AUKUS and the corruption of Australia’s Universities

Nov 17, 2022
Education and money relation concept. Isolated on white.

Our universities have become the industrial brothel-keepers to the nation’s fevered national security imaginary.

At their imperfect best the Australian universities not only function as reasonably stable repositories of historical consciousness which preserve pockets of memory but also act as tribal reservations for the ethics of the truth. The academics within them should never be good company to the wielders of power and their tawdry designs. When these roles are abdicated, however, as is the case with their embrace of AUKUS, they are not credible in one of their principal roles – dominant sites of secular critique practised by people capable of living what they teach and committed to taking aim at the unequal, imperial, antidemocratic present.

Consider AUKUS: politely defined it is a wide-ranging trilateral defence – national security arrangement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the frontispiece of which is a declaration that the US and the UK will assist Australia in its acquisition of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs). This is the dominant issue.

Just as accurately it is also the bastard child of an unseemly ménage à trois in which the progenitors – two remarkably corrupt governments and one in psychotic decline – have been found wanting in child support. The domestic defence imperatives of both the US and the UK are such that they cannot provide for it – the SSNs that is – from their existing resources while Australia, basically, has none in the first place. And as with all such arrangements, there is only secrecy concerning the details of the assignation.

In the excitement of it all extremely relevant prior questions were dispensed with. Foremost among these is the question as to whether Australia needs SSNs in the first place.

In the various relevant contexts – strict strategic need, cost, effective contribution to national defence, loss of sovereignty, likely developments in undersea and anti-submarine warfare, compliance with international law and treaties governing nuclear proliferation, manning, and the demands upon relevant national capabilities in general, any decision favouring SSNs (as opposed to conventionally powered submarines) there are bodies of evidence which vacate such a need.

A Defence Strategic Review which brought to its deliberations a rigorous and undiscriminating skepticism about all claims on these matters – and by definition that would appear to preclude the current reviews under way – would find this void to be disabling of its own processes.

Worse, it would recognise that its very existence reeks of intellectual indiscipline, back-to-front thinking, and profligacy with the national treasury.

Not so the universities, especially those classified as the major research universities. They see only funding opportunities. To be blunt they sense the possibilities afforded American universities – to become “relevant” to the affairs of state – which is to embrace their further evolution as part of the State-Military-Industrial-Academic-Complex.

This is volitional; indeed, enthusiastically so. It is one thing for universities to be co-opted by government in times of national emergency, but it is quite another for them to insinuate themselves into projects and programmes motivated exclusively, or mainly, by potential profit.

This includes the ANU: although the Act which established it defines one of its functions as “encouraging and providing facilities for research and postgraduate study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia,” nowhere does the legislation require fealty to strategies and policies that run contrary to both the good governance of Australia and the declared academic and intellectual principles upon which the ANU was founded.

AUKUS, however, manifestly obliterates whatever scruples might be stirring. Four indicative examples are to be seen in this light.

In the first, the onset of an insidious militarism/militarisation takes place even long before university but by way of preparation for it. In the name of providing “career pathways” Lockheed Martin Australia and STEM Punks, in November 2021, launched a space industry focused educational programme at Armidale Secondary College for 150 students in years 7-10.

Over the life of the programme 80 primary and secondary schools across Australia will be incorporated in to the “partnership” which has, as one of its objectives, the personnel fuel for the “proposed JP9102 solution – a next generation sovereign military satellite communication (MILSATCOM) capability for the Australian Defence Force.”

The second relates to the University of South Australia’s launch of a “Global Executive MBA in Defence and Space” – an initiative, it claims, is inspired by AUKUS and the need to “build a pipeline of talent” across its membership and other allies to service the defence and space sectors. Those interested are assured that the first cohort of students will be “hand-picked” (sic) from executives and senior managers drawn from the ADF, and defence contractors and civil servants within the AUKUS countries and other allies.

