HE’s choice: Cut through now or face the sausage factory unarmed

With just a few months to influence the Federal Government’s master plan for revolutionising tertiary education, what are the chances of the Higher Education sector winning the hearts of the average punter in a way that it never has before?

While different actors across the sector grapple with the challenge of developing an approach to consent that will be demonstrably effective, personnel not caught up in that campaign wrangle must consider whether there is any hope of a collective campaign effort to achieve in the span of a few months what the sector has failed to accomplish over the past couple of decades. Prove to the Australian public that uni funding in general and research funding in particular matter so much that they believe more of their taxes should be used to pay for it.

Back in 2003, when we started a media training program for academic staff at ANU, we came up with a simple scenario – the plumber test. Imagine a plumber is underneath your sink, fixing a leaking pipe and asks you what you do. The plumber is going to be interested for a couple of sentences while she or he is solving your plumbing problem. Can you find a way to make your work relevant and interesting to them in two sentences, so that when they emerge from under the sink, they actually want to know more?

It’s turned out to be a pretty effective training scenario. The gold is not in the scenario, nor the first two attempts, as brilliant experts frequently thrash about like land-bound fish, gasping, as they try to break out of the language and values of their peers. But on about the third go, about half of the 1,000 or so people who have gone through the training over the past 20 years are quite good – and about 10% are excellent.

When the right people are paired with the right stories at the right time, the world sits up and cares. Of course COVID gave us a new set of household names; but what happens when that captive audience are no longer trapped (metaphorically, fearing the virus, or physically in lockdown). The perceived value of that expert advice suddenly diminishes, as the worlds of our audiences expand and fragment.

Which bring us to now. A campaign, however good, is not going to get national traction on a scale sufficient enough to significantly alter voter sentiment this calendar year, given that it would need to cut across campaigns for the Voice, grand finals of various codes and the Christmas torpor that sets in from 1 November.

But what if there was a great campaign – and I am talking a coordinated ad and PR onslaught, not just the usual process of throwing money at some tepid creative til it hurts. Forget the idea of every uni signing up. Forget the idea of mass national fervour. What if a few unis got behind a campaign so fresh and compelling – backed by a phalanx of media fireballs shooting across the media firmament from a dozen disciplines – that it actually bumped the needle. Shoppers in some key electorates mentioned the campaign when they went to the supermarket, or talk back callers took a moment off from complaining about every conceivable progressive policy and instead complained about our lack of commitment to being a clever country.

That might be enough to recapture a little of the power the sector has lost in the Accord process and start to not only be allowed to send in thousands of pages of largely unheeded submissions, but also enable Jason Clare to pop into Jim Chalmers’ office with a little spring in his step, armed with the news that a few members of the caucus would have an easier ride if the Government started to pump a little extra funding into research.

We are at a critical juncture. While great brains bend their talents to writing submissions and writing entreaties (no doubt more eloquent than this one), the political reality is that the sector may be about to go through the organisational equivalent of a meat grinder without much say about the type, flavour or number of Kranskies that pop out the other end.

While the nature of the changes to be introduced by the Federal Government’s Accord process are yet to be revealed, the government has already effectively flagged that there will be little or no extra money for research until universities persuade voters that the paltry 0.17% of GDP currently devoted to research funding should be increased.

As Professor Mary O’Kane told the Go8 podcast recently, “We really do need to get a deep understanding by the person in the street about why Australian universities’ research is vital to our economy, our society, our future.”

In addition, someone has to pay for the structural transformation. The surprise suggestion that the change could be achieved through an efficiency dividend that would disproportionately be borne by wealthier Go8 universities has ramped up pressure on the sector to demonstrate that the government should be picking up the tab.

Redefining the perceptions of the sector in the hearts of the nation won’t happen overnight, but needs to start soon and is going to be most effective through a coalition of changemakers equipped with a willingness to listen, create and act.

The campaign itself need not be that hard – there are a lot of intelligent and inquisitive plumbers out there, waiting to find out more about the world. Finding common ground on where to start and then getting agreement to proceed is the real challenge.

Alternatively, we could fire up the popcorn machine, write a couple of submissions and then stand by to watch the Clare reforms unfold, without a lot of leverage to affect the winds of change as they sweep through.



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