Friday, October 17, 2003

Public funding, sport and universities

High-level (or what used to be called “elite”, before that became a dirty word) sport has a tradition of public funding in most first-world and (now) ex-communist countries. As far as I’m aware, the Australian Right have never had too much of a problem with this, despite the sheer ideological affront of it all. Apart from the most dollar (and sweat) intensive of the athlete academies being housed in the old command’n’control states – cue “boo hiss” – there is a simple and virtually irrefutable match between private sponsorship dollars and high-level sports funding, at least in poly sports-mad Australia. In other words, what business has the State being involved in the industry at all? While a necessary exception could be made here for unsponsorable sports (Academy of Tunnel-ball, anyone?), the broader rule stands – the price of accepting taxpayer dollars is putting up with government meddling and interference; and so, such a price is unacceptably high.

That, anyway, is the persistent argument mounted by Melbourne Uni VC, Professor Alan Gilbert, and his ever-faithful sidekick, Andrew Norton – only applied to universities, not sport, of course. According to Professor Gilbert:

My second target tonight is the heretical idea that, for universities, public funding is uniquely legitimate.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, Australia has reified the idea of a public university. In most parts of the world, public universities, creatures of the 19 and 20 centuries, remain only one model among several. But in Australian higher education debates are often dominated by people suspicious of any funding that does not come from the public purse.

The ideological strength of these convictions is astonishing. Even when they are obliged by sheer weight of evidence to concede that levels of public funding fall well short of what is required for an internationally competitive higher education system, people persuaded of the unique legitimacy of public funding still commonly resist private finding strategies with partisan zeal, and oppose in principle the engagement of universities in commercial activities.

In assuming that public funding alone is free from corrupting influences associated with the power of the purse, advocates of the public university are either implying that he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune - except, curiously, when Government is the paymaster — or, alternatively, insisting that Governments always play wholesome and uplifting tunes. The corollary is that sponsorship, benign in its public form, undermines the very legitimacy of the idea of a university when it comes from private sources, and especially from the commercial world.

Having been a Vice-Chancellor for 13 years, that seems to me to be an arrestingly innocent view. No one remotely in touch with reality could believe that Government funding flows to universities without either strings attached or far-reaching policy, interventions. Those advocating the exclusive legitimacy of public funding must therefore believe that Government interventions are uniformly benign. But that, too, seems extraordinarily naïve. The truth is that all funding entails a danger of undue influence. The immense importance that universities have placed historically on high levels of institutional autonomy is a measure of their determination to ensure that no patron, whether a medieval prince, a fee-paying student, a profit-driven corporation sponsoring research
or a modern state, is ever able to compromise the integrity of scholarship or the independence of research.

The irony is that Government paymasters are usually the most demanding of all sponsors when it comes to trying to call the tune in the academy.

If applied to high-level sports academies, Professor Gilbert’s thoughts* are easily seen for what they are – agenda-mongering bullshit. Granted, there is no absolute, good reason why the state should financially (or otherwise) be involved in such academies. Further, there is abundant evidence that government paymasters, more so than private sponsors, indirectly breed organisational complacency (surely the worst form of sponsor interference of all). So why, oh why does Australia persist with socialist-style (and scale) sporting academies?

Of course, any fool or jock knows the answer to this – excellence. The private sector is good at, and for, many things, but it doesn’t – and couldn’t – run high-level sports academies. By “private sector”, here BTW, I exclude US-style bountiful legacies (rich dead Australians are, for whatever reason, keener to be remembered via anachronistic art and most-compelling-Ukranian-peasant literary competitions, or perpetual trusts for the siphoning of income from poor Victorians into the pockets of Tasmanian rustics and/or mass-murdering psychopaths.)

Bringing the argument back to higher education, what is the difference between it and sport in Australia? (Insert obvious joke here . . . laugh, and move on.) Okay, scale and “bang for buck” is a big one – total public spending on sports academies is a fraction of that on unis, because most obviously, there is vastly bigger head-count at the latter, just as there should be.

Countering this, however, is what I would term the “Interfering with Excellence Paradox”. That is, the higher the stakes – for government/sponsor as well as everyone else – then the less interference from on high. An Australian government that micro-managed its top sports academy would soon find its efforts were distinctively counter-productive. Ditto surely for universities, at least if there was only one, or at most a handful, of them. Which there is not, but here’s the rub – in both sport and academe, the government’s money pump reaches a point of diminishing returns. At and below this quality** tipping-point, there is nothing to be gained from handing over taxpayer dollars.

Which means, then, that government interference is an inevitable, necessary and good thing – but only at the bottom, marginal end of the industry. Those institutions who proclaim, with just cause, their excellence, should be left alone to get on with it – to make their sponsor proud, if you like – while those who are just treading water in the Olympic swimming trial scheme of things should be left to find their own level in the private sector.

Either way, the governmental “interference” is but a sort, sweet moment.

* The true irony of which thoughts is that these thoughts were delivered as the 2003 Menzies Oration. Translation: hundreds of graduands had to sit through this rant, before they could collect their ribbon-wrapped degrees. The mums and dads in the audience must have been thrilled to hear Professor Gilbert pay out on the ideological taintedness of their offspring’s new degrees.

** Much as I hate the q-word in the higher ed context, I can’t think of a substitute term here. “Quality” in higher ed is not an exact counterpart to empirically-measurable quality in sport (e.g. gold medals), but in terms of national outcomes, the analogy still holds.

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