Former education minister vetoed $4.2 million in recommended university research grants
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Former education minister vetoed $4.2 million in recommended university research grants

Former education minister Simon Birmingham vetoed $4.2 million in recommended university research grants, the first time a minister has used such powers in more than a decade.

Senator Birmingham blocked federal funding for 11 projects in the humanities and the arts at leading research universities last financial year, a move Labor has dubbed as "politicisation".

The vetoed grants included nearly $1 million for a project called "Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity", $391,574 for "Price, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange", $330,466 for "Legal Secularism in Australia", $336,000 for "Soviet Cinema in Hollywood Before the Blacklist, 1917-1950" and $162,000 for "Beauty and Ugliness as Persuasive Tools in Changing China’s Gender Norms".

Former education minister Simon Birmingham said taxpayers didn't want their money spent on frivolous research.

Former education minister Simon Birmingham said taxpayers didn't want their money spent on frivolous research.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The secret interventions were revealed in a late-night Senate estimates hearing on Thursday. On Friday, Senator Birmingham - who is now the Minister for Trade - defended his decisions, saying he approved more than 99.7 per cent of recommended grants during his tenure.

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"What's remarkable is that Labor are defending these projects and saying they would let anything be funded, no matter how out of step it is," he told Fairfax Media.

"I make no apologies for ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren't spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities."

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The government-funded Australian Research Council, which had recommended funding for the projects, told the Senate it was the first time such grants had been vetoed by the government since Brendan Nelson was education minister in the early 2000s.

While the council recommends projects for approval, the minister has the final say and is not required to provide reasons for rejecting grants.

Labor senator Kim Carr said Senator Birmingham's interference "demonstrates a disgraceful contempt for scholarship by this government".

"This is political correctness gone mad by an out-of-touch government which is pandering to its knuckle-dragging and right-wing philistines," Senator Carr said.

The revelations also angered the university community. Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said it was "reprehensible", while Universities Australia boss Catriona Jackson said it undermined the impartiality of the process.

"You don't expect the federal sports minister to choose Australia's Olympic team. In the same way, we rely on subject experts to judge the best research in their field, not politicians," she said.

Meanwhile, the university regulator revealed it will investigate major universities for infringement on freedom of speech, after pressure from the Morrison government to curb campus protests.

Under questioning from Liberal senator Amanda Stoker, the head of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency pledged to examine universities' policies on free expression and safety.

The agency's chief commissioner Nicholas Saunders also vowed to investigate an event at Sydney University last month at which controversial author Bettina Arndt met with violent protests by left-wing activists.

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Senator Stoker pointed to a number of policies at major universities warning students that "sarcasm or ridicule" is a type of bullying and harassment and could lead to sanctions.

"We certainly will look at that," Professor Saunders said.

"The instances that you’ve just pointed out do not sit comfortably with me, they certainly do not fit with the concept of a university being a place where ideas are contested and debated."

However, Professor Saunders cautioned that debate about free speech at universities "has been going on for decades" and it would be wrong to assert we were witnessing a "rabid outbreak" of censorship.

"We do not have a crisis on our hands," he said.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has backed new rules about freedom of speech on campus, including a push to charge protesters for the cost of security at events they disrupt.

Professor Saunders told Thursday's Senate estimates hearing he did not think that was a good idea, and that universities should be able to cover the costs of keeping staff and students safe.

On Monday, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes warned universities had become captive to identity politics and "far-left groupthink", which had stifled academic debate "to the point of non-existence".

A full list of grants rejected by Senator Birmingham:

Early Career Awards

  • Price, Medals and Materials in the Global Exchange - $391,574 (ANU)
  • Legal Secularism in Australia - $330,466 (University of Melbourne)
  • Soviet Cinema in Hollywood Before the Blacklist 1917-1950 - $335,788 (UNSW)

Future Fellowships

  • The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music - $764,744 (Macquarie)
  • Writing the Struggle for Sioux Modernity - $926,372 (Latrobe)

Discovery Projects

  • Rioting and the Literary Archive - $228,155 (UNSW)
  • A History of Australian Men's Dress 1870-1970 - $325,592 (ACU)
  • Beauty and Ugliness as Persuasive Tools in Changing China's Gender Norms - $161,774 (UNSW)
  • Post-Orientalist Arts of the Strait of Gibraltar - $222,936 (University of Sydney)
  • Music Heritage and Cultural Justice in the Post-Industrial Legacy City - $226,811 (Griffith)
  • Greening Media Sport - $259,720 (Monash)