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Our national frenemy: Australian National University

By Stephen Saunders - posted Monday, 19 February 2024

Indolent to a fault, I think little about mighty ANU, just a thirty-minute walk from our home. But this summer's Australia Day Awards and ANU Climate Update have set me off again.

ANU is in effect our only national or federal university. A post-war creation story, from titans like Ben Chifley , Bob Menzies, and Nugget Coombs, and how much time do you have?

The original 1946 aim was to "encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate [my emphasis] research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance".


These days, their vision is "national unity and identity [my emphasis] …understanding ourselves and our neighbours", then "research capacity" third.

Sure, they've done great stuff, changed Australia. There's a sting in the tail of the tale.

In the good old days, 'twas indeed a research mecca. Strolling around, you mostly encountered eggheads. Relatively few actual students seemed to trouble the glades.

From 1980s origins, but accelerating in the early 2000s, Australia's unis were hyped as a tiptop export industry. Always something of a furphy. But the concept appeals to Australia's national insecurities. It's easier than real export industries.

The boondoggle has proved unstoppable. Per head of population, only a small handful of nations can begin to match Australia's economic reliance on international student flows.

If "national" ANU ever held back, later, they went at it. By pandemic 2021, they claimed 25,000 students, internationals being fully one third. Plus, their local students were as elite as they come.


Vice-Chancellor (and fervent climate buff) Brian Schmidt's campus was amidst an all-time student-accommodation construction boom. Whoops, COVID barred his international tenants.

By the time Schmidt's hand-picked successor Genevieve Bell took the reins this year, things had settled down. But, like other top (Go8 )universities, ANU retains a vested interest in mass migration. More than half of which is international students.

Forget those genteel days of Colombo Plan students. Today's incoming international student masses are touted as a (even the) key source of Australia's "skilled workers".

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About the Author

Stephen Saunders is a former APS public servant and consultant.

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