Challenging the privatised university

From Chain Reaction #125, November 2015.

Emerging tech and challenging the privatised uni − Jeremy Tager

GMO deregulation through the back door − Louise Sales

The universities we need − Raewyn Connell

What's wrong with privatising universities? − Jeannie Rea

A focus on private investment means universities can't fulfil their public role − Margaret Thornton

Why do universities still invest in fossil fuels? − Carol Richards

A shift towards industry-relevant degrees isn't helping students get jobs − Kristen Lyons and Richard Hill

How corporate investment corrodes the public research environment − Jack Heinemann

Emerging tech and challenging the privatised uni

Jeremy Tager

Friends of the Earth first began discussing the need for a conference on Challenging the Privatised Uni because of our concerns about the way in which corporate funding is distorting not only the research that is being done, but also the outcomes of this research. Particularly in the case of emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology and new GM techniques, the majority of research is geared towards commercialisation − rather than assessing the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by these techniques.

It is well established that corporate funded science is far more likely to support the interests of corporations than independent research. The effects may include industry biased research priorities, design and conclusions.1 On occasion it may even involve fraud. In a survey of US scientists 15.5% admitted that they had changed the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source, whilst 12.5% admitted overlooking others' use of flawed data.2 However, as Jack Heinemann's piece outlines, the effects of corporate investment in university science go much further. After all, corporations can and do produce their own 'science'. They can buy whatever results they want, but universities offer a level of public credibility and status that corporate labs can't replicate.

It is now common to see whole biotech or nanotechnology departments funded jointly by industry and government and bearing the corporate name. Corporate investment may include particular research projects, 'linked' grants funded by both government and industry, funding of a chair or position, in-kind contributions and access to corporate facilities. Scholarships, gifts, free events, sponsorship of activities or securing wall space for photos blessed with a corporate logo are all ways in which corporate interests buy cultural acceptance.

Universities become not only a source of intellectual and scientific capital for corporate interests, but of human capital as well. Academics and students, working in departments dependent on corporate funding, become naturalised to a state of affairs where vested interests drive research, control outcomes and provide material support and potentially future employment for students who conform.

It is rare to see scientists question or challenge the underlying cultures and structures which have provided salaries and meaning in their occupational lives. The institutionalisation of corrupt science is creating a generation of young scientists who see private funding and control of science as perfectly normal, who do not question the lack of transparency or the orientation of research towards commercial interests.

Universities give a social license to corporate interests and corporate science that no amount of advertising can buy. Universities, now desperate for funding, are prepared to sacrifice their integrity for dollars. Research is kept secret, financial agreements are confidential and negative results may well never be published.

In this culture, universities push for their own staff to become entrepreneurial. Scientists and universities take out patents, work as consultants for corporate interests, or start their own companies. Science becomes a business and scientists a new breed of businessman.

On the other side, those few scientists who conduct independent research or speak out against corporate control, are demonised, isolated and attacked.3 This unfortunately, is the face of science in the modern Australian university. A number of scientists attending this conference have been savagely attacked for their peer-reviewed work that dares to conclude that the interests of corporations may in fact harm us. The attacks are personal and often made by other scientists. Speak out against genetic modified crops in this country and it is trained academic attack dogs who will be the leaders in a ritual of intellectual assassination. Criticise nanotechnology and it will be scientists not the corporate interests that speak against you. Often the scientist will speak as a university employee even in an area in which they have no expertise.

The corrupting effects of corporate funded science was what Friends of the Earth wanted to change. How to protect academic and scientific integrity and independence and to ensure transparency in corporate partnerships are critical discussions we want to see come out of this conference.

But it quickly became clear to us that the crisis of universities was much bigger. Universities both reflect and amplify the crisis of corporate capitalism. The change from public good universities to privatised and corporatised universities that began in the 1980s under the ALP has resulted in a deterioration in the quality of education and university life in almost every imaginable area.

As these pieces in Chain Reaction show, the nature, scope and diversity of problems associated with the privatised uni are ubiquitous and not confined to the laboratories of our university campuses. The effects of corporatising are felt in governance, managerialism, curriculum, fees, the nature and quality of research, morale, collegiality, transparency, course availability, commodification of knowledge, loss of critical thinking, cheating, casualisation etc. It is so culturally powerful that it is accepted by many academics and students as normal.

The culture plays out in more subtle ways as well. In organising the Challenging the Privatised Uni conference at UQ we sought endorsement not only from UQ generally but several departments as well. No-one was willing. One department head made it clear that while she supported the conference idea, the school could not be seen to openly support it. Self-censorship in the corporate university takes many forms – and is yet another symptom of the illness in the body politic of the modern university.

The University of New South Wales recently put out a media release bragging that they were attracting more corporate funding than any other university in Australia.4 Why isn't this driving students and academics away? Normalised however does not mean acceptable or insurmountable. The conference will be about solutions and it will be up to participants to devise and implement those solutions, whether they are projects, events, regular meetings over tea or a new organisation.

