Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Universities are not, and must never be, walled citadels – protected enclaves sheltering from the societies that surround and nurture them.

Not only do they rely on taxpayers to maintain their existence, they have a responsibility to extend the privileges they are accorded to many of their fellow citizens who wish to receive them.

But universities are communities, with their own premises and their unique cultures. And as such, they need a reasonable amount of autonomy, secure from unwarranted interference from politicians intent on enforcing their ideological biases on their day to day affairs.

They do not need instructions on what they teach nor the way in which they teach it. Which is why the government’s ukase that it will reset the fees for courses to accord with a political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom – and, quite apart from that, a hasty and almost certainly counter-productive over-reach.

The most obvious motive from the hard-liners is simple vindictiveness – they regard universities, indeed most education, as something vaguely subversive, yet another conspiracy hatched by the progressives to enhance their dominance over the conservative base.

But their rationale is, as always, jobs – the idea that encouraging more STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – graduates will produce a productivity surge to turn around the horrible figure regularly emerging as we struggle back to what Scott Morrison and his cohort desperately hope will be business as usual.

But juggling the fee structures will, as so many have pointed out, will make no appreciable difference to the actual enrolments. Teenagers choose what interests them, and while certainly they expect a job when they leave the cloistered halls, they do not  pick a career because they may save  a few bucks on HECS debts some decades later.

This should be clear even to the dumbest backbenchers, given that if they have gone through higher education, they have almost all pursued courses in law, economics, politics and the social sciences they now affect to denigrate.

Now they sneer dismissively about authors they have never read and never will read. They are, they claim, realists, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. except, of course, money and those mythical jobs they avoided themselves but insist are needed for everyone else.

There are not many scientists, technologists and engineers among the members of ScoMo’s cabinet.

But now, absurdly, they attack those who deface statues for vandalizing history, but with their reworking of university fees they are avid to downgrade and dismiss the entire discipline.

Surely they should know enough history to recall that the revered founder of their party, Robert Menzies, was not just a huge advocate of the universities, the man who took over their revenue base to save them from the vagaries of the states; he regarded his involvement as perhaps the most significant and lasting achievement of his illustrious career.

He would be appalled at the idea that their primary aim was to be providers of jobs, mere training mills; they were institutes of learning and research, fountains of knowledge. They were bastions of civilisation and culture to preserved and nourished.

But not from this government – there are no votes in civilisation and culture. Jobs and growth, growth and jobs. And if the universities don’t deliver them, we’ll starve the bastards until they do.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.
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