one of the big 4, isn’t it? As such, can it be trusted? Could they be getting this right because they benefit rather than from any intellectual assessment? In other words, could they be getting this right for a possibly less than ‘good’ reason?

  5. Bill makes vital points here. The dumbing down of our society, the lack of critical awareness and the false representation of the dominant ideology as ‘the way things are’ must be significantly to do with the collapse of any critique of society and social relationships. It’s a sort of continuation of ‘the end of history’ thinking, as if we’ve reached an endpoint with global finance as God.

    I can remember listening to a 30th Anniversary ‘celebration’ of Dawkin’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ where evolutionary biologists were defining their subject as ‘the last truth’ on the matter. Now financial services refer to themselves as ‘FinTech’ as if it were an objective science based on unalterable physical laws with no relationship to social issues much like the weather.

    Everything is seen as information that has some ‘asset value’. And this can also percolate through the humanities where what we learn is ‘cashable’ in some way. Can we not enjoy learning for its own sake and enjoy sharing it with each other (as on this blog!).

    I used to teach music (this must be close to Bill’s heart as well!) and saw the sidelining of the subject in our schools, instrument teaching services caving in with poorer pupils no longer able to afford lessons even universities that once had thriving departments dropping the subject.

    So you end up, as Hermann points out, with highly trained FinTech people reading Dan Brown and unable to play a C major chord on the piano. of course, Neoliberalism, has people rushing around like blue-arsed flies trying to make money all the time, stressed out and tired and feeling resentful with no head space left.

  6. @HermanntheGerman

    Aspects of this problem were foreseen as far back as CP Snow’s “The Two Cultures”

    I encourage you to give it a look.

  7. @larry: I might have gone too far with the hyberbole regarding Dan Brown.
    In all honesty though, having never read anything from him, I’ll freely admit that my opinion of him is based purely on the Simpson’s Sideshow Bob claiming the “book club” in prison consisted of other inmates clubbing him with books, adding afterwards that the injuries inflicted upon him with the newest Dan Brown book were less painful than reading it.

    @Simon: I can’t struck a C on the piano either. I found the guitar to be easier an more akin to my financial constraints as a mere currency user (had to establish a relation to this blog). Given that music is in great part a “Handwerk” (handcraft), many of my fellow students were astonishingly adept at numerous musical instruments. However, there is something unsettling about an apathic german woman performing a powerful sax-solo while literally moving solely her fingers. Furthermore, given the apparent understanding of the mechanics of music, I haven’t been able to figure out why the vast majority of germans refuse to let the synthesizer fueled tragedy we know as the 80’s go. For the love of god, please let them go!

  8. @eg: Thanks for the tip. I will look into it as soon as I finish this thrilling Dan Brown I’m reading.

  9. @larry: i might have exaggerated a bit. In all honesty, having never read anything from Dan Brownmyself, I base my opinion solely on The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob assessment of his work. He described the book club in the prison he was incarcerated as essentially consisting fo other inmates clubbing him with books. Though, he proceeded, the physical injuries that resulted from the assault with Brown’s latest work were less painful than reading it.

    @Simon Cohen: since music is in great part a handcraft (“Handwerk”) it’s not really surprising that many of my fellow German students were adept at playing (multiple) instruments. However, their reluctance to abandon the synthethizer fueled musical catastrophe now known as “the 80’s” indicates to me that there might be a case to make about highly trained musical performers as opposed to musicians.

  10. Hermann, I have read a couple of Dan Browns and, although they are not well written, the plots are ok if a tad fanciful. What amazed me was when Americans made tours around Europe following the route taken by the main character, Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, in The Da Vinci Code. I was told that some even asked a a guard at the Louvre if a given room was where the curator had died. Needless to say, he had no idea what they were talking about. So many went to Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh that the tea room had to be expanded. That Brown said on the title page that the story was true no doubt influenced a number of gullible reader-tourists. The illustrations, however, are fine.

  11. eg
    I googled CP Snow’s The Two Cultures, which lead me to Baron Snow which lead me to a book series that he wrote called Strangers and Brothers which seems like a promising way for an old person to spend some time waiting for the end of the world. Finishing both my take a while.

  12. Larry,
    Lots of people know that some books written as non fiction are fantasy. But not everyone knows that some books written as fiction are true except the names have been changed. As examples I offer the following titles, The Darkroom of Domocles by WF Hermans, The Assault by Harry Mulisch, Smitten Gate by Stan Goff, and finally Uncle Toms’s Cabin by Hariet Beecher Stowe. I decided to slip that one in there even though you might have already read it.

  13. I am in STEM myself.

    There is a very unhealthy myopic focus on STEM.

    I think a big factor of this push is that many people are dazzled by profits and technology (big numbers and cool gadgets).Many people instinctively think value is equal to profits.

    Technology hasn’t brought peace or a more egalitarian society that decreases the social ills that come from inequality. Instead, It only creates precisely the opposite. It also creates more ways to distract ourselves from throwing out the imperialist murderers. Aren’t all these recent sharing apps (lyft, uber, airbnb) rentier businesses born out of economic desperation?

    People like myself struggle long hours just to have a chance to work in some company. If i am successful, I get to charge monopoly rent and improverish the rest of the economy.

    Like capitalism, you only ever get one side of the debate that profit = good or technological innovation = good.

  14. ‘synthethizer fueled musical catastrophe now known as “the 80’s”‘

    Hermann, yes, I think many of us felt that the 80’s was a big decline after the 60’s and the experimental rock of the 70’s.

    Of course,popular music has now become a branch of IT and it’s possible to do music courses with no reference to an acoustic instrument . Is this bad? Well, it depends, things change. But the experience of playing an acoustic instrument, I think has significant educational value. Placing your fingers on a violin neck to get the ‘right’ note, adjusting your embouchure for a wind instrument, are all about learning patience and coordinating the mind and the body to produce something expressive.

  15. Broad minded critical thinking people don’t make the best corporate minions or the most predictable consumption units, but they do understand the diverse nature of individual perception/experience. The business approach today is less focused on creativity and more on molding the minds that will accept the products they wish to sell; that and removing choice by the formation of market monopolies.

    We have seen this trend toward the pruning and the nurturing of everything to try and create an environment suited to fascism in Canada as well. The trouble is it all takes place so slowly only observant middle aged people have seen it move. Younger people, who don’t like the state of affairs either, who are without the benefit of knowing what the past was like, think this is what their parents and grandparents wanted, and don’t vote because why bother to give consent to be ruled this way?

  16. This conversation about universities and STEM reminded me that even in the computing, academia is viewed as place were nothing of value is created and should focus its efforts in getting internships for students. This is despite the fact that several recent commercial advances (Neural Networks, text processing, several advances in computer languages that were long past due) started there long ago.
    I am reminded of the physicists who a little over a century ago claimed science was basically solved. How little has humanity evolved (and educated itself) outside of technical feats, and how appropriate that it was those feats who brought us our biggest challenges for survival. That so few even acknowledge the problems as real is the cherry on top of the depressing state of affairs.

  17. My humanities education turned a nice bourgeois girl into a rabid socialist. The powers that be want to stamp that out that transformative experience. Ideas are powerful.

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