Already, there are many academics, students and activists challenging the ways in which the privatised uni supports private interests in the public sphere. There are also unprecedented grassroots movements (divestment, coal, coal seam gas and GMOs) that are highlighting dubious academic initiatives supporting these industries. There has never been a better opportunity or time to build a larger, more strategic and effective movement to protect not only public education but the public good.

For more information on Challenging the Privatised Uni visit

Jeremy Tager is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth's Emerging Tech Project


1. See, e.g. Lesser, L.I., Ebbeling, C.B., Goozner, M., Wypij, D. & Ludwig, D.S. (2007) Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. Public Library of Science Medicine 4:41-46

2. Wadman, N. (2005) One in three scientists confesses to having sinned, Nature 435:718-719, 9/6/05

3. Aviv, R. (2014) A Valuable Reputation, New Yorker, – this story of Tyrone Hayes is only one example of many. Other cases include Ignazio Chapela, Árpád Pusztai, Judy Carman, Gilles-Eric Séralini, Maarten Stapper and Jack Heinemann.

4. UNSW tops the country in industry-linked research grants (2015).

GMO deregulation through the back door

In October, the federal government attempted to delete the definitions of GMO (genetically modified organism) and GM product from the Food Standards Act and to change the law so that the Food Standards Australia New Zealand board could potentially be stacked with industry representatives. We are concerned that the proposed changes are an attempt to deregulate risky new genetic engineering techniques by stealth and to make the agency even more industry friendly. Furthermore, these proposed changes seems to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the government's deregulatory agenda.

The proposed amendments would delete the definitions of GMO and GM product from the Act. Once they are gone the only definitions remaining are those in the Food Standards Code which are substantially weaker and may not cover certain new GM techniques such as RNA interference.

Thanks so much to those of you who took the time to contact the Shadow Assistant Health Minister Stephen Jones and urge him to refer the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment Bill 2015 to committee. It worked! The Bill has been referred to the Community Affairs Committee with a report back date of 30 November.

We are concerned that the proposed changes are part of the government's response to a global push by the GM crop industry to bypass regulation for a range of new genetic engineering techniques. These techniques include zinc finger nucleases and CRISPR and the evidence suggests that they pose the same risks as traditional genetic engineering.

The concerns associated with the use of these new GM techniques include food safety concerns, environmental impacts – including those on biodiversity − and GM contamination of neighbouring non-GM crops or wild relatives.

Unfortunately, it seems there are more proposed changes to come. Documents obtained by Friends of the Earth under Freedom of Information laws and questions asked by Senator Rachel Siewert in Senate Estimates reveal that the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator plans to deregulate a number of these new techniques and to conduct public consultation on this in early 2016.

− Louise Sales

For more information and to get involved in the campaign visit:

The universities we need

Raewyn Connell

Universities in Australia are drifting deeper into trouble. You wouldn't know it from their websites – full of delighted students, bright sunshine and well-tailored managers. You wouldn't know it from Glyn Davis, who a few years ago delivered the ABC's Boyer Lectures on The Republic of Learning − a wondrous picture of happy campers doing benevolent work in superbly-managed organisations.

Perhaps a Vice-Chancellor has to say this kind of thing in public. But then, that's part of the problem.

I have worked in the sector for forty-five years. I have never known so much tension, distrust, and outright fear in Australian universities as there is now. I have never known so many bright young people, capable and trained, who are disillusioned about working for universities.

Universities have been changing quickly as organisations. A corporate-style elite has been consolidating its control and gripping the daily life of the workforce in more authoritarian ways. Casualisation of the teaching staff is endemic and organisational memory and know-how among staff are being lost as more and more jobs are outsourced.

The intellectual life of universities is troubled too. Forums for internal discussion and decision-making are being replaced by management-controlled "consultations". A heavy dependence on Anglo-American models of curriculum and research are reinforced by Canberra's league-table mentality. But they are increasingly questionable in a postcolonial world.

The place of universities in the Australian community has shifted, as universities function less as an integrated public service, and more as profit-driven businesses competing for enrolments, prestige and revenue. Their main international role now, in the eyes of policymakers, is to suck money out of Asia.

Perhaps most important is the resulting change in culture. The model of universities defined by the uncomfortable search for truth is being increasingly subverted by spin, corporate boasting and manipulative advertising. The intellectual authority of universities is declining.

Those are issues we need to analyse and understand. That work won't be led from the top. If you look at the website of Universities Australia − taken by the innocent to be the voice of the universities but actually the Vice-Chancellors' Committee, re-badged in 2007 − you will find plenty of corporate clichés but little discussion of the tough stuff.

Such discussion does happen in staffrooms around the country, and in those student organisations that survived the Howard government's attempt to wreck student culture. The best public discussions recently have involved the industry union, the NTEU. But even those discussions have focussed on the current problems of university work and the damage done by market-driven policies. What hasn't yet emerged is a convincing alternative model for a good university that could displace the current corporate vision.

