ASPI’s proposal to further militarise and securitise the university – Part 1

Aug 12, 2021

It is now unambiguously clear that certain influential centres of government advice and government policy hold the university-as-institution in contempt. 

More specifically, they hold the ideal of the traditional university in contempt, and by the ideal, I refer to a reasonable concept which, with good will and adequate funding, is also achievable in most, if not all respects.  Regardless of its faults, it was an aspirational site and survives a popular belief in some quarters of modern democratic societies that the universities are unique as sites of teaching, inquiry, research, and writing which, above all, are marked by their independence from the various forces which influence so much of the life outside of the academy.

The academy, in these terms, approximates to an ideal which, though it never existed, continues to be honoured in the terms put forward by Wilhelm von Humboldt, as: 

“. . . nothing other than the spiritual life of those human beings who are moved by external leisure or internal pressures toward learning and research. “

 But this is more than an ideal proclaiming the need for the satisfaction of a personal yearning; indeed, its wider, extremely serious ramifications are apparent in the comment it attracted from Noam Chomsky:

 “The extent to which existing institutional forms permit these human needs to be satisfied provides one measure of the level of civilisation a society has achieved.”

Historically, moreover, to the extent that the University approached von Humboldt’s ideal in more than a vestigial resemblance it “reduced the entropy of time and fought against it;” fought against it, furthermore, as a stable institution, able, because of its historical consciousness, “to preserve at least a pocket of memory, “ and maintain, as Regis Debray recalls it, “a tribal reservation for the ethics of truth.”  

Within it, which is to say within the membership of the academy, education and abnegation were “virtually synonymous,” a deceased identity which Debray laments with just a hint of contempt for its successors:

Integrity, obscurity, selflessness; the words raise a smile, but the archaism of the vocabulary derives from the downgrading of the practices of the schools, not vice versa.

The University, then, was of course a dominant site of secular critique practised by people “capable of living what [they] taught until it killed [them].  In their commitment to this principle, to what Paul Bové sees as the imperative to “take aim  at the unequal, imperial, antidemocratic present,” academics demonstrated a truth: “Critics should never be good company.”  

And both Debray and Bové, just to name two, are intent on making even more explicit as the purpose of University education – the need to provide the bases of that “educated and active citizenry [which] is indispensable for a free and inclusive democratic society” within the belief that critical citizens are made, not born.  

In turn, this democratic education must take the form of being “an education for democracy . . . it must argue for its means as well as its ends.”  Ultimately, this is to be encapsulated within the principles which all education should take place – the foremost being “intellectual freedom and ethical responsibility.”  

It is against this concept as measure that a recent offering by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is set. It provides, succinctly and clearly, another example of the now reigning view of the University from those trusted with providing policy advice, which is to say, it is corporate, predatory and and ignorant.  And it does this under the camouflage of appearing to offer the University a way out from some of its troubles by appealing to the contributions it can make to national security. That said, it is, prima facie, a slick operation.  

Given ASPI’s standing in matters of national security advice, its views might even be implemented, That is the reason for this two- part rejection: they would lead to the further impoverishment and balkanisation of higher education in Australia.  

In a relatively short recent paper of 12 substantive pages, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute entitled An Australian DARPA to turbocharge universities’ national security research: securely managed Defence-funded research partnerships in Five-Eyes universities, authors Robert Clark, a former chief defence scientist, and ASPI’s executive director, Peter Jennings, identify what they see as significant opportunity to boost international defence scientific and technical research cooperation with ‘Five Eyes’ partners the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

In what has become standard practice, and presumably in anticipation that those with extremely limited concentration spans would be challenged by the time to read and reflect upon the pronouncements from the apex of ASPI, an almost immediate epistle – essentially an abridged, judiciously selective, Pauline attempt to explain the important points of the reigning theology found in the original – was issued.

DARPA, here, refers to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the template upon which an Australian version would be based. It is described as “an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and government partners spanning from open-domain to classified research.”

At its core the ASPI’s proposal focuses on science and technology; Australia should establish its own DARPA by way of a formal partnership between the Defence Department, defence industry and Australian universities. Accordingly, the US model is heralded as providing “best practice guidance” for such an undertaking. 

The source for, or register for this claim is not cited. This might be just as well because the open-source history of the US universities’ involvement with the national security state should not encourage Australia to emulate it.  

The springboard for this is to be provided by Australia’s – Next Generation Technologies Fund (NGTF) – with its nine priority areas: integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; space; enhanced human performance; medical countermeasures; multidisciplinary material sciences; quantum technologies; trusted autonomous systems; cyber and advanced sensors; and hypersonics and directed energy.

Central to the envisaged partnership to produce more efficient killing machines the proposal advocates ‘the need to restructure current arrangements for Defence funding of Australian universities’ in order that Australia maintains ‘a strong and sovereign university research base with the capacity to support industry, the community and national security.’ 

Other rationales include: 

  • A release from both the policy of underfunding of national universities by Australian governments and concomitant financial and security risks of Australian universities over-dependence on funding sources from the People’s Republic of China in particular and international students fees in general. 
  • The need to follow the US in which universities as an important part of the national security enterprise and, are thus, subjected to stronger regulation and oversight (and will necessarily include high-level security clearances for this involved)  – an approach which will increasingly inform thinking among democratic governments around the world. Failure to follow suit will almost certainly result in diminished research relationships with the US.
  • The current, largely open approach of Australian research universities to their international links is, rather than a matter of intellectual pride, a significant weakness.
  • This initiative is necessary because the mission-oriented research carried out by Australian government agencies—Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and others are incapable of doing the work which needs to be done.

Immediately apparent is the distance the University has traversed from the reasonable ideals which, disingenuously, and usually at graduation ceremonies, those entrusted with the stewardship of universities still proclaim.

To be clear, shorn of the embedded Sinophobia which infuses so many of ASPI’s political-strategic analyses, the funding problems which a neoliberal approach to higher education are accurately described and no issue is taken with them.  Indeed, they would support the conclusion that the universities now constitute an educational dystopia – and deserving of Richard Hil’s recent dismissal  of them on this site as “no longer fit for purpose.”

Our universities are in crisis.They are no longer fit for purpose?

Against this diagnosis, however, is ASAPI’s prescription, a programme which cannot be seen independently of its corporate mentality; indeed, it is a demonstration of it.

The universities are viewed as suitable recipients of alms and/or places to be pillaged.  The  fundamental questions as to how and why this is the case are ignored.  Dependency on the revenue stream generated by international students is not the root cause; for that  there is a need to confront the neoliberal fundamentalism practised by successive governments, a measure seemingly beyond the courage or the imagination, of the ASPI proposal. Similarly, the dismissal of the capabilities of the government research agencies is neither explained nor are policy and budgetary remedies suggested.  

Instead, the focus is on what is essentially a hostile, corporate takeover of parts of the University which are deemed useful to national security.  It is a process of securitisation and militarisation by stealth, and its consequences – outlined in Part 2 – will be ruinous, both for those in the academy who enlist in the DARPA-isation, and those who walk in the  shadow of the now humiliated concepts of the roles and functions of the University.

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