The ANU has sold out to the military industrial complex

Dec 14, 2022
Professor Brian Schmidt AC Vice-Chancellor, The Australian National University.

Australian universities now self-identify as deeply integrated units within the agencies of the State, the Australian Defence Force, and industry. They have become part of an encompassing strategy of Sinophobia and Australian fantasies of long-range attacks on China.

When the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU recently and enthusiastically endorsed the government’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the aegis of AUKUS, and then touted his university’s present and prospective wares to be of service to the project, he was only foreshadowing the consensus of the entire university system to entangle itself, to the maximum extent possible, in the emerging state-military-industrial-multiversity complex.

As in so many of Australia’s academic pathologies, the template follows that established in the United States decades ago.

The full extent of this embrace is set out in what Universities Australia (UA) – the peak body for the country’s 39 comprehensive universities – describes as its submission to the ongoing Defence Strategy Review which grew out of AUKUS. More accurately it is a prospectus. It is a document which, in the context of specifically accepting and repeating the urgency to respond to the China-as-threat formulations in Australia-US alliance pronouncements, provides:

  • a schedule of current contributions to Defence needs,
  • another schedule of the ways in which the universities could be of even greater service to Defence;
  • a final schedule of what government could do to help the universities assist Defence even more.

Within its three parts and 33 pages the submission explicitly proclaims the transformation of the university system from a partial, to a fully-fledged corporate entity covering students, academics, administrative staff, and relations with government and other “stakeholders” in full accord with the logic of neoliberal dogma.

It is, specifically, a document designed to encourage potential investors and clients in the “defence ecosystem” to regard the university system as theirs for the capture. It is also an invitation which is academically and intellectually offensive to the point of obscenity.

The very notion – albeit traditional – that the university-based Enlightenment project must be separated from the vicissitudes of political malice and whimsy is simply ceded without resistance, nolo contendere. And for what?

Answer: a regime which would look familiar to observers of many non-democratic societies. A well-resourced world of privileged access for students and faculty, promotion for serving the national security causes of the day, instruction substituting for education, and obedience trumping dissent.

It is a regime of voluntary academic and intellectual servitude, and, in its loss of identity and sovereignty, closely related to Defence Minister, Richard Marles’ notions of the ADF being more closely interoperable, and “interchangeable” with the US military.

Contrary to a liberal and liberating concept of the University I advanced recently on this site, the universities now self identify as deeply integrated units within the agencies of the state, the ADF, and industry; in other words with organisations whose publishing practices are incommensurable and thus known for being, in Lord Acton’s famous phrase, economical with the truth.

For confirmation look no further than the University of New South Wales’ promotion of AUKUS in November in a conference entitled, simply, “Advancing AUKUS” – an event featuring key speakers who only ever celebrate the Australia – US Alliance – such as Kim Beazley, Joe Hockey, and Andrew Hastie.

What is just as notable is the fact that the universities’ managements have been chronically complicit in a process which, outside of the opportunities afforded by the Defence Strategic Review and the AUKUS SSN, continues to mandate the defunding of public higher education, ideologically focused funding from corporations and governments, academic “labour flexibility” – which is to say increased worker insecurity, and students being defined as ‘consumers’.

By any definition these conditions are symptoms of an underlying intellectual morbidity and, almost certainly, omens of widespread civic pathologies.

Worse, there is no real debate on alternatives to orienting the university system along national security requirements. If there was, then a case could be made that, in the light of certain legitimate and appropriate national security requirements, research centres and institutions, external to the universities themselves, could be established to provide them. A case might even be made for rotating university faculty through them.

This, however, in no way justifies designated national security activities such as are included in the Universities Australia submission being allowed on university campuses.

To the extent that the universities become partners in the national security enterprises, and the windfall benefits which accrue from them, they will also become dependent, and, like the arms industries and the think tanks they subsidise, heavily invested in threat maintenance.

In blunt terms, where AUKUS and its SSNs are concerned, the universities will be integrated into an encompassing strategy that demands sinophobia, fantasies of long-range attacks on China, and the permanent failure of diplomacy beyond a relationship similar to the detente with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Somewhere, somehow, soon, the realisation that Australia is not Sparta, that the universities are not paladins, and that some things are not interchangeable should be asserted if only because the resulting pollution ultimately serves no one. From many years ago I recall the wisdom of a sign at a local swimming pool: “We do not swim in your lavatory, so please do not piss in our pool.”

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