There are rich resources. In the background, centuries of debate: on the curriculum for colonial universities, from Mexico to India; on the research university invented in Prussia in the early nineteenth century; on the American "mass university" of the mid-twentieth century; and more.

There is also a long history of experimental universities. These include the astonishing "Flying University" in Poland under the Tsars; "The New School" launched in NYC in 1919; the international "Free University" movement of the 1960s; and more.

It's important to know these alter-histories. But the vital thing is to develop ideas out of current experience. Despite the managerial takeover, there is still good teaching and hard thinking at the grass roots. What I have learnt from them points to three dimensions along which new models can emerge.

The first concerns knowledge. Good education consistently opens, rather than forecloses, questions about knowledge – about authority, truth, and relations between knowledge and action. A good university will have learners with power over their own learning. It will rejoice in debates about the production of knowledge, including the forms of knowledge and research agendas that we need as a society.

The second concerns intellectual work and a democratic workplace. A good university means a good place to work for all staff. It means secure rather than precarious employment; real forums for shared decision-making; and shrinking, not increasing, inequalities among staff.

The third dimension concerns public service. Debt-free higher education is completely within the resources of a country like Australia; what it requires is public funding not a fee regime. But public funding demands an ethos of public service and social justice; and building that ethos requires a big cultural shift. Modesty, rather than boasting, is wanted.

We don't have a new model yet, and it won't be easy to make. But it has become urgent to try.

Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney, a Life Member of the NTEU, and one of Australia's leading social scientists,

What's wrong with privatising universities?

Jeannie Rea

"No cuts. No fees. No corporate universities", chant students protesting government cuts to higher education funding. This slogan succinctly characterises the privatising university.

Australia's level of public investment in higher education is low compared to other industrialised economies. Deregulated international and postgraduate course fees are now an important source of income as government grants account for only about one third of university income. In recent times, most vice chancellors did not oppose the Coalition Government's undergraduate fee deregulation policy, despite Australian undergraduate domestic students already paying higher fees than most comparable countries.

Fee deregulation compromises the integrity of our public university system, with better resourced universities able to charge higher fees than those with a less pecuniary student cohort. Capacity to pay rather than merit would increasingly determine access to courses and universities and in turn their future viability.

However, privatisation is not only about access or the possession of assets. Rather, it is about the process and consequences of the marketisation of public universities and the commodification of higher education learning and research.

Marketisation is emblematic in public university vice chancellors, no longer seen as leaders of a community of scholars, but re-cast as CEOs answering to university councils, which are now more akin to corporate boards of management overseeing the operation of large enterprises. Commodification is symbolised by students considered at best as clients, at worst as customers. Despite UNESCO protocols recognising our unique rights and responsibilities, university staff struggle to hold onto to our status as stakeholders. Instead, we are treated as a cost of production, a variable input from which maximum productivity is extracted.

Universities are not just another enterprise, and 'education' is not a commodity to be bought and sold. A university qualification requires work by the student, not just the purchase of a service in a commercial transaction. The market fails in higher education because the benefits of university education are not confined to the individual being educated.

It's a misnomer that student customers exercise power in the market place. Students can fill out customer satisfaction surveys, but nowadays rarely have influence over what they are taught, by whom and how. Student feedback has become more abusive and cheating has increased as student participation in the terms of their learning has declined.

Another characteristic of privatisation is the erosion of university governance as university councils/senates privilege corporate experience over stakeholder interests and dispute staff and student representation. Council meetings have become reporting forums for management rather than an avenue for meaningful debate over institutional direction and academic boards are now merely arenas to rehearse council reports.

While university councils need to prioritise financial stability, obsessions over 'salary savings' prevail at the expense of a secure workforce, facilitating investment in new initiatives and consolidating successful activities. Contracting out is favoured, even for commercial activities that could bring a return. The core 'business' of teaching is being commercialised, particularly in preparatory courses. Seemingly often weighted towards the partners' interests, the value of commercial partnerships is nebulous at best, and can carry reputational risk. Partners and donors increasingly demand an ongoing say in the university and, with most decisions 'commercial in confidence', the university community can only guess at the rationale.

In a marketised higher education sector, universities relentlessly compete with one another, reducing decades of high level inquiry and life changing innovation to slogans like 'awesome'. Whilst managing constrained budgets and pushing courses online to cut costs, universities are making massive capital investments in edifices to attract students, staff and research investors. This competitive environment explains the obsession with international research rankings and the presumption that these attract international students, whose fees cross subsidise domestic students' education and research.

However, the 'digital natives' (local and international) are highly suspicious. They canvas opinions within their cohort and in trusted advisors like teachers and families. They are not necessarily influenced by flashy websites, 'analytics' and a new 'campus centre'. They are, however, likely to listen to a student complaining that every year over half of their tutors are employed casually and have little paid time for consultation.

