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For a sector that produces all of Australia’s doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers, physiotherapists, psychologists, vets, accountants, diplomats, teachers, economists and politicians, you’d think the social and economic value of universities would be universally appreciated and their funding assured.

And yet every budget the university sector, represented by Universities Australia, leaves the field disappointed, not only failing to claw back its recent losses, but exiting with some fresh new insult: in the latest budget, a 9% funding cut.

After a horrendous year for the sector as overseas students were kept at bay by COVID-19, universities weren’t offered more government assistance, but more austerity.

In April 2020 university revenue was projected to fall by $19bn; by February this year 17,000 job losses were recorded. Staff at Monash University offered to take pay freezes to help stem job losses.

The large portion of the blame for this parlous state of affairs must go to Universities Australia’s strategy when it comes to funding.

It’s easy to blame the government, but given the government’s long and well-known track record of hostility to the sector and endless rounds of cuts, Universities Australia desperately needs a new battle plan.

At the moment the strategy appears to be to make funding pleas pre-budget, to express disappointment they didn’t materialise post-budget, then to go away and conduct more research and analysis into the value of the university system. Presumably there’s some inside lobbying with the education minister along the way. But where’s the campaign that draws in the public, wins it over and puts the government’s feet to the fire?

The university sector has been framed by the government as an incubator of cultural Marxism and postmodern wankery, funded by hardworking Joe Taxpayer.

Where is the counter-narrative? Where’s the counterpunch? It doesn’t take much imagination to think of ways the university sector could have campaigned for more funding during COVID — the period between the last budget and this one.

The university sector gives you a world-class health system staffed with highly qualified doctors and nurses. If you want a banana republic healthcare system in Australia, then by all means, let’s keep cutting uni funding.

Health in regional Australia? Why, universities can help you there too!

Infrastructure is the way we’re going to build back Australia. Did you know engineers and project managers keep buildings from collapsing and contain the cost of building projects? Nice to have, Australia.

And have you ever watched a thing called a TV? Apparently, a lot of Australian entertainers, even ordinary blokes like Mick Molloy, went to university. Even did an arts degree.

Has your dog ever choked on a chicken bone? You know that place you send your kids during the week? Remember when you pulled your back and got it fixed up?

How many ways could the university sector represent itself to the public as absolutely integral and enmeshed with the high quality of life we enjoy? A million ways.

Can you imagine all the case studies you could line up to talk about how university transformed their lives, the economic value they add, the quality of life that is attendant to that, the marginal seats you could target with messages?

Universities Australia has a responsibility not only to its own members and immediate community of staff and students, but to the future of this nation to start campaigning properly on this issue. A social media, digital media, and traditional media campaign that is open, engages the public, and reframes the way the public perceives the university system, from a self-indulgent sink of iniquity to an integral investment in a high standard of living.

Forget going as a supplicant for A-B conversations with the education minister of the day. Start having a conversation with the Australian people and politicians in marginal seats. Those are the conversations Universities Australia needs to start having, today.

David Latham is director of PR and a lobbyist at Good Talent Media.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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