University Failures and Canberra parsimony.

Cynical, short-sighted and gutless – everything a proper university should eschew. But perhaps the teachers have been taking lessons from their political masters. If so, both deserve a fail.

If universities are to function as they should, as bastions of research, learning and dialogue, it is axiomatic that they must be allowed their autonomy – that governments should fund them, and let them get on with it.

But this does not mean academia must be shielded from criticism when their key functions are threatened, and that applies especially when the threats come from outside. And now the enemy is at the gates and even inside them.

It has become clear that the bully boys of Beijing are determined to exert their hegemony on the campuses and that they are prepared to use coercion and blackmail when argument will not suffice. And most disturbingly, that those charged with maintaining free debate are not simply ignoring the problem – they are publicly excusing it, even nurturing it.

And this means that their victims – Chinese students who have dared to speak out over their concerns about Hong Kong in particular – feel helpless and betrayed. As Elaine Pearson, an adjunct professor of law at the University of New South Wales and the Australian director of Human Rights Watch,, wrote last week: “this fear is real.”

In my antediluvian days at Sydney University there were regular political standoffs between the left and right, as there should have been. And it involved plenty of players from outside the citadel, not only from Australians but from the cold war propagandists America and Russia – disarmament, for instance, was a fertile battleground.

And there was even occasional physical confrontation, with meetings disrupted and closed down. But violence, whether actual or implied, was considered unacceptable, and was quickly shut down if it occurred.

But now it appears the default option for those who are not getting their way without hindrance or complaint. The evidence is largely anecdotal, but that is precisely the issue – the coercion and intimidation, both to those directly affected and, worse, to their relatives in the fiefdom of Xi Jinping, is succeeding. And the authorities have chosen to do nothing about it.

It is said that they are just worried about the money, that nationalistic Chinese students have become their core business and must be placated at all costs. But if this is so, their mercenary priority will eventually prove counter-productive – they may have saved their fortress only by destroying it in the process.

And it seems the only alternative they can contemplate is an alternative source of revenue – by which they inevitably mean the federal government.

And it is undoubtedly true that Canberra’s parsimony, the cuts that have been part of their weaponry in the culture wars that have distorted and demeaned the Australian conversation for far too long, have been a key factor in the decline.

But more probably it is a simple failure of nerve. Like many bureaucrats, the shiny bums at the top prefer the ostrich option to taking action. Let the warring factions sort it out for themselves., and if they can’t, well tough – there are plenty more students where they come from, and if they are more interested in politics than intellectual endeavor, who cares as long as someone is paying the bills.

Cynical, short-sighted and gutless – everything a proper university should eschew. But perhaps the teachers have been taking lessons from their political masters. If so, both deserve a fail.


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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