The researcher who has been employed on half a dozen contracts in a decade will have trouble convincing her PhD students to pursue an academic career. The esteemed professor might be attracted by the salary bonus offered, but may also be concerned over the job security of colleagues or in having a say in how his research is used.

Academic freedom is increasingly fleeting − academics are pulled off research that's not a university priority and fixed term researchers are cautious of creating waves or in following an interesting path that may yield unexpected results. Politicians call for cuts to research projects that do not fit their ideological blinkers and corporate and government funders want the answers they paid for.

Collegiality can be dismissed as an 'ivory tower' concept, conjuring up visions of white men guarding their class privilege. However, there is a mass higher education version of collegiality whereby staff and students across the university, the country and globally, share their knowledge and the immense resources of universities for the public good. But this is not the vision of the privatising university, where knowledge is guarded and resources fenced off for paying customers.

Jeannie Rea is the national president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

A focus on private investment means universities can't fulfil their public role

Margaret Thornton

The decline in government investment in higher education and the ever-increasing reliance on fees and other sources of income has made universities more like private for-profit corporations.

As institutions of higher learning that receive government funding, universities are obligated to fulfil a public role.

Students as customers

As students assume more and more of the cost of their higher education, they tend to view it as a personal, private investment that benefits them rather than a public good.

Conservative economists tell us that fee-paying students are rational egoists primarily concerned with maximising the return on their investment.1 This means they are anxious to graduate and obtain the best paying jobs as soon as possible. They exert their customer prerogative to request universities include more applied courses to suit their vocational aims.

While preparing students for gainful employment is an important public responsibility of universities, it is short-sighted to prioritise short-term job-readiness over academic skills such as critical thinking, particularly as numerous changes in employment are predicted in the life of the typical graduate.

The focus on applied knowledge has led to a decline in critical thinking. This has impacted on all disciplines but the humanities have suffered the most because of their perceived inability to generate profits, as revealed by several searing critiques from the UK.2

Research valued over teaching

Research, not teaching, is the beneficiary of the increased revenue received from the proliferation of students.

Less money is spent on teaching through the casualisation of staff, the preference for large lectures rather than interactive small groups, and modes of assessment that are quick to mark.

Full-time academics are now expected to prioritise research, particularly applied research, over teaching because it is more lucrative. This entails being entrepreneurial in the pursuit of grants and the commercialisation of research outcomes. Grants allow teaching to be bought out completely and responsibility devolved to casuals.

But universities compromise their public role if they fail to nurture adequately the intellectual capital of their students.

Justice and equity

Universities perform a civic role in preparing graduates to go out into the community, but high fees have the potential to skew leadership positions in the professions and the public service in favour of the sons and daughters of the wealthy.

Fee deregulation inevitably shifts the balance away from the egalitarian values of equity, access and upward mobility for the less well off.

Middle-class students are more likely to see the high cost of a degree as an investment, whereas the less well-off tend to be deterred at the prospect of substantial debt.

FEE-HELP, the income-contingent loan scheme, mitigates the class impact somewhat, but recent research from the UK showed a marked decline in the enrolment of male students from lower socio-economic families since 2010 when fees were trebled.3

The US experience of high fees has also found that students are hesitant to pursue less well paid careers in public interest and social justice in case they are unable to meet their loan repayments.4 They prefer high paying jobs on the corporate track which effectively tips the social scales in favour of the wealthy.

When the public good role is compromised by the market

There have been many revelations of late of universities admitting or passing sub-standard students because they are full-fee paying.5

Universities are keen to emulate the American Ivy League's ability to generate substantial endowments through donations,6 but the issue is fraught. A number of universities have accepted donations by companies,7 where the contractual details are shrouded in secrecy and the independence of researchers could be compromised.

Not only have we seen a shift away from the traditional idea of the university where knowledge is pursued for the betterment of society as a whole, but private good has become normal in university life.

Vice-chancellors at Australian Universities now seem to regard themselves as CEOs of for-profit corporations and command extraordinary salaries, frequently joining the $1m+ club ─ earning more than their counterparts at Oxford or Harvard.8

Bizarrely, according to a University of Auckland study,9 academics too have come to accept that personal, private investment and immediate financial returns are now being cast as the new source of public good.

If this is what academics believe, what hope is there of reclaiming universities' public role?

Margaret Thornton, FASSA FAAL, is Professor of Law and ANU Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Conversation:


1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 'Normative Theories of Rational Choice: Expected Utility', 8 August 2014:

2. Marina Warner, 'Learning my lesson: On the disfiguring of higher education' London Review of Books, Vol 37, No 6, 19 March 2015:; Alex Preston, 'The war against humanities at Britain's universities', The Guardian, 29 March 2015: Terry Eagleton, 'The slow death of the university', The Chronicle Review, 6 April 2015:

3. Independent Commission on Fees (UK), Analysis of trends in higher education applications, admissions, and enrolments, August 2014:

4. Richard Holden, 'Legal Aid v private practice: Do university fees dictate job choices? The Conversation, 7 July 2015:

5. Gigi Foster, 'The slide of academic standards in Australia: A cautionary tale', The Conversation, 21 April 2015:

6. Janice Dudley, 'Top-ranked universities have more money than Australian unis could dream of', The Conversation, 30 March 2015:

7. Paul Cleary, 'Corporate ties threaten credibility', The Australian, 3 June 2015, 37.

8. 'Crisis? What crisis? VC salary packages rising', The Australian, 10 June 2015, 30.

