Murdoch's grand plan for universities

November 14, 2001


Political interference by members of the ruling class in a federal election is hardly a rare occurance, especially by those with unmatched levels of "free speech", so when one of the world's most powerful media barons stepped up to deliver a lecture on Australia's education system, it was hardly a surprise.

What was surprising, however, was that Rupert Murdoch chose to tacitly criticise the education policy of a federal Coalition government he is well-known for being in love with. Labor pollies could hardly contain themselves that they'd got the nod from the Big Man, on this issue at least.

Rupert Murdoch used the October 11 memorial oration for his father to give a rhetoric-filled address called The Human Wealth of Nations. If he had used a few more bewildering graphics and said the word "innovation" a few more times, it could well have passed for the education policy launch of one of the major parties.

Speaking of the changes in the world over the last 100 years, Murdoch outlined his vision for the 21st century education system.

The "Digital Revolution", he argued, had "fooled us into valuing industries and technologies over the people who run them".

"The key to the future of any country is not its physical resources or industrial capital", the tycoon said. Rather, "the information age will be led by those with the greater access to information".

And that means investing in "human capital" now, especially "our country's centres of learning".

In a line clearly intended to become the media grab of the night, Murdoch argued that, if Australia did not follow such a path, it would be condemned to "global irrelevance".

Murdoch got stuck into more than a few aspects of Australia's tertiary education system: the "brain drain", increased casualisation of staff, the need for more "world-class teachers", the need to "revolutionise" the university sector, and perhaps most of all the lack of adequate funding especially as the country "now ha[s] the financial resources to invest".

He even waxed liberal at one point, noting, "Last year, the government spent more on peacetime defence measures than on Australian education. With the new millenium, this thinking must change."

As incongruous as talk of a world-class education system is coming from the man who owns such newspapers as the Daily Telegraph, the Herald-Sun, the Courier-Mail and the Adelaide Advertiser, Murdoch was not done yet. The media baron also spoke of his concern at the "widening gap between rich and poor" and argued the need to "democratise knowledge" to help "the bottom sector of society".

The media baron claims that his comments "should not be seen as a partisan criticism", but were rather "an appeal to the whole political class". But Labor would certainly have taken heart from them and the Coalition would certainly have been stung.

The response of the "chattering class" was warm. The Sydney Morning Herald's Margo Kingston wrote that the lecture was "the most positive and important intervention [into an election] I can recall" and called his proposals the "meat on the election table".

Even the National Tertiary Education Union was gleeful about the speech, asking: "Are John Howard and Kim Beazley listening? And, more importantly, do either of them have the courage to commit their parties to rebuilding our universities?"

While owning his own press certainly helped him to create the impression that this was ground-breaking news, Murdoch's proposals are neither radical nor original. Much of this "meat" has already been put forward by such groups as the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and the Business Council of Australia.

What is more significant is that, while avoiding the word, one of Australia's richest and most powerful men has pointed to the crisis in the university sector.

While greater public funding or a shift from casual staff back to permanents would be welcome, Murdoch's "vision" will do nothing to end that crisis, however.

Murdoch is not proposing a shift away from the commodification and commercialisation of knowledge, human capital and universities, the basic cause of the present crisis. Quite the opposite.

His vision is of a university system that is funded more by the public (but since when has any business leader wanted to foot the bill?) and yet is fixed on "competition" and the needs of 21st century businesses like his own.

Murdoch's vision of higher education should be rejected by supporters of a public and equitable university system, just as firmly as they have rejected the cut-down, cash-strapped, stress-ridden system of the Coalition (or of Labor for that matter, the pretty promises of Knowledge Nation notwithstanding).

Neither vision is about "democratising" knowledge; rather they are about commodifying it. And knowledge sold is knowledge corrupted.

From Green Left Weekly, November 14, 2001.
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