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Universities and the AUKUS Military-Industrial Complex

Here they go. Vice-chancellors, university managers, and creatures with titles unmentionable and meaningless (deputies, semi-deputies, sub-deputies), a whole cavalcade of parasitic creatures in need of neutering, keen to pursue another daft idea. Australian universities do not want to miss out on the military-industrial-education complex, whatever its imperilling dangers. With the war inspired AUKUS security pact, which promises the stripping of the Australian budget to the tune of $AUD 368 billion over the course of three decades, a corrupt establishment promises to get worse.

The AUKUS distraction could not have come at a better time. The tertiary sector in Australia is becoming increasingly cadaverous, marked by cost-cutting, rampant casualisation and heavy teaching and workloads for those battling away in the pedagogical trenches.

In a recent piece by Guardian Australia’s higher education reporter, an academic, who preferred to remain anonymous fearing institutional retribution, likened the modern Australian university to a supermarket. Students were the customers filing through the self-checkout counters; the staff, increasingly rendered irrelevant, were readily disposable.

The stories have been familiar for years, even as the offending by university management continues unabated: tutors being paid insufficiently to read and grade work adequately; virtually non-existent job security; the suppression of academic freedom and criticism of ghastly management practices. Given the pathological secrecy under which universities work under, essential data shedding light on class sizes, staff-student ratios, and contracts with private business interests, is virtually impossible to attain.

But despite the Australian university sector proving unsustainable, unprincipled, and ungainly, individuals such as Catriona Jackson, the CEO of Universities Australia, is on the hunt for new frontiers. Last year, the submission of Universities Australia to the Defence Strategic Review was almost begging to link universities with the defence needs of the country. All the Defence Department and Australian Defence Forces needed to do was ask.

As the Australian Financial Review reported at the time, “The universities need to be prepared to respond in an adaptable and efficient manner to a clear demand signal from defence in terms of workforce needs – both skills and numbers – as well as technology and hardware needs.”

How fortunate, then, that AUKUS came bumbling along. For Jackson, principles in education are less important than inflated commercial opportunities or, to use her lingo, commercialisation. Distant from the process of learning itself, unaware of the delivery of courses and the classroom, she sees this war making security pact as packed with promise. “It’s workforce, workforce, workforce,” she sloganeered to her Sky News host Kieran Gilbert. “It’s not just nuclear physicists we need, although we do need some of those and it’s a very specialist profession. Almost every area of human endeavour we need a capacity uplift, so engineers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, pretty much everyone.”

Evidently hearing the war jingles around the corner, Jackson is journeying to Washington for meetings with national security officials from the US State Department and National Science Foundation. It is her hope that the number of Australian university partnerships will be expanded, “with more than 10,000 formal partnerships already in place with fellow institutions around the world.” The message she takes to the US capital will, however, be focused on “developing the capability [of Australian universities] to deliver the project, including through the provision of skilled workers and world-class research and development.”

Certain publications have also exuded jingoistic cheer on the new role of Australia’s tertiary sector. The Australian, one of Rupert Murdoch’s premier rags of froth and bile, is ever reliable in this respect. The paper’s higher education editor, Tim Dodd, in a March contribution [paywalled], posed two questions to those in the university sector: Had Australian universities ever played such a vital role in national defence as they would be likely to do over the next two decades in building nuclear-powered submarines? Would they even want to be involved?

Throughout his piece, Dodd seems to think that a university system untethered to the defence establishment is a morally questionable thing. In doing so, he betrays his ignorance of those wise words from US Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright, who warned that “in lending itself too much to the purposes of government, a university fails its higher purposes.”

Dodd can merely observe that, “In the post-war period universities were still not critical to defence programs.” AUKUS and the nuclear submarine program had changed matters. “Australia is now embarking on an enormous program to build, operate and maintain nuclear-powered submarines and a clear goal is sovereign capability.” All in all, it was “a critical national priority that universities are right to give their full support to. Their backing is critical.”

Leaving aside such platitudinous nonsense as “sovereign capability” – the technology, expertise, control and guidance over this new promised machinery will always be directed from Washington – the sentiments are clear. The military-industrial-university complex is a matter to be celebrated. There are, for instance, “other parts of AUKUS” that will involve “our top universities” in such areas as “advanced research cyber security, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies.”

Bizarrely, Dodd gets the question about academic freedom the wrong way around: that expressing a choice in favour of the blatant war drumming of AUKUS is something that should be one for academics. If he had any idea about despotic university environments, he would be aware that academics, whatever they agree with, will have little say in the matter. Distant, estranged managements, unaccountably enthroned in administrative towers, will be making such decisions for them; the only real free expression will be exercised by those opposing the measure.


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  1. Anthony Judge

    The argument follows appropriately from Binoy’s previous AIMN contribution on:
    Calculated Misrepresentations: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan (

    Rather than the focus of the new piece on how universities are desperately seeking to “do war” in all its academic manifestations, of considerable interest (in the light of the earlier piece) is on how universites might “do peace”. This is especially relevant given the total failure of “nation-building” in Afghanistan over 20 years — plus the disastrous withdrawal and the tragic betrayal of collaborative Afghans.