9. Cris Shore and Laura McLauchlan, '"Third mission" activities, commercialisation and academic entrepreneurs' (2012) 20(3) Social Anthropology 267-286:

Why do universities still invest in fossil fuels?

Carol Richards

Despite the strong claims that universities make about their sustainability leadership, they have been slow to divest their fossil fuel investments and take a strong, public stand on climate change. This places them behind religious institutions, philanthropic organisations, local councils, banks, superannuation funds and a host of other institutions moving capital away from fossil fuels.

Divestment1, often described as the opposite of investment, involves the socially motivated withdrawal of capital by public and private investors in response to unethical business interests or practices. To divest in this way is to take a public moral and political stance. Divestment as a political strategy relies on this public dimension as socially respected institutions lend their weight to the cause.

The fossil fuel divestment movement has been instrumental in the enrolment of major institutions into the movement, extending the divestment movement from an 'activist' environmental campaign to a 'mainstream' social movement. The involvement of mainstream actors such as the church, super funds and local councils has brought about greater legitimacy for the campaign, despite strong opposition from mainstream political parties. The fossil fuel divestment movement is now claimed to be the most effective divestment movement ever, exceeding the campaign around tobacco in terms of public support.2 The reluctance of Australian universities to take a public stand and divest from fossil fuels is even more curious against this backdrop.

The economic, environmental, moral and reputational risks associated with fossil fuels now means investments in coal, gas and oil are aligned with the 'sin stocks' of tobacco, alcohol, vice and weapons. There is a moral element to profiting from the destruction of the planet, but there is also an increasingly convincing economic argument against investing in fossil fuels. Climate projections, and international agreements not to exceed a two degree centigrade temperature rise, have led to concerns about 'unburnable carbon' and the potential for coal, gas and oil assets to be 'stranded'. This means fossil fuel assets may lose economic value, adding a financial imperative to divest on top of a moral one.3

Universities' engagement in the divestment debate

Fossil Free Universities have been active in awareness raising on campus, and challenging universities to divest. Globally, over 30 educational institutions, including Oxford and Stanford, have publicly announced their divestment in fossil fuels. Whilst many Australian universities are engaging with the climate/divestment debate, their commitment to divestment has been minimal at best. No Australian universities have committed to completely divest their interests in fossil fuels, while just two universities, Australian National University (ANU) and Sydney University, have committed to a partial divestment. This year, Sydney University announced it would divest 20% of its fossil fuel shares over a three-year period. In 2014, ANU announced a partial divestment amid much controversy. Strong reactions from the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Finance Minister Joe Hockey, highlight the political power of the mining sector in Australia.

Some universities have released statements regarding their investments without committing to divest. For example, the University of Melbourne draft charter states that the University will "strategically focus investment priorities on sectors and organisations that lead in the delivery of a low carbon and ethically sound future, while ensuring the University's long-term financial position". Queensland University of Technology in a letter to Fossil Free QUT campaigners explained: "QUT is undertaking a review of its investment strategy, which will include consideration of the mix of fossil fuel and carbon intensive assets within the universities management funds."

The extent to which these responses represent the beginnings of a process of divestment is unclear.

Vested interests

To appreciate why Australian Universities are reluctant to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, it is useful to scrutinise the extent to which mining corporations have penetrated Australian universities. Not all transactions between mining corporations and universities are knowable. However, the information that is available in the public domain shows a close relationship between major fossil fuel mining corporations and universities − including board membership of senior university executives, student scholarships, and research centre funding and donations.

At The University of Queensland (UQ), a divestment campaign has been underway for a couple of years, yet campaign group Fossil Free UQ has not received any formal statement from university management regarding its stance on divestment. Interestingly, UQ has an ongoing relationship with the fossil fuel industry, particularly via its Centre for Coal Seam Gas, situated in the Sustainable Minerals Institute. The Centre receives $500,000 per year from Santos, Arrow and Australia Pacific LNG as well as $2,000,000 from Queensland Gas Company. The coal seam gas industry has not been without controversy regarding their environmental and health impacts. Santos, for example, was fined $1,500 by the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency for the pollution of an aquifer with uranium.

