By DAVID MYTON
With Australia’s Federal Budget looming on May 9 lobbyists are busy making the case that higher education funding should be quarantined from further cuts.
Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said universities and their students had contributed $3.9 billion to rein in the Budget deficit since 2011 and declared: “Enough is enough.”
“Universities and their students have already done more than their fair share of Budget repair,” she said, adding “… it is difficult to justify further cuts that would affect student affordability and put at risk the quality of education and research on which Australia’s prosperity depends.”
Those of us who are passionate about higher education might tend to agree, but other sectors are equally convinced of their crucial importance to society and will be eagerly explaining why they should either receive more funding or not have it cut back.
Whatever, this late in the day the big funding decisions probably have been made. Universities Australia’s cri de coeur may change nothing.
The former British Prime Minister John Major observed that politics “is a very long run game and the tortoise will usually beat the hare”.
Which is why interest groups, including from higher education, bang on about their vital importance whenever the opportunity arises.
The trouble is, even if they have excellent communications channels and expert working knowledge of politicians and the political process, they nevertheless remain outside of the tent, so to speak.
But what if higher education could have its own ambassadors embedded within the political process, always on hand to deliver advice, information and arrange contacts?
In a democracy, he says, the attention and respect of political leaders has to be earned. This can be done, he suggests, by developing the “right attitude” that includes honing powerful arguments, understanding the legitimate aims of politicians and their constituencies, and working tirelessly to get the message across.
All this would involve developing ambassadors for the cause.
“Ambassadors are experts in connections. … They have to be at home in two worlds: the country of origin and the country of residence … they have to use that dual awareness to open doors for others … they have to know the pirouettes and turns of their home country.
“We need to develop equivalent expertise in science diplomacy.”
One way, he suggests, might be to develop the equivalent in Australia of the US intern model in which scientists and engineers are placed as Policy Fellows across all branches of government, including Congress.
Dr Finkel says his office is giving the idea serious consideration, although it is early days.
It’s a good idea and one that could be developed in higher education generally.
There is some tangential evidence that having influencers on the inside of politics can benefit universities.
Inside Higher Ed reports that a new study from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found a positive relationship between state funding levels for higher education and the share of legislators who attended the public colleges and universities in their states.
“In fact, every legislator who has attended an in-state public college or university is associated with an additional $3.5 million in funding …”
The report’s authors say this finding accords with the notion that alumni will have strong ties to their alma mater and are more likely to provide personal support.
Should universities be encouraging more graduates to go into politics?