    More generally the question to be raised with respect to any defence budget, and especially that of the US, is what (tiny) proportion of research is devoted to “picking up the pieces” after having “done war”. Although the military make assertive claims with respect to their role in ensuring peace, it is unclear what this might mean in practice (Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Libya, etc) and how academic research has developed and facilitated any initiatives perceived to be relevant.

    And then there is the even more interesting question as to the contribution of Australian academia to “peace research”, namely avoiding war through development of ever more innovative approaches to dialogue — clearly with little effect on parliamentary discourse. It might however be assumed that the commitment is to ensuring use of nuclear submarines rather than to ensuring that their destructive capacity is not required — and what to do if it is.

  2. Douglas Pritchard

    What has served me so well over the years is the saying “He who who has mastered maths understands the world”.
    Ok, I may be deluded, but it is a minor portion of students who are prepared to tackle the hard stuff.
    Ever since it was announced that “we” would benefit from embarking on a nuclear future, I have shuddered to think of the side effects of such a move.
    I chose a different branch of science but studied alongside fellows employed at the Aldermaston Nuclear power plant.
    It does mean that the high achievers in Australia will inevitably switch their focus to the production and use of WMD`s, and away from the areas of study which would benefit society as a whole.
    Where do we find the next wave of medical, dental, pharaceutical sciences graduates?
    And the concept of preserving our “sovereign capability” is simply laughable.

    And if anyone checked out Angus Campbell at Lowy the other day, I despair. If ever there was a nation that shot itself in the foot, this is it.

  3. Douglas Pritchard

    Oh, and coming in at the rear of the education stakes is the Climate scientist.
    Who is going to front when they are belittled, and ignored and grossly under utilised?

  4. Andrew Smith

    Interesting, one would add that universities’ senior management are too close local political power, mostly monocultural and hierarchical, even autocratic, run on the lines of efficiency via Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ or production lines.

    On the military and strategic side (apart from bagging budgets/grants from govt.), universities do offer some soft diplomacy, provided international students have a positive experience e.g. from PRC, but universities are generally oblivious to student experience or ‘box tick’.

    Another threat to universities and the role or mission of education, is being eroded by seemingly unrelated szalami tactics, observed transnationally.

    These include external political influencer and grifter demands for campus access under guise of ‘freedom of speech’ to promote anti LGBT or anti woke issues e.g. Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, Spiked etc., while others e.g. CIS Sydney are focusing upon hollowing out curricula and return to rote learning under guise of updated teaching training and methodology; whiff of fossil fueled Koch Network and climate/Covid science denial?

  5. Clakka

    About 15 years ago a mate returned to university to complete a Law Degree he never finished years before. He complained to me that majority of students were non-free-thinking, and rather than being encouraged to a process of investigatory learning, the catch-cry of ‘get on the program’ was used by students and teachers alike.

    Upon my return about 6 years ago to do a masters (in the industry sector of my entire career) revealed that processes had since shifted to manic money-focussed hamster-wheel churns affecting both students and teachers, and giving rise to compressed and inadequate curricula, and substantially less than ready-for-industry outcomes.

    The process, rather than being collegial, was brutal, and engendered a desperate and low-brow competitive scramble. Of particular note to me was the taught proposition of entrenched adversary and blame between the ‘designers and specifiers’ and the ‘producers’. That taught proposition was a mythical rote that ignored the natural dynamics between the two parties and the legal / financial equities surrounding them. It should never have been taught as an irresolvable fait accompli conflict, but as a resolvable shortcoming (sometimes deliberate) in the framework of engagement.

    It seems to me, my observation is emblematic of the last 70 years of increasing mercantile / military push for manic conflict-driven competition (creative destruction) in commerce and politics, rather than collegial investment in peaceful problem solving, waste management, environmental preservation and enrichment of diversity and the human experience.

    It beggars belief, and raises innumerable questions of ethics that nuclear arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin is embedded at Melbourne University. What’s next? What will Universities Australia and Catriona Jackson perpetuate in their expedition to Washington – a further entrapment of academics and students alike? Just where does the buck stop, and what will the WHO have to say about that?

  6. Phil Pryor

    This serious topic area depresses and warns. One family member has taken employment at Lockheed-Martin, and knows not what he does, abstract computerised other “language” theorising as part of a complex team system of work across continents…a great start and well paid in engineering computerised activity. But, why, what? I can’t bring it up. Peace and negotiation are needed now in this scrambled world. USA evils have been ugly, savage, hunnish and stupid, utter failures and totally uncivilised, in Vietnam and regions there, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan where they crawled our subterraneously and with muzzled reports and compliant media, a filth of behaviour and a denial of all necessary honesty, openness, and of civilised clearing for a better way forward. Animals…and Douglas, you may be correct, but consider the well known truth, that history illustrates paths of truth (and righteousness??) I offer that thought for truth, clarity, purpose, meaning.

  7. Pingback: Nuclear news – week to 17 April | Nuclear Australia

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