At my own institution, Queensland University of Technology, Fossil Free QUT have asked the university to divest its fossil fuel assets. Campaigners have also argued that the Graduate School of Business, who have an executive training contract with Adani, should sever its links with the company.4 Earlier this year, a student protested by making public her decision to turn down a prestigious scholarship, citing concerns about links between QUT and Adani.5

Adani has attracted much negative attention amid concerns about the sheer size of the proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin and its contribution to catastrophic climate change, as well as harm to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site, if the mine goes ahead. Protests from citizens both overseas and Australia, including the traditional owners the Wangan and Jagalingou people6, highlight that the company do not have a social licence to operate. Further, fifteen of the world's major banks have either withdrawn funding or committed not to lend capital for the development of the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. Amongst these are London-based Standard Chartered and Australia's own Commonwealth Bank.

A number of universities have explicitly stated that they will not divest from fossil fuels. These include University of New South Wales, University of Canberra and University of Adelaide. The latter has a long-standing association with South Australian based mining company Santos, who along with The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) have a financial relationship with the institution. According their website, the School of Petroleum, Engineering and Management "was founded in 2000 as a result of a very generous donation from Santos Ltd to the University of Adelaide to establish a world-class petroleum engineering school".

Likewise, BHP Billiton has had a longstanding financial relationship with the University of Western Australia, including a $17m contribution in 2013 to its 'New Century Campaign' to create a centre of excellence for the resources industry.

Universities in the public interest?

Whilst it makes sense for universities and industry to work together for the greater public good, it would be difficult to argue that fossil fuel mining represents a public good. It is therefore questionable whether universities should be engaging with the industry, other than to assist in the transition toward a low carbon future.

Strong links and vested interests with the mining sector places universities in a difficult position, caught as they are between concerns about climate change, and the income and benefits derived from links with fossil fuels corporations. Yet, when Australia's universities engage with any business, they lend legitimacy to that endeavour, just as divestment would lend legitimacy to the movement addressing climate change.

If universities divest from fossil fuel corporations, it will likely impact on their relationships with the fossil fuel industry and possibly compromise future funding – but can universities and their reputations as good climate citizens and sustainability leaders afford not to take that step?

Dr Carol Richards is a senior research fellow employed in the Business School, Queensland University of Technology.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Conversation:


1. For an overview of divestment visit

2. See Ansar, A., Caldecott, B. and Tilbury, J. (2013), Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets? Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.

3. The Australia Institute (2014), Climate proofing your investments: Moving funds out of fossil fuels.

4. See Hagemann, B. (2015) Students call on QUT to sever tied with Adani, The Ferret, 14th January.

5. Branco, J. (2015), Teen turns down QUT scholarship over university's mine links, The Brisbane Times, February 3.

6. See the website of the Wangan and Jagalingou people

A shift towards industry-relevant degrees isn't helping students get jobs

Kristen Lyons and Richard Hill

Competition between universities is more intense than ever, resulting in a shift towards industry-relevant degrees. But this attempt to link universities and the economy has not been universally successful so far – employers still complain that graduates lack the necessary job skills1 and research shows thousands of graduates are unable to obtain jobs2 of their choice.

Are universities then going about things in the wrong way? Is university all about being job-ready? And in their drive to make graduates more employable and move up the global rankings, has students' ability to learn and choose the courses they want to study taken a hit?

Universities share a commitment to delivering courses and programs that meet the needs of industry by linking tailored degrees to employment outcomes; and in the process restructuring course offerings and content.

While policymakers, university administrators and employers champion links between universities and the economy, thousands of graduates are still struggling to find work. This is especially true in the case of fields like engineering, teaching, nursing, law, speech therapy, finance, commerce and accounting.

Despite such concerns, universities continue to reform and restructure programs and courses with industry in mind.

When pursuit of profit gets in the way of learning

One of the most significant shifts towards streamlined, industry-relevant degrees occurred in 2007 with the introduction of the so-called "Melbourne Model".

Melbourne's vice-chancellor, Glyn Davis, justified the consolidation of undergraduate degrees on the grounds that this would avoid duplication and the delivery of costly small courses.3 However, its primary focus was to make the university more "globally competitive" in what was an increasingly cut-throat international market.

The university cut 96 courses and replaced them with six US-style, three-year undergraduate programs that fed into various postgraduate programs.

This offered the university huge potential for income generation. Predictably, the most severe cuts were to arts courses, which in turn resulted in the shedding of dozens of staff. This resulted in protests by academics, students and some members of the public. Despite this opposition, the Melbourne Model was a sign of things to come.

Earlier this year the University of Sydney, under the stewardship of vice-chancellor Michael Spence, sought to emulate the Melbourne Model and elevate Sydney in the university world rankings. Spence's management team did so by embarking on a similar process of course rationalisation.

In June, the ABC reported4 that the proposed changes would mean reducing the current 122 degrees to just 20. Spence argued5 that: "if it's a degree that is going to make our graduates more internationally competitive, more employable, it might actually be expenditure that's worth it".

Academics, administrative staff and students protested the proposed cuts, arguing that staff redundancies would exacerbate an earlier round of cuts and reduce the quality and range of degrees.

Similar cuts to programs and staff at La Trobe University6 were also intended to boost its place in the world rankings.

According to vice-chancellor John Dewar, "efficiency and quality driven reforms" would allow for the introduction of "hallmark" or "niche" degrees relevant to the workplace of the 21st century. Such changes, he added, would result in a "rejuvenated university", although neglecting to mention that over 300 jobs would be lost and numerous units cut.

Similar restructuring exercises have occurred at the following universities: Tasmania, Swinburne, Monash, Victoria, Curtin, Newcastle, Charles Stuart and Western Australia. Such rationalisation cuts at the heart of universities, removing the very assets for which institutions are renowned.7

The many examples of cuts to courses are accompanied by far-reaching changes to course content, with more emphasis placed on vocational outcomes.

Skills and knowledge "competencies", "attributes" and other measures of performance have turned traditionally accepted priorities like "critical thinking" into commodities marketed at prospective employers through e-portfolios and job-ready CVs.

Although the humanities, arts and social sciences continue to make up two-thirds of the undergraduate intake, deep cuts have occurred in these areas or, as in the case of La Trobe University, they have been fine-tuned to meet industry needs, or abandoned altogether as occurred at QUT8 in favour of "creative industries".

Elsewhere, cuts have been made to peace and conflict studies, history, gender studies, philosophy and many language departments, while industrially relevant "hard sciences" and courses like business, commerce and accountancy have proliferated.

University education isn't just about being 'job ready'

Is there any alternative to this streamlined and homogenised market-led agenda?

The slow university movement9 - characterised by scholarship and teaching that slows down the pace of knowledge production, and celebrates collective and creative endeavours; free universities10 and various independent colleges highlight the possibility of a more social rather than economic approach to higher education.

In practice this requires:

  • a reassessment of links between universities, government and business;
  • the provision of more time and space for deeper learning;
  • greater emphasis on critical thinking and community action.

Decoupling education from markets will be a vital step in ensuring a vibrant democratic future.

This is an edited version of a piece originally published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Kristen Lyons works in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland, and is also a senior research fellow with the Oakland Institute, California. Dr Richard Hill is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University, Gold Coast; Honorary Associate at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, and co-founder of the Ngara Institute.


1. McGrath Goodman, L. (2015) Millenial Graduates: Young, Educated, Jobless, Newsweek, (accessed 29 Oct, 2015).

2. Hill, R. (2015) Selling Students Short, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

3. Simons, M. (2010) 'Dangerous Precedent. The Melbourne Model', The Monthly, (accessed 29 Oct, 2015).

4. Brown, M. and Griffits, A. (2015) 'Sydney University looks to drop degrees, make graduates 'more employable', ABC News, (accessed 15 Sept, 2015).

5. op cit.

6. Simons op. cit.

7. Hill op cit.

8. Bahnisch, M. (2007) QUT farewells the "old" humanities, Larvatus Prodeo, (accessed 21 Sept, 2015).

9. Mountz, A. et al. (2015) For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University, International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, (accessed 22 April, 2015).

10. Swain, H. (2013) Could the Free University Movement be the great new hope for education? The Guardian, (accessed 21 Sept, 2015).

How corporate investment corrodes the public research environment

Jack Heinemann

Public universities have always been agents of knowledge transfer, some of it proprietary. However, the western paradigm for technology transfer was only introduced in the early 1980s and was based on licensable intellectual property (IP). Licensing became the vehicle to capture the value of research and innovation. In recent years there has been a reorientation in universities towards research covered by the more powerful IP instruments, e.g., utility patents[i]. Public universities have also become more dependent on the private sector for operational funding.[ii]

Public universities and government research institutions not only can file for IP rights, there is an expectation that they do so. Commercial involvement is not always bad.[iii] However, it will compromise public good research unless properly managed.[iv]

I believe that the public good arising from this model in public universities is largely lost because of the powerful distortion in priorities arising from the litigious and expensive[v] focus on licensing and business creation.[vi]


The relationship between medical faculties and industry is a familiar example of industry influence on academia.[vii] Both industry-institution and industry-staff links are common. In the US, about two-thirds of the administrative units and department chairs at medical schools and teaching hospitals have financial relationships with industry.[viii]

Industry has normalised its presence in academia and academic research. Governments have been complicit in growing this relationship.

It is thus no surprise that science and engineering departments have extensive entanglements. Corporate benefactors-for-strings are common at large universities. A well-known example is the criticised[ix] deal between the University of California Berkeley and Novartis[x].

Emerging academics realise that conflict with any industry puts their careers at risk at a university that needs to be seen as industry friendly. In New Zealand, for example, it is far more difficult to access public grant support for projects that do not have an explicit industry partner or obvious commercial objective. Industry representatives and industry-supportive academics serve on bodies that distribute public research funding.[xi]

The power of gifts and relationships

While some academics deny[xii] that they can be influenced, research shows that in general academics are not immune to the effects of gifts and relationships.[xiii] Gifts are a powerful tool to create a sense of obligation and loyalty. Small gifts, even less than $100, are effective.[xiv]

Thus, we should declare them. Being aware of actual or perceived conflicts helps establish important checks and balances. One is to help researchers recognise inherent human frailties. The other is to alert the public and critics to pay close attention to the research approaches.

