ROGER SCOTT. Withering Australian Political Science

Aug 21, 2018

There are two explanations for the withering of Australian Political Science: the increasing shift in domestic student preferences away from studying local issues and towards International Studies, and the impact of universities maximising the economic benefits to be derived from recruiting international students.

Michael McKinley has responded to the two pieces I wrote recently and has in turn provoked three further comments. For Michael, ‘Political Science was always a bastard, left-handed, red-haired child of the turn to scientism by the social scientists in the late 19th century and it never recovered’. He agrees about the disconnection of the discipline from its wider community and he shares my concern for the deleterious consequences of the measurement-quantification regime dominant in the management of universities.

His first question to me asks where I have been all these years. The answer is firmly not ‘a lifetime in comfortable academia and raspberries at the emeritus end’, which is how respondent Rosemary O’Grady describes Michael. I acquired a university chair in 1976 (from a CAE!) and ten years later moved on as an Emeritus through all manner of contractual positions without ever regaining tenure. Life after tenure included full-time work in public administration and university governance, with Political Science latent in the background for the rest of the century, followed by casual acquaintance with policy teaching, managing an oral history project and directing a local think tank. Not much comfort but plenty of raspberries.

On Michael’s second question, I disagree with his assertion that the discipline never recovered from the late 19th century burst of ‘scientism’. Political Science had a major following between about 1965 and 1989, as students and staff responded to the issues of the time which provoked public engagement, sometimes in the form of street marches. During this period, many of these issues had their origins overseas, particularly in Vietnam but also in civil rights confrontations in the USA, South Africa, Paris, and Belfast, but the focus of discontent was often on the activities of the various levels of Australian government.

These overseas developments, in turn, led to the emergence of International Studies within a Political Science context, having previously inhabited history departments. I saw this at first hand in Tasmania, Sydney and Queensland and the trend was visible elsewhere. However Political Science/Government was alive and well in those same institutions – packed first year classes studied the basic building blocks of Westminster institutions in a local context and general theories about democracy.

The peak year for Australian Political Science was 1975, not somewhere in the 19th century. That was the year when the Australasian Political Studies Association could hold a conference in Canberra which was restricted entirely to papers about Australia – including an international stream convened by Jim Richardson. It attracted record levels of attendance, including Ministers, journalists, senior public servants and ministerial staff. Academics often reported on their experience at the sharper end of politics inside or advising governments, or their analysis of parliaments, parties and new policies. Outside Canberra, there were stirring events on the streets of Queensland which shifted the focus to local civil rights – an echo of my time in Belfast – and other states like Victoria and South Australia created different dynamics.

Since that peak, there has been a gnawing away of student support for mainstream Political Science. Some of it has been diverted into various forms of management education as the perceived virtues of private sector values and approaches asserted themselves, some of it went into broader social sciences. Much of it also went into International Studies, reflecting growing disillusionment with local and national political leadership compared to the altogether more volatile and exciting activity outside Australia. Michael reports how much larger were the gatherings of both local and international conferences. This itself reflected the shift in subject preferences of Australian students, which had a consequential impact on staffing levels, teaching topics and the research agenda of both individuals and granting bodies.

In her response to Michael, Rosemary O’Grady also remembers the 1970s highpoint of Political Science and the particular stimulation provided by Graeme Duncan and his course (and writings) on contemporary social theory. Graeme joined me at the University of Queensland, occupying the Political Science chair while I taught and practised public administration. Other courses included national, state and even local government. It is sad that this balanced diet is no longer on the menu. Graeme found solace in East Anglia, and at the University of Queensland public administration was swallowed up by the Business School and International Studies now enjoys world rankings and overwhelming student enthusiasm.

The institutional setting within which International Studies flourishes also needs to be recognised.  One factor is the change in university funding mechanisms which privilege international over local students and reward universities for attracting these students, validated by the recent address to the National Press Club, ‘Universities, Australia’s “hidden” asset‘ (The Conversation, 14.8.18) by Ian Jacobs, Chair of the Group of Eight Universities. This economic boom provides financial incentives for all universities to ensure that their courses have international appeal.

Mainstream Political Science may not appeal to the foreign governments and families that fund these students, and the students themselves quite reasonably prefer topics to which they can relate. (Try explaining the arcane institutional arrangements that have affected the recent behaviour of the upper house in the national parliament for example). A virtuous circle is in operation – university administrations resource departments to specialise in International Studies because they want a product to sell overseas and academics want these resources to expand their discipline, enjoying the professional benefits of teaching both large classes and specialist groups they can mobilise to advance their research interests.

I need to concede to Michael that, ‘wherever I have been all these years’, I may now belatedly be merely providing ‘notes to a long-overdue Coroner’s Report’, rather than his sought-after definition of ‘the deeper pathological conditions which contributed to the death’. Or I may be signalling widespread concern that the central questions embedded in Political Science are no longer being examined in the context of the actual conduct of local politicians and public administrators. That ‘bastard child’ is certainly sickly and the guardians ought to call an ambulance.

And it may be that students are deterred from studying Political Science by the mediocrity of many of the more recent guardians. People like Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Hewson, Dunstan and even Chipp, were not afraid to engage with the bigger questions of Political Science. Chipp’s motivation was ‘keeping the bastards honest’.

Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Policy Futures, The University of Queensland. He was Director-General of the Queensland Education Department and inaugural Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra.

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