Opinion- 15 February 2007




A Plea From Harry Robinson: Arise Poor Cousins 


Arise, Poor Cousins.

Why are tertiary education and science (Ed-Sci) the poor cousins of the national family?

Because the nation is crass? Because the federal government is crass? Because politicians of the major parties are crass?


But also because the Ed-Sci community is a wimp when it comes to impressing itself on the public. The people of the mind don't understand the nature of the body politic, the brawling way we have of setting agendas.

One day in February, the Australian Mathematical Society held a public forum in Canberra. Media were welcome. Some brainy people spoke cogently, argued well for a better shake from the public purse, a better appreciation of the dividends to stem from more generous treatment.

Media coverage was modest, although a strong editorial in The Age was welcome, but within 24 hours the event had melted into the past.

Let us pull back for a broader view of the day. Media were jammed with several hotter subjects. The government's shameful neglect of David Hicks had finally gained traction with people at large and their indignation was forcing the government to at least make some gestures for Hicks. The same day brought loud debate about water. Malcolm Turnbull played the role of heroic defender. In the same boat came champions of climate change all warning that doomsday would be nigh unless we changed our ways. And then there were the normal space-takers -- Ricky Ponting, Karri Webb, Paris Hilton and all. In such a bubbling stew it is hardly surprising that the dry story of mathematics should be upstaged.

No fault of the maths men and women.

Suppose you had been a news editor on that day: you'd have given pride of place to Hicks, water and climate because you'd have expected them to resonate in the heads of your audience. Even detached readers, viewers, listeners would answer to echoes of those stories. They'd have had images of a man in chains, of dusty farmyards, of melting glaciers. Resonance may not be all but it goes a long way to winning editorial attention.

But maths and higher education? The 'ordinary' man or woman does not know what a mathematician does, cannot watch the work in progress, might even believe that at best maths is an esoteric game of useless symbols, a video game without video. The same goes for higher education. You can't see a thesis, you cannot witness the goings on in the heads of researchers.

The people of the mind -- the poor cousins of the national family -- are at a severe disadvantage in the big brawl of media and politics.

Yet there are ways. First, let the poor cousins appoint a task force for promoting the cause.

Brief the task force that this is no time to be dainty about ways and means. Let the task force decide on a top-down approach and capture two or three articulate members of federal parliament. Imbue them with the rightness of speaking up for the benefits of investing in the top end of education. Help them with research, pointers, opportunities. Devise campaigns to serve two purposes: one to push for greater recognition of Ed-Sci and the second to enhance the status of the parliamentarians. They can't be simply used, they need to share in the rewards.

Next, extend the two or three converts to a clutch of political leaders including a state premier, a captain of industry, a spin doctor to show how to put the case in effective language, in words and phrases that will resonate. And above all, understand that time and persistence are essential. The pressure for David Hicks needed several years of advocacy to goad a reluctant government into some recognition of his plight. Scientists talked for aeons about climate change and endured ridicule before corporations and governments were stirred into acceptance. Drought was easier but drought has been with us all our lives.

Fantasy? Fanciful perhaps but more than fantasy. That notion is a shorthand expression of the kind of strategy needed to raise the poor cousins out of their rut. Regular voices of universities -- vice chancellors' committees and such -- have not been helpful and won't be helpful. A reliance on the logic of investing in top drawer intellects is not enough by itself. Logic is fine but guile is finer.

Unless the poor cousins prefer the gentility of poverty.

Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.