The Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne, David Penington, knew that government had seized control of knowledge because he had closely read Dawkins’ research policies. These had originated in Don Aitkin’s “road to Damascus conversion”:
I was beginning to react as a political scientist to the notion that I found everywhere in the universities that this was their money. It’s not. It actually comes from taxpayers. There has been an agreement that some of the taxpayer’s money will go to research because - we’re excellent? No! Because it is in their interest…it will lead to, in some tangible, definable way, a better Australia, a better society for them.
The way Dawkins imagined academics meant they could not be trusted to identify tangible or definable outcomes. $65 million of recurrent funding was removed from the universities to the Council for competitive redistribution on the basis of national priorities. This civic role for university research shaped Aitkin’s contributions to the Dawkins reforms. National priorities to inform research decisions were related to his idea that that academic work should become more professionalised and less dependent on the independent scholar.
Some years working with the Australian Research Grants Scheme had led Aitkin to believe that research funding was “spread too far, too thinly” and that competitive allocation would enable the “best people” to be funded “properly”. It was an idea that resonated with other 1980s discourses around the equation of financial with academic value. How could you tell which research was “best” if everyone was funded equally? Funding was starting to function as a signifier of value. Excellent research must have a higher exchange value, according to the rising logic. More, the exchange value implied that funding fewer projects at a higher value exhibited a system dedicated to quality. It also meant that funding more projects at a lower value denoted a system dedicated to mediocrity:
“When I tell them [US-based academics] we fund 65 per cent of all applications they say we didn’t realise Australian scientists were so good”, Professor Oliver says. “But they have a grin on their faces when they say it, because in America you have to be in the top 25 per cent to get your money.”
Academics who opposed the idea of increased competition for scarce resources (since their arguments were assumed to be self-interested) risked exposing themselves as unable to compete, as not the ‘best people’ to do research. Competition pushed the problem of scarcity back to individual academics. Competition pushed the problem of scarcity back to individual academics. If there were good enough, they would receive funding. In this way, government policies leading to financial scarcity were internalised and institutionalised as inadequacy.