The incessant and unjustified diatribe against Australia’s Group of Eight universities by former Australian Catholic University chief Greg Craven is an unfortunate incursion as our nation’s universities seek to work collaboratively to progress the Universities Accord.
In a time when words matter, when truth and fiction are becoming harder to discern, it is incumbent on everyone with a public platform to ensure what they say is accurate. Now is not the time to let the “tall poppy syndrome” go unchecked.
Universities expect an evidence base to underpin arguments. Craven offers none that is credible. And while he seems obsessed by arguments about dollars, he overlooks the simple fact that all the large, complex Go8 universities are not-for-profit, where the focus of every dollar earned and spent is teaching, research and the common good.
Go8 universities are Australia’s oldest and most successful institutions. They are quality universities, with experienced quality staff, students and alumni and we make no apology for that. Nor should we. None of us get everything right 100 per cent of the time. We should always seek to do better and be open to constructive criticism when appropriately directed. The Go8 is no stranger to that, but criticism must be supported by evidence.
The arguments are selective and, in fact, insulting to the Go8’s 50,000 staff, our 450,000 students and millions of graduates. They deserve nothing less than a strong defence against this diatribe.
For example, on November 2 the claim was that, during Covid, the “elites enrolled Australian students who normally would have gone to other universities”. By November 8 this changed to an attack on institutions that won’t “admit plebs”. In fact, the Go8 run a multitude of programs and scholarships to support students from low socio-economic areas.
Only last week the University of Melbourne launched the new Narrm Scholarship Program, a commitment to increase the number of disadvantaged students from the current 10 per cent to 25 per cent of the domestic student body by 2030, at a cost of $65m per year.
The newly merged Adelaide University is starting with a new $120m equity fund and is founded on the basis that equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive but mutually enforcing.
These programs, like so many others across the Go8, aim to increase the cohort of students who have faced barriers to participating in higher education.
Australia has much to be proud of. By any standard we are a successful multicultural society, striving to give all Australians access to the best education and opportunities. Our universities are committed to that goal, and we are on the cusp of timely significant reform through the Accord, ably led by Professor Mary O’Kane.
To suggest that, through the Accord, Go8 universities are after a “blank cheque” or seeking to “consume the whole research pavlova” is a complete misrepresentation.
In fact, the Go8 has said “the Accord is not about looking at today’s problems or asking for handouts – it is about looking into the future”.
Naturally, as the universities that undertake 70 per cent of Australia’s university-based research, we have a laser focus on ensuring research funding is fit for purpose.
Every day our researchers tackle the big challenges that make our nation stronger and boost productivity. They have developed affordable lifesaving ventilators to combat Covid and saved millions of lives by preventing cervical cancer. Is Craven really suggesting this is the work of “anti-social organisations”?
Go8 universities, like other institutions, are not perfect and we seek to become better at everything we do. Constructive and evidence-based critique assists us achieving that ambition. Sadly, the contributions of Craven do not fall in that category.
Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight.