Editor’s note: This is a long post that brings together two very different university-related topics. But they are related and both need to be understood as there are enormous implications from both.

It’s time you got to know Glyn Davis.

Davis was the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne until he stepped down in October after 14 years in the job.

It’s a sweet gig, starting with the coin: the role pays more than $1 million a year. That’s $20,000 a week. Keep that in kind next time universities cry poor. Also, that most VCs are on seven-figure salaries … plus super etc. Puts a lot of things in perspective. But back to Davis.

You should know him because on 7 December it was announced that Davis would be leading the $3.6 billion Ramsay Foundation from late January 2019.

This is not to be confused with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. However, the Foundation funds the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation but is not the Centre. You remember the Ramsay Centre, right?

Ramsay bad, Confucius good … what the …?

The Ramsay Centre was an academic program rejected by the ANU because it was “for” Western civilisation (perish the thought), and it was rejected by Sydney University because, in part, “its program will structurally privilege the West at the expense of the Rest” (how wicked).

In case you’re wondering, a number of Australian universities are home to Confucius Institutes, including Melbourne University. According to the university:

The Confucius Institute is a centre of education excellence for Australian companies wishing to do business in China, the general public who has an interest in Chinese language and culture and for Chinese companies and executives working in Australia. The Institute is a partnership between the University of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria, and is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. It is one of over four hundred Confucius Institutes globally.

Internationally, a growing number of universities have closed their Confucius Institutes because they fear the centres are actually propaganda arms of the Chinese Government and may harm the institution they are attached to.

Melbourne University hasn’t. Go figure.

So, Confucius good, Ramsay bad.

What hs this got to do with Glyn Davis? Well …

Philosophically speaking

Davis’s role in the Ramsay Foundation is interesting because of what he brings to the role philosophically.

In his last major speech as Melbourne University VC, he spoke at a summit exploring issues of academic freedom and autonomy. It was hosted by the Australian National University (one of the Ramsay-rejecting universities).

Davis presented the case that claims of a free speech crisis on campus have no evidence. He did so in the pompous style so beloved by academics … and certain PMs from Queensland.

Rudd is a mate of Davis, by the way. Davis co-hosted Rudd’s 2008 2020 Summit, and also launched Rudd’s recent autobiography, I’m still awesome and you were mean to me [citation needed :-)].

In his ANU speech last week, Davis referred to concern about free speech on campus as a “confected calamity“. He thinks it’s all made up.

As Davis explained:

Claims of a crisis require evidence. Crisis means trends that can be measured. Frequent examples that demonstrate consistent worrying behaviour, proof of an organised assault on the underlying principles of public universities — these are all conspicuously absent.

Let that sink in for a minute … and compare his statement with what you have seen over the past few months. Then ask: who are you going to believe? Davis? Or your lying eyes?

Evidence that free speech is under fire

Davis made the point (in more than 4000 words, thank you very much) that the examples of free speech under assault tended to come from the US, and that examples from Australia were rare and were so infrequent you couldn’t draw meaningful conclusions from them.

This is somewhat true in that the most egregious examples of stifling debate are from the US, but Australia has not been immune to campus bullying. Examples from AUstralia do exist. Of course, if you don’t look for evidence, you won’t find it.

How’s this for evidence?

11 September 2018: Protestors confront attendees at Bettina Arndt talk. “At the doors of the event, a crowd blocked the entrance to the History Room s223 in the Quadrangle where the talk was taking place, preventing ticket-holders from entering the building. The protest was organised by the Wom*n’s Collective and prompted an altercation between activists and attendees.” [Yes, it was written as ‘Wom*n’s Collective’.]

17 August 2018: A talk by a controversial US academic has been cancelled by the University of Western Australia on safety grounds after students protested against the transgender sceptic.

30 May 2017: After suspending a lecturer over a quiz question that suggested Chinese officials were truthful only when drunk, Monash University has discarded the textbook he used. The commonly used text, Human Resource Management by Raymond J. Stone, will be out of use by the second semester, the university says.

11 May 2015: The University of Western Australia has cancelled the contract for a policy centre that was to be based on the methodology of controversial academic Bjorn Lomborg after a “passionate emotional reaction” to the plan.

27 April 2015: Over a hundred members of the university community attended a meeting at the Camperdown campus on Wednesday to condemn the university for “restricting free speech” after 13 protesters were handed show-cause notices following turbulent scenes at a lecture by retired British colonel Richard Kemp, a vocal defender of the Israeli Defence Forces.

22 April 2016: A China-born academic has been forced out of a leading Australian university for posting online politically charged remarks about his countrymen, re-igniting accusations Beijing is using its presence inside global campuses to exert soft power.

19 May 2014: Former federal Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella was escorted from a lecture at Melbourne University after it was apparently overrun by protesters.

These are just a few examples … there are many, many more …

The IPA produces annual reports on campus freedom and has numerous stories on the issue. The latest should be out any day now.

What Davis claims

It is worth reading Davis’s full speech so you’re fully immersed in academic arrogance. It is truly breathtaking.

Davis has no time for the IPA. He dismissed the 2017 report with a wave of the hand:

The IPA 2017 audit identifies just five confrontations with speakers at Australian campuses, and one withdrawn invitation, in a survey that spans several years. These seem modest numbers for a crisis.

Not entirely accurate. The five worst claims from the IPA were:

  • The University of Sydney student union attempted to block the screening a film, Red Pill, because, it was claimed, the mere showing of a video could ‘physically threaten women on campus’.
  • Monash University has become Australia’s first to formally introduce trigger warnings, which are now part of course guides.
  • A James Cook University academic is facing serious misconduct allegations following comments about the Great Barrier Reef’s health.
  • Monash University withdrew a textbook because a quiz question offended international students from China, the academic who set the question was also suspended and has since left the university.
  • The University of Sydney has required conservative students to pay costly security fees which are not charged for the activities of other student groups.

Davis is trying to define the problem away by talking about academic freedom rather than the ability to debate ideas which might melt snowflakes.

Of the five worst actions, these are the most egregious IMHO:

  • Monash University has become Australia’s first to formally introduce trigger warnings, which are now part of course guides: what this does over time is make you censor yourself – the greatest success a censor can achieve is to make you do their job for them. Trigger warnings are a way of you telling yourself that you sholdn\’t say something. So the obvious response is not to say it (whether it needs or should be said or not).
  • The University of Sydney has required conservative students to pay costly security fees which are not charged for the activities of other student groups: ‘violence to silence’ conservatives is the most dangerous as it gives the mob an incentive to be violent. In Victoria, the police will also hit you with a bill, despite you being the victim of mob rule.

These two items go to the heart of what limiting free speech is about, not just on campuses but throughout society. If Davis can’ see a problem, we have a problem.

This is the real problem at Australian universities

As concerning as censorship of conservative voices is, which we know to be echoed by platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it’s a handy ruse to concentrate on it and not the real problem which the universities and the government are frightened of even discussing: how international students are ruining the reputation of Australian universities.

This is where we take a detour … 

Vice-Chancellors would rather talk about issues like censorship – whether they agree that it happens or not – because it means they can avoid talking about topics they definitely don’t want to talk about. Like international students.

Remember vice-chancellors are paid around $1 million a year. Do you know they’re paid so much? Because of international students.

For the past decade, universities haven’t been about education, they’ve been about exports.

Education is an export industry, and the Group of Eight universities – which includes Davis’ old employer, Melbourne University – are at the centre of the export drive.

That’s why the universities will censor voices against China, because if China bans its students from learning in Australia, the sector will collapse. China can do that and knows that when it whistles, (capitalist) dogs come running.

That’s the great debate about censorship: what are Australian universities prepared to do to keep the cash cow mooing? The censorship on 30 May 2017, cited above, is an example.

Here’s why Australian universities are happy to welcome Confucius Institutes and bend over backwards to make China happy:

The number of international students in Australia has increased by 12 per cent this year [2018] as enrolment numbers continue to rise exponentially.

Department of Education figures show that in February, Australian universities, private colleges, English language courses, and schools registered a combined 542,054 enrolments.

That compares with 305,534 total enrolments five years ago.

Students from China make up the largest proportion of students at 31 per cent, followed by India, Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Foreign students are the only real concern for universities because the number of Australian students at university has been capped but the number of international students hasn’t been capped.

You read that right. There’s a limit on the number of students universities can take from Australia but not on the number of foreign students. 

Foreign students are cash cows, as the ABC has explained [another essential read].

What this means is that if universities want more revenue, they can only get that revenue through foreign students.

That’s neither here nor there, except it means lower standards.

Why does it lower standards?

Under the current system, Australian students are a captive market because many of us follow this trajectory: you go to high school, you get the marks, you take out a HECS-HELP loan to pay for tertiary education and you go to the nearest university. The HECS-HELP makes it more attractive to study in Australia. HECS-HELP are golden handcuffs.

If you’re a foreign student, though, the world is your oyster. You can study anywhere. With that competition, Australian universities have to make Australia look attractive.

This is where it gets dicey.

If you consistently fail foreign students or catch them plagiarising and kick them out, they start complaining. They might even say you’re raaaaaaaaaacist. And they won’t come back. Why would they? You were mean to them.

And despite what you have been told, Australia is not the most attractive location for foreign students to study (yes, there are countries other than Australia and some of them are quite nice). In tertiary education for international students, we generally come fourth, behind the US, UK and France although this may change due to recent events in Paris.

It is clear to anyone who has been in a class with foreign students that most would be incapable of following the lecture due to poor English skills. Many also contribute little to class discussion (again, due to English skills). Using that as a base, it would almost impossible for some/most to read textbooks. How they get through sure is one helluva riddle …

How can we solve it? Let’s consult Cameron Murray, an economics professor at the University of Queensland.

Lecturers are getting angry

In a series of tweets late last month, Murray explained in response to the ABC article referenced above that:

  1. 90% of students in my economics masters classes are international.
  2. Half of them struggle with basic English.
  3. When I ask in tutorials why they are doing the degree, half tell me that they “need more points for their residency visa”.
  4. They tell me they choose economics because they can do the maths but don’t need to understand anything or write anything.
  5. I always set written essays or reports. Students tell me that they know other students are using paid ‘essay writing’ services to pass my class.
  6. If half the class can’t understand English it brings down standards. It must—unless I fail half the class.
  7. Think about the incentives—a casual lecturer who costs $25,000 fails 50 students paying $250,000. Change lecturer next year or reduce intake to keep standards?
  8. It is frustrating when top international students from foreign governments/central banks come to your class, then sit next to rich Chinese (almost always Chinese) who can’t understand a word and are there to buy a visa.
  9. The evidence shows the effect on standards is real. None of this is a secret. That research is from 2011.
  10. Unfortunately, this reality conflicts with the widely believed myth that our immigration program brings in “high skilled” workers.
  11. 350,000 international students paying $25,000+ per year to study is $9billion being pumped through our top dozen universities.
  12. Halving the number of international students would keep all the good students, boost standards for all, and remove the visa scams.
  13. But this would remove $4.5billion per year of revenue to the universities.
  14. In sum, universities are being degraded so they can be used as a back-door immigration program, and no one at the senior levels of universities or major political parties want to change it.
  15. It is nearly career suicide for younger academics to say anything about it.

(These are direct quotes from his long series of tweets.)

If Murray is right, and considering the danger of him belling the cat like that, there’s no reason to doubt him, Australia’s reputation will suffer because we will be releasing thousands of graduate into the world who haven’t learned anything.

Misaligned incentives

The problem with universities is misaligned incentives.

They are no longer educational facilities, they are companies, with the same problems as modern companies who chase short-term profits at the expense of long-term value. We like to think of academics as intellectuals, but they are as susceptible to financial incentives as anyone. They are not noble; they are us.

Remember, VCs on a million a year – a sweet wicket that didn’t exist when many entered academia a few decades ago. It’s the sweetest gig they never thought they’d get, and when the brown stuff hits the whirly thing they won’t be there. They will have retired. The problem will be someone else’s … and Australia’s.

Some of them might be running a conservative-aligned foundation, despite never having held a conservative opinion in their life.

Which brings us back to Glyn Davis, appointed to oversee the Ramsay Foundation, which then funnels dosh to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.

Considering he doesn’t think there is a free speech problem on campuses, as he heads an organisation effectively banned from universities due to concerns about academic freedom (see why he wanted to make the two issues so separate?), it is worth wondering whether Ramsay has already succumbed to Robert Conquest’s second and third laws of politics.

Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organisation not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

Yes, it appears to have fallen.