The think tanks of WA’s most prestigious universities are eroding


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Governments may not always want to hear such things, but young people clearly do.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA in early 2015, he was Professor of International Relations at Murdoch University.

Enrollment in the field I work in – international politics – has increased dramatically, despite the Morrison government increasing social and humanities tuition fees in a deliberate effort to discourage people studying in this field.

If we respond to “market signals” there should be more people working in social science, not less.

But the universities seem to take the government’s unsubtle hint.

At the University of Western Australia where I work, dramatic reductions in faculty numbers and course offerings are currently underway in disciplinary areas deemed not essential to the institution’s future vision.

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Fortunately, this process of “restructuring” and rebranding was not just as brutal as he was at Murdoch University, but the damage to the reputation of institutions and the education sector across the state is potentially significant.

Perhaps most importantly, we deny students the chance to learn things that are vitally important to their future.

The politics of climate change may be the most consistent, but public policies, relations with China, the apparent crisis of democracy – and the confidence of young people in it – are all issues that will profoundly influence their future, which may be much more disagreeable. and difficult that mine was at their age.

I don’t know if we really get wiser as we get older, but I’m sure it’s easier to tear things down than to build them.

Closing departments can help solve a possible short-term budget problem, but the loss of intellectual capital will reduce our collective ability to understand the increasingly dysfunctional world in which we live.

If senior executives are really serious about saving money for the good of the institution, they could follow the lead of Australian National University Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt and negotiate a pay cut.

Some will undoubtedly think that all of this is selfish nonsense. Maybe yes. But as I tell students, you can think whatever you want, but let’s see the evidence and hear a better argument.

Critical thinking is truly a valuable skill that takes a bit of cultivation. The ability to think independently on complex issues, especially political diversity, is something the next generation needs more than ever.

Universities are essential parts of this process if they take their rhetoric on critical thinking seriously. The alternative is what happened in China and even more tragically in Hong Kong.

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Western Australia risks losing the ability to think about how we collectively engage with the world – and the rest of Australia, for that matter.

We already have a reputation for parochialism and insularity. Let’s not make matters worse by deliberately destroying our collective understanding of our very fortunate place in the Indo-Pacific.

If we don’t care and understand where we live, who will?

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. His latest book is Environmental Anarchy? International Security in the 21st Century, (Bristol: Bristol University Press). He donates this year’s salary to Médecins Sans Frontières.

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