The New York Times chronicled examples of academics who have taken very strong stands that are consistent with the industries with which they have connections.[xv] The larger the industry, and the greater its influence on government, the more reliable it can be throughout an academic's career. That is why in one case − where the messages were sympathetic to the world's top herbicide and the genetically modified crops that it is used on − there was particular interest in the academic not forthrightly declaring his actual or reasonably perceived conflicts of interest. Instead, he routinely denied a relationship to the industry in unequivocal terms.[xvi]

The Times article and others reporting on the links between industry and academics noted how these relationships also frequently normalise a relationship between academics and public relations firms or industry groups. They are inseparable from corporations. Their purpose is to promote the interests of their clients, and to create doubt or to repudiate messages that might hurt the interests of their clients.[xvii]

Failure of checks and balances

Not all conflicts of interest are mortal wounds to research or teaching. Indeed, published research may be challenged if there are attempts to replicate the results, serving as a balancer for the effects of bias. This post hoc reassurance, however, is no substitute for trying to avoid the conflicts in the first place.

Because for the checks and balances to work effectively, research findings must be reported in ways that allow the work to be replicated, it must be public and there must be the will and money to replicate it. Unfortunately, in one of the most important ways that science impacts society, these checks and balances are compromised.

There is no doubt that vested interests influence the outcome of research.[xviii] Most research that really matters to the lives of the average citizen is both produced explicitly by those with a vested interest and never published. This is the ‘science' provided to safety regulators for determining whether or not to allow the release of products ranging from pesticides[xix] to GMOs[xx]. As MD Boone and JR Rohr observe, a conflict of interest is "inherent in research directly conducted or funded by industry for assessments or regulatory purposes."[xxi]

Much of this research is either secret, uses material not generally available, or uses methods that are too opaque to reproduce by others. Such research cannot be effectively challenged or validated by independent researchers.

This should change. The public should demand change. Governments should enable the change. Universities should be funded to respond by establishing research and teaching career pathways shielded from entrepreneurialism. It has to be done quickly, though, because the public researcher who can afford to be dispassionate and successful is an endangered species if not all but extinct.[xxii]

Jack Heinemann is a professor of genetics and molecular biology in the School of Biological Sciences and director of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

[i] US Patent and Trademark Office. Electronic information products divisions.

[ii] Perez-Pena, R. (2013) Patenting their discoveries does not pay off for most universities, a study says. The New York Times, 20 Nov.

[iii] William-Jones, B. (2005) Knowledge commons or economic engine − what’s a university for? J Med Ethics 31:249-250,

[iv] Washburn, J. (2007) Science’s Worst Enemy: Corporate Funding. Discover, 11 October.

[v] Agres, T. (2005). I’ll See You In Court. The Scientist, 20 June.

[vi] Valdivia, W. (2013) University Start-Ups: Critical for Improving Technology Transfer. Brookings, 20 November.

[vii] DeAngelis, C & Fontanarosa, P. (2008). Impugning the Integrity of Medical Science: The adverse effects of industry influence. JAMA 299(15):1833-1835.

[viii] Campbell, E. et al. (2007) Institutional Academic-Industry Relationships. JAMA 298(15):1779-1786.

[ix] Busch, L. et al. (2004) External Review of the Collaborative Research Agreement between Novartis Agricultural Discovery, Inc. and the Regents of the University of California. Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards, Michigan State University.

[x] Dalton, R. (2004) Biotech funding deal judged to be ‘a mistake’ for Berkeley. Nature 430:598.

[xi] New Zealand Ministry of Innovation and Employment, Science Board.

[xiii] Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2013) Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews. PLoS Med 10(12).

[xiv] Katz, D. et al. (2003) All Gifts Large and Small, Center for Bioethics Papers,

[xv] Lipton, E. (2015) Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show. New York Times, 5 September.

[xvii] Michaels, D. (2005) Doubt Is Their Product. Scientific American.

[xviii] Diels, J. et al. (2011) Association of financial or professional conflict of interest to research outcomes on health risks or nutritional assessment studies of genetically modified products. Food Policy. 36(2):197-203.

[xix] Boone, M. (2014) Pesticide Regulation amid the Influence of Industry. BioScience.

[xx] Shorett, P. (2003) The changing norms of the life sciences. Nature Biotechnology 21, 123-125.

[xxi] Boone, M. (2015) The Trouble with Risk Assessment Lies at the Foundation. BioScience, 65(3):227-228.

[xxii] Heinemann, J. (2015). When the business of the university is business, all academics are suspect. Academic Freedom Aoteoroa.