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(Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

It’s a sector that generated nearly $38 billion in exports last year, embodies the long-sought dream of Australian economic engagement with Asia and employs over a quarter of a million people.

So why is our university sector so politically powerless, indeed, treated with contempt by the government?

The iron ore mining sector, which generated $77 billion in exports but employs around 100,000 people, is far more powerful. Figures like Andrew Forrest are treated with something approaching awe; Forrest can even ambush and humiliate a minister and criticise the government’s failure to appease Beijing, and barely a word is said against him or his company.

The coal mining sector — $70 billion in exports but fewer than 50,000 workers — is a favourite of the government, which is eager to encourage the expansion of coal mining. And the government bends over backwards to help the “transitional” gas sector, which produces $50 billion in exports, but employs just 30,000 people.

Even smaller export sectors like tourism and primary production are enthusiastically supported by the government.

During the pandemic, the government has done little as revenue from foreign students has vanished, sending the university sector deep into the red and forcing massive lay-offs.

In contrast to most other sectors, universities have received no federal assistance, and those foreign students actually in Australia, having lost crucial employment as the economy has shut down, have been left to fend for themselves — and told to go home by Scott Morrison.

The government’s sole commitment was its trolling-like announcement that it would be paying universities the same amount of funding it had already budgeted to pay them, and no more. The only help has been for private universities, for whom the government adjusted JobKeeper rules so that they would be eligible, while public universities were unable to apply.

Now the sector faces a further hit as collateral damage from the government’s trade conflict with China, with the Beijing regime making good on promises to encourage a boycott by Chinese families of Australian universities. Even after Australia’s borders reopen — whenever that may be — fewer foreign students will come.

While the over-reliance on China of Australian universities has long been an issue  — ANU began diversifying away from China years ago, while the appalling University of Queensland doubled down — at no stage has the federal government raised concerns, given the colossal export revenue being generated by the sector. That revenue far exceeds the level of government funding for the sector, including via HELP loans.

Indeed the level of Commonwealth funding for domestic students, while increasing overall, has actually gone backwards on a per-domestic student basis since 2016, and in the most recent figures (2018) was below the level of 2008 even in nominal terms.

What explains the hostility to universities?

In the current climate of criticism over the government’s childcare decision, some might note that most other major export industries — mining, resource extraction, primary production — are male-dominated, while around 60% of university employees are women.

But tourism, a sector lavished with massive levels of support by all governments, is also majority female, at least in accommodation and food services.

Others might suggest the Coalition instinctively hates universities, given their association with liberal and critical thinking and the role of tertiary education unions.

But Labor has been no friend of universities either — domestic per student revenue for Commonwealth-supported places actually fell when Labor was last in office, despite the shift to demand-driven funding, and the Gillard government cut $2.3 billion from university funding to pay for its Gonski primary and secondary education funding reforms.

The increasing reliance on foreign students has been encouraged by governments of both stripes, as ANU’s vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt has pointed out.

What Australia’s university sector lacks, seemingly, is the clout that comes from political donations.

The mining sector is a major donor, particularly to the Coalition; resources sector companies like Santos, Origin and Woodside, and the sector’s peak body, give generously to both sides.

Primary producers have their own political party in the Nationals, and effectively regulate and reward themselves through the agriculture portfolio.

The hospitality industry, even without the massive donations of major tourism and gaming companies Star and Crown, is the single biggest donor in politics.

The big four consulting firms have all benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts as they have significantly increased their donations to political parties.

Universities — apart from some marginal contributions by industry lobby group Universities Australia — are signally absent from the ranks of financial contributors to the major political parties.

In Australia’s corrupted political system, and especially under the current government that so blatantly rewards donations with handouts and regulatory favours, maybe our fourth-biggest export industry needs to buy some friends at court.