A truly broad canvas approach by Universities Australia provides the third case. In the context of its submission to the defence strategic review, it proposes opening up the internships and work opportunities which are available only to Australian citizens to the 100,000 international students from Australia’s closest strategic partners – namely from the Five Eyes and QUAD nations.

The objective, apparently, is to expand university places in “Defence-relevant courses” and so provide a “critical mass of new Defence personnel.” In essence, and hardly coincidentally, the plan is to exchange the over-reliance on the income from Chinese students with a dependence upon the Defence budget. No less is it a case of study in the addiction to acquiring external funding no matter the costs.

How much forethought, and the quality of it that was given to this proposal is an interesting question in itself: just how would foreign students contribute to the “critical mass”? In Australia, they would need security clearances – a lengthy process which, inter alia, could very well compromise them in their home countries where the authorities would be aware that the CIA, for example, has a directorate responsible for recruiting agents from foreign students studying in American universities.

What the Universities Australia proposal discloses is a mindset that values students as a tradable and fungible commodity in the most sensitive areas of government policy. To maintain the metaphor, within this mindset they are also perishable.

It is the fourth case, however, which is the leading example of AUKUS-induced corruption in the universities. Specifically, it is the ANU’s emphatic endorsement of the “integration of military, industry, government, and academia” into the AUKUS SSN project by building both a “national nuclear enterprise” and a “nuclear mindset.”

In ANU’s submission to the Defence Strategic Review, and highlighted in Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt’s address to the Submarine Institute of Australia’s conference on 9 November, the core proposal is to establish “AUKUS career pathways” which would start with “high-achieving school-age students.” Professor Schmidt warns that “decisive action” of this nature is essential for the simple reason that Australia does not have the required number of academics to meet the needs of AUKUS.

And that need is all-embracing: “not just engineers and physicists, but also lawyers, regulatory experts, specialist medical staff, naval architects and policy advisers to decision-makers.” ANU, of course, is a source recommended by Professor Schmidt, especially in nuclear physics but he clearly sees AUKUS as what strategists call a “force multiplier.”

AUKUS is to effect a transfiguration of the universities through the catalysing power of resources which will flow for decades to come from the largest defence project in Australia’s history, and along the following lines:

  • Courses in strategic defence studies and national security being incorporated into STEM degrees to instill a strong understanding of the strategic drivers and applications of technical skills.
  • Assigned mentors from Defence and regular exposure to Defence leadership, to establish a connection to AUKUS programs from an early stage.
  • Processing security clearances for students while they are studying to enable real work experience and practical placement opportunities with Defence.
  • Guaranteed placement in Defence at the conclusion of the program, bypassing existing Defence graduate programs.
  • Interstate field trips and international exchanges with our US and UK partner universities to reinforce the trilateral partnership.
  • Guaranteed accommodation at a university hall of residence to overcome the barriers that exist for students relocating to study.

In summary form the narrative just cited comprises the secular apologia pro vita sua of the Australian universities. Audaciously and shamelessly, it professes the need to surrender all semblance of independence and to embrace its newly defined status in a hybrid state structure.

To the extent that the various proposals are realised the university system will be further fractured. At the institutional level, management will require that the lucrative relationships with government, industry, and the military are not perturbed by untoward critical scholarship.

And alongside the general student population will be a privileged AUKUS-related elite, which will be instructed and indoctrinated rather than educated, and necessarily constrained in their academic freedoms. At the most fundamental levels they will be incompatible.

There was time in this system – at the ANU and elsewhere – when official university support for the government’s position would’ve been met with scorn and derision on the Aristotelian basis that AUKUS is best understood through an examination of the multi-layered causes of it. And these do not encourage endorsement. Indeed, it might even have suggested it commission such a project.

But that is to speak of another time – when the universities recognised the need to be self-critical and self-conscious at higher, if not ideal levels of sensitivity than now.

Now? By their own disclosures, they appear before us as industrial brothel-keepers to the nation’s fevered national security imaginary.

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