The future of Australia’s universities under the AUKUS regimeJun 27, 2023
In one of his last posts on this site Dennis Argall contributed an extraordinary insight which needs to be kept, explicitly and unapologetically, at the forefront of all discussions about AUKUS and its bastard child, the Defence Strategic Review. The title of his piece was: “The Defence Strategic Review is a claim to command civil society.”
Indeed, he regarded the document as “an entirely inappropriate, narrow-minded, chauvinistic, militaristic, thing that belongs in a country practicing for fascism, the submergence of the civil power and society.” In that light, let us consider education.
Specifically, the need is to consider the enthusiastic militarisation of university education in Australia according to a long-established US template. Moreover, this transformation, for which there is abundant evidence, proceeds in parallel with the acquired and seemingly incurable reflex of the neoliberal management of Australia’s universities to expose them to the viral overload which arises from adopting the very worst of American and British thinking and practice.
It is, therefore, to be seen within that well documented context which dominated prior to AUKUS and the DSR, that the universities were corporatised, captured by consultancies, operating unethically and for the most part covered by Richard Hil’s judgement, “no longer fit for purpose.”
And the template in question?
An academic milieu based on the impoverished assumptions of neoclassical economics in which the ecology of higher learning, knowing and understanding is reduced to the utility values which the constellation of state, military, and industry choose to bestow on it. For many areas of the universities this results in various forms of subordination and cooption contrary to their traditional and oft-declared values beyond the already existing and embarrassing levels of compromise.
The General Rule: As the US has gone, and goes, so Australia has gone, and will go, mutatis mutandis. In the name of the imperative to respond to crises under the rubric of national security course offerings within the STEM subjects are privileged, the effect being to insidiously militarise and securitise them.
In the name of essential collaboration government research agencies and defence industrial corporations are located on campus and with them infusions of funding for projects which, essentially, are accurately described as the weaponising of emerging technologies.
In parallel, the initiative at university level is accompanied by similar incursions at the primary and secondary levels to identify talent which can be harnessed by incentives which will take those selected through tertiary training and into the agencies of the national security state.
Consider two current examples: students at the US Air Force Academy now help 5th Grade (elementary) students to build model rockets and launch them in the hope that their charges will pursue careers in science.
In Australia, Defence is far more ambitious, far more explicit: it has launched a Nuclear-Powered Submarine Propulsion Challenge in the high schools, open to students in years 7-12, for the purpose of providing them with a classroom curriculum which is intended to inspire them, through prizes and awards – which include an “immersive submariner experience at HMAS Stirling, to be “our future submariners, engineers and technicians.”
Over time at least three developments will flow, partly because the second tranche of AUKUS will require additional resources to those in the first, and because the universities will accommodate to their newly assigned roles and purposes.
We might start with recognising an in intensification of the present – the abandonment of traditional, liberal education proceeds, sites where it once flourished – in the Faculties of Arts, Humanities, and the Social Sciences, for example – will continue their trajectory towards marginalisation.
As they do so, the space for critique will also contract and with that something frightening: the questions – many of them radical – which these areas routinely ask will either not occur or be intentionally unasked by the favoured clientele who know all too well that they could be dangerous utterances. That is tragedy. What makes it catastrophic is that the framing of reality passes to the Socratically ignorant: those who don’t know what they don’t know.
Second, it is well to remember that the national security state has its uses for certain disciplines within the Social Sciences – notably Anthropology, Sociology, and Political Science. Indeed, and notoriously, US agencies revisit them whenever it senses casual and/or specific needs to increase its arsenal of control, both domestically and abroad. The history of these assignations is lengthy – going back at least to Project Camelot in the 1960s and coming through to the Human Terrain System and the Minerva Initiative more recently.
Finally, and in the light of the last mentioned, there will be the need to move beyond the current blizzard of MOUs and State and Commonwealth Acts which govern the universities and their relationships because the roles and functions they will be undertaking require legal sanction and, quite probably, indemnity. Accordingly, legislation along the lines of the (US) National Security Education Act of 1991, and a plethora of arrangements modelled on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board will be necessary to ensure that mission oversight by national security “stakeholders” is maintained.
This dismal prospect for Australia’s university system proceeds from two premises: that the historical record of the US template which Australia is following has an inexorable developmental logic to it; the other is that Universities Australia (UA) is determined to follow it with a level of enthusiasm accurately captured by a term now commonly applied to speculative stock-market bubbles – irrational exuberance – and overlaid, ironically, with hubris arising from a sense of indispensability.
It takes the following forms according to UA’s Chief Executive, Catriona Jackson: “Australia can’t deliver AUKUS without a significant boost to our defence capability;” hence “the Government must work directly with universities;” indeed, the universities, ”should be front and centre of all discussions and decisions around workforce and skills development” in return for which, the universities offer themselves as institutions “in lockstep with government to ensure the project is delivered smoothly and successfully.”
It seems not have occurred to UA, or its constituents that this unprecedented exercise in self-promotion is located within the context of a dangerously close, or even overlapping alignment of Australian and US strategies, and thus the desired state of affairs – a mindless effacing of individuality – is inescapably the subordination of the universities to Washington. [Hardly a coincidence given the template noted above; lockstep originated as a characteristic control mechanism over inmates in the American prison system of the 19th Century].
Hovering above this debacle is, of course, a dependent variable – constructed at great expense, in the think tanks and government agencies of the West – the threat posed by China. As commitment to “deterring” it becomes entrenched any revision of it becomes unthinkable. In stark terms, Australia’s universities are now depending on the maintenance of China-as-Enemy for significant future funding and relevance (as defined by the national security state).
It might very well work for a while. All it takes is the entrenchment of secrecy, deceit, obfuscation, and foreign influence at the level of government that have attended AUKUS since the beginning, further decisions by the universities to abandon the spread of enlightenment and define themselves instead as default tool shops for the state-military-industrial-academic complex, and the reduction of their students (and their graduates therefore) to passive, subsidised technicians unaware of the liberating potential of originality and dissent. A bloodless transformation, it might be said.
Historically, foreign occupying powers would have expended vast amounts of blood and treasure for such a victory.