Melbourne University vice chancellor Duncan Maskell alarmed at ‘politicisation of knowledge’


“I think that’s a real challenge to the existence of universities. If society decides it is not going to operate on the basis of knowledge, then universities are really challenged in terms of why we are here.”

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Professor Maskell said the shift was largely driven by people’s use of social media.

“As soon as somebody comes up and says something about a contentious issue, everyone piles in,” he said, warning this was deterring academics from speaking up.

“Sometimes you could come out and say something which is simply, from my perspective, a scientific fact and it can be politicised. So I think another issue that’s quite important at the moment is the politicisation of knowledge.”

The university, which has a large number of Chinese students, has been under intense pressure in recent weeks because of the coronavirus and related federal travel ban – a crisis that could deliver a $3 billion hit to the sector.

Professor Maskell was unavailable for comment on Friday about the impact on his university of the coronavirus and his wide-ranging interview with The Age was conducted before the start of the outbreak.

But acting vice-chancellor Mark Considine said the university was working with Australian laboratories and public health networks and all appropriate authorities, “including deploying our expertise and resources and the Peter Doherty Institute, to assist on this important health issue”.

Among steps the university has taken to support students affected by coronavirus concerns are online classes, catch-up arrangements and deferrals for some students.

In his interview, Professor Maskell addressed the higher education sector’s growing reliance on China, with the university sector’s relationship with the country triggering concerns about inappropriate influence, financial exposure and abuse of research.

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The University of Melbourne is one of 13 Australian universities to host a Confucius Institute under an agreement with a Chinese government authority. While universities worldwide have embraced the soft-power facilities, critics are concerned about the facilities operating as platforms for propaganda and interference.

Professor Maskell said the university had reviewed the arrangement and was renegotiating its contract with the Beijing headquarters that administers the institutes to clarify the university’s autonomy.

“It’s absolutely essential that we retain, and we do retain, absolute control of the curriculum that is taught and the way that it’s taught,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work … to make sure that anything that our Confucius Institute does is right and proper. But we keep an eye on it. We don’t just let it run.”

He said there had been some “strong sceptics” on the university’s governing council who “possibly” wanted to get rid of the institute altogether, a drastic step that has been taken at some universities in the United States.

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Responding to growing concerns about sensitive research collaboration with Chinese entities, Professor Maskell said universities must have the freedom to work as much as possible with overseas partners, despite the risk.

“Any technology that you invent could be used for good or evil. And you can’t stop generating new stuff just because you’re scared that somebody might misuse it,” he said.

The University of Melbourne also has among the highest concentrations of Chinese students in Australia. International students account for 40 per cent of the university’s student population, with Chinese students making up half the number of foreign students. The reliance has been highlighted by the outbreak of the coronavirus, with thousands of students trapped overseas.

The university has said it is “deeply concerned” about affected students and is providing a range of measures to assist them before the start of semester.

Professor Maskell told The Age the growth of international education in Australia was beneficial in a number of ways, but there might come a time where “you have too much of a good thing”.

“And so I’m not saying it’s going to happen now at all but there could be a moment in time where we do say: that’s enough, we’ve grown too much – or not too much – grown enough,” he said.

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