To quote a minister, “... a group of academics is no substitute for commonsense ...”
(IR Minister Kevin Andrews, ABC AM (November 17, 2005)
One of Australia’s charming idiosyncrasies is that it is one of the very few nations on earth where the word “academic” is a term of abuse.
In most cultures academic equates with knowledgeable, serious, thoughtful, meticulous, even wise. In the robust Antipodes however it often connotes that which is sterile, self-obsessed, quixotic and lacking in relevance to the wider community.
While it may spring from an ancient class prejudice that people who work with their minds are, essentially, less useful than those who work with their hands, the question remains why, in a 21st century Australia where precious few people work with their hands any longer, “academic” is so often uttered pejoratively by leading figures in industry, government and the community.
Among possible hypotheses:
- popular prejudice, like village opinion, is correct and Australian academics actually are pretty useless;
- Australians are more stupid than most other nationalities in not appreciating the value of academic work; and
- Australians lack information about what academics do and in particular, how their work flows to and benefits the whole community.
There is evidence to refute Proposition One in global research citation rates, prizes and the ranking of 17 Australian universities in the world’s top 200, not to mention many great research discoveries and advances.
Proposition Two is unlikely, as there is no evidence that Australian intelligence is any lower than anyone else’s: indeed Australians tend to outperform Americans and even Europeans in knowing whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa.
But what about Proposition Three? Could it be that Australians just don’t know what goes on behind the ivy-clad, razor-wired ramparts of their universities and science agencies?
Most universities and science agencies are not about to tell the public what they did with its money (though they can certainly crow loudly enough when they get it). Check their websites today, if you don’t believe me. Of the 10,000-odd research projects now under way in Australia, how many publicly-available outcomes do you see? A couple of dozen? Fewer?
There are many reasons for this, including institutional and individual inability to communicate, lack of resources and skills, lack of understanding by management of what is now referred to as “third stream” (where academia meets society), a misguided frenzy over commercial-in-confidence and IP, over-reliance on institutional braggadocio at the expense of factual communication, bans which prohibit free speech in researchers, or plain disinclination by some to rub shoulders with the wider community.
Whatever the cause - and it is generally an amalgam of the above - there is little doubt that academe does not enjoy the sort of popular respect (and so, support) in the Australian community and electorate that it does in other countries. This converts into less political pressure on governments to fund research and tertiary education and reduced inclination by philanthropists to donate. Hence the current stampede to market both education and research, in order to make good the shortfall.
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