‘Peter Shergold on Academics and Policymaking: A Response’
By Nicholas Brown
In May 2011, academic and former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Peter Shergold published an article titled ‘Seen but not Heard’ in The Australian. Shergold is critical of what he perceives as a distinct lack of any sustained, constructive contributions by Australian academics to ‘real world’ development of public policy.
Here, Nicholas Brown responds.
Peter Shergold’s article ‘Seen but not heard’ (ALR, 4 May 2011, pp. 3-4) prompts reflection on one of the objectives – and one of the inhibitors – to critical historical engagement with contemporary public policy. Shergold laments the lack of a sustained, constructive contribution from Australian academics to the ‘real world’ development of public policy. Such a lament in itself is relevant to the objectives of the APH Network: to bring an historical perspective to such policy development. But the framing of Shergold’s
argument – that too much academic research is irrelevant to ‘real world’ applications – needs to be considered seriously if we are to meet that objective and, equally importantly, are seen as capable of meeting that objective by those policymakers we seek to reach.
This consideration, however, quickly comes up hard against an assumption that pervades Shergold’s analysis which in itself defeats the kind of conversation, or mutual learning, APH seeks to foster. What is particularly disturbing in Shergold’s argument is how little space it leaves for the kind of reflective analysis of policy APH seeks to offer, precisely by drawing on a conviction that something can be learnt from historical research. In the article Shergold mentions ‘education’ only once, in a passing reference to ‘policy on the funding of higher education’. For the rest of the article, the assumption seems to be that academic research serves no purpose that is in any way associated with the role of universities as educational institutions that are concerned with the development of critical, often theoretically- or collegially-informed processes of engaging with (and stimulating others to engage with) the preconditions and assumptions of policy.
In fact, the only references Shergold makes to academic work fulfilling a purpose of its own, within the context of universities as educational institutions, are deeply pathologised: academics are ‘commonly argumentative and generally unwilling to be directed’; they typically ‘display a difficult combination of intellectual combativeness and an unwillingness to compromise with a frustrating tendency to qualify every assertion’ – the portrait is relentless. That qualities of intellectual rigour, a high valuation on integrity, and a recognition that arguments are open to question might have value in an educational context, and even as the essence of what universities represent as educational institutions, seems to have no value for Shergold.
The problem is there from the start, where Shergold’s first assumption is that ‘research’ should equate directly to the ‘evidence’ that ‘evidence-based policy’ craves. When directed at universities as a whole (and particularly at the social sciences that are depicted as some amorphous, undifferentiated lump), this conflation of the process of research with the production of data offers such a narrow comprehension of what academic research involved it is little surprise that Shergold finds the conversation with academics – who are rarely just ‘researchers’ – unsatisfying. It is regrettable that an article that offers such a welcome criticism of the distortions introduced into academic work by ERA rankings, with their priorities on internationally-derived and often disciplinary-insular rankings, does not lament the relative silence on the importance of teaching in Australia’s contemporary universities. That reflective research might have educational relevance has no place, it seems, in his estimation.
Clearly, it is this domain of education that the APH Network needs to cultivate – and if, as he suggests, Shergold’s analysis is revealing of the view of the senior members of the Australian Public Service, this is an urgent need. But in this process, the priority is not only one of achieving ‘real world’ relevance, but in rebuilding a respect for and appreciation of Australian universities, and particularly social science, as having a core mission in education as much as in it the production of ‘evidence’. A quick historical survey might suggest it is not that long ago that public policy esteemed that as such a core mission for our universities, and also began steadily undervaluing it.