Political Interference in Australian Universities an ‘Existential Threat’: ANU Boss

By Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu is based in Sydney. She focuses on Australian and New Zealand national affairs. Got a tip? Contact her at rebecca.zhu@epochtimes.com.au.
February 7, 2022 Updated: February 7, 2022

Political interference in university research funding presents an “existential threat” to the tertiary sector, the head of the Australian National University (ANU) has warned.

In his state of the university address on Jan. 7, ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt referenced acting Education Minister Stuart Robert’s decision on Christmas Eve to veto six research grants awarded by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

“Of the four known occurrences of political interference, three have occurred in the last three years—and as things stand, BOTH major parties agree it is appropriate for the [education] minister to wield this power.

“Political interference has bipartisan support. I see this as an existential threat to Australian universities,” Schmidt said.

According to Western Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover, some of the vetoed grants would have funded the examination of modern-day China and the motivations behind school students’ climate activism.

Schmidt said political interference could corrupt knowledge and slow its creation and stressed the importance of academic autonomy and freedom to pursue ideas across a broad spectrum.

“After all, what would our society be like when the study of history, politics, and literature has to reflect the views of the minister of the day?” he said. “Where would we be if we hadn’t been working on climate mitigation strategies for the past 30 years while the merchants of doubt sowed their seeds?”

Schmidt said Australia needed an apolitical system to allocate research funding and strongly called for a review of the ARC and its governance.

“The impetus here for the university is to resist the restrictions of the present and focus confidently on the future,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
International students pose for a photograph with university representatives after arriving at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 6, 2021. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi)

The chief executive of Universities Australia, the peak body for the sector, stated at the time when the six research grants were rejected by the education minister, that they would be “pursuing this matter, on behalf of our members, with the minister as a matter of the highest importance.”

Universities Australia told The Epoch Times that their position has not changed since the previous statement.

Mark Scott, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, backed Schmidt’s concerns about the impact of political interference in funding decisions.

“It doesn’t work this way in the world’s great liberal democracies, and it harms the credibility of our funding schemes in Australia,” Scott told The Epoch Times. “I urge the minister to meet with university leaders and our finest researchers to address their deep concerns at the way the current system is operating.”

ANU Chancellor Julie Bishop, a former Liberal frontbencher, also supported Schmidt’s calls in her own state of the university address.

“I publicly and openly endorse the vice-chancellor’s comments about apolitical processes in the field of research and the ARC in particular,” she said.

On Feb. 8, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi will move to establish a senate inquiry into a bill that will remove ministerial discretion in the approval of research grants approved by the ARC.

“Two Liberal ministers have now vetoed seventeen projects in the last four years,” she said. “Political interference has no place in research funding.”

Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu is based in Sydney. She focuses on Australian and New Zealand national affairs. Got a tip? Contact her at rebecca.zhu@epochtimes.com.au.