Postcards from the Covid-19 pandemic

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Simon Marginson (Oxford)

Image: Alfred Wallis, Houses at St Ives, Cornwall, (?c.1928–42) Tate
CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

The Covid-19 pandemic is instructive for social theory. It is like a gigantic experiment. It is not a controlled experiment, but a universal condition that enables differentiation on the basis of time and space, both geographical and discursive. It is possible to compare society before and during the pandemic, and also to compare the political and social evolutions and manifestations of society-under-pandemic-conditions in different nations and regions.

This paper will make and justify two propositions. First, the experience of the pandemic is associated with marked variations on the scale of political culture. There are striking differences in the capacity and willingness of states and regulatory regimes to safeguard human lives and sustain social institutions and these differences can be sourced in long-standing beliefs and practices. Political culture matters and there are dramatic differences in the body count that prove it. Second, among countries with similar political cultures there are instances in which differences in the state-level handling of the pandemic have led to marked variations of outcome. Politics matters. The examples are drawn partly from higher education. That is where the writer works and the focus of his research and scholarship.

The pandemic and political culture

There are political economic, regional and cultural patterns in the demographic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control maintains statistics on Covid-19 related cases and deaths that are updated daily. Among the large ‘emerging’ economies, on 10 October 2020 the accumulated death tolls in middle income Brazil (149,639), Peru (33,158) and lower income India (107,416) probably underestimated the real damage because of the under reporting of virus-related fatalities. Latin American tallies were nevertheless high in world terms: Peru had lost 1.02 people in every one thousand to Covid-19, Brazil 0.72, Chile and Ecuador each 0.69, Colombia 0.55 and Argentina 0.52 (for populations see World Bank). The lower number in Indonesia (11,677), which is both poorer and more populous than Brazil, represented 0.04 per thousand people. Indonesia has six thousand islands, decentralised public health systems and likely under-reporting. Still, Southeast Asia as a whole was much less affected than Latin America. In October 2020 there were low death tallies in Thailand (59) and Malaysia (152).

Among the wealthier countries in Europe, the 10 October 2020 death toll was high relative to population in Italy (36,111), Spain (32,929), France (32,630) and especially Belgium (10,147). Belgium with 11.5 million people had experienced a carnage of 0.86 people per one thousand population, compared to Spain at 0.70, Italy at 0.60 and France at 0.49. The Covid-19 death rate was more modest in Germany (9,604), where it was 0.12 for every thousand people, and in other countries of central Europe. It was low in the Nordic countries Denmark (665), Finland (346) and Norway (275) though interestingly, not in Sweden (5,894). In Sweden the deaths of 0.58 people in every thousand were attributed to the virus, compared to 0.05 in Norway to the West and 0.06 in Finland to the East. In demographic terms the Covid-19 pandemic has been like the first and second world wars in Europe, in that it has wreaked a terrible havoc in some countries but not in all.

In the Anglophone world there was a high tally in the United States (213,787), and the United Kingdom (42,679). The 213,787 Covid-19 deaths in the US in seven months, with more to come, compared to the estimated 420,000 military and civilian deaths in four years of World War II. These numbers translate into 0.65 deaths per one thousand in the US and almost the same at 0.64 in the UK, though the UK has a centralised public health service which ought to confer advantages in managing test and trace when compared to the US.

The Anglo-American death tolls were less than those of Belgium and Spain relative to population but higher than the rest of Europe, and well above the levels recorded in Anglophone Canada at 9,585 (0.25 relative to population), Australia 897 (0.04) and New Zealand 25 (less than 0.01). New Zealand’s success in containing the death toll matches East Asia. However, Australia and New Zealand have a special advantage, that they share with Sri Lanka (7 deaths by October 2020) and Greenland (none) but with few other countries: a complete coastline. Australia and New Zealand can geographically isolate by cutting new arrivals at airports and seaports. They did so and then reinstated limited arrival flights plus quarantine. The second wave only flared up in Australia because quarantine policing was lax. Security guards socialised with new arrivals carrying Covid-19, creating a gateway for the virus into Western Melbourne, which is located near the international airport.

East Asia, the countries of the Chinese civilisational zone, has operated without that geographic advantage. For the most part these are urbanised modern societies with high rates of internal and external trade and travel, much the same in those respects as Europe or North America. Yet right across the region there have been exceptionally low death tolls relative to population. That regional commonality must be reckoned significant. After the initial prevarication and cover up by provincial officials in Hubei the national party-state authorities in China moved quickly to instigate a total lockdown in Wuhan and the rest of the province, and tight controls across the country. The national death toll in China of 4,739 in October 2020, which is well below 0.01 per one thousand people given the population of 1.394 billion. China’s achievement in practical humanism was astonishing and more so given that the 4,739 deaths were almost all centred on the site of the first outbreak in Hubei. Japan had lost 1,624 people, South Korea 430 (each 0.01) and Singapore 27. In Taiwan, a country of 23.8 million, the Covid-19 death toll in October 2020 was 7 people. In Vietnam with 96.5 million people, in per capita income terms much the poorest country in East Asia, with embryonic rural public health services but a history of working together in a disciplined manner for mutual survival, the recorded death toll in October 2020 was 35 people.

Apart from China the other East Asian countries did not instigate lockdowns with the intensity of those that were temporarily in place in Europe in March to June 2020. Most of East Asia maintained some social mixing and urban movement, and kept the economy at least partly open. In China the success of pandemic eradication measures had enabled a return to business as usual by July 2020, though inward flights were still restricted and authorities were trigger-alert to the potential for sudden local outbreaks. The difference in East Asia compared to the US, UK and some parts of Europe is that the observance of mask protocols has been near universal, test and trace systems have operated comprehensively, governments mostly ensured the supply of masks and testing equipment in time, and people who test positive do not have to be told to self-isolate. They behave voluntarily in a socially appropriate manner. The distinctive East Asian response to the pandemic combined on the one hand state policy and practice, and on the other hand, and consistent with the state, the voluntary behaviour of citizens of all ages. It is a matter of political culture.

Lessons unlearned.  Low death tolls are associated with either enforced geographic isolation, or universal masks outside the home plus comprehensive test and trace systems put in place as quickly as possible that result in the firm isolation of those tested positive. As they say, it is not rocket science. These lessons were learned in the SARS outbreak in East Asia in 2002-2004 and rapidly and visibly implemented again in the East Asian countries as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. The failure to follow the East Asian lead in rural Brazil and Peru is understandable. It is a matter of scarcity of resources, health sector facilities and professionals. On the one hand, the failure in the US and Western Europe to even consider policy borrowing from the successful experience of the Chinese civilisational zone suggests a neo-colonial mentality, in which Euro-American beliefs of global superiority constitute a profoundly self-satisfying reflexivity – albeit a reflexivity that can be sustained only as long as the comparative Covid-19 demographics are ignored! On the other hand, it speaks to the fact that most Western states find it politically very difficult to follow the East Asian path.

Consider the floundering of the British government, which is already the stuff of legend, though a similar story could be told in some American cities and states. In March the government opted for a strategy of ‘herd immunity’ whereby the majority of the population would catch the virus and become immune, halting its capacity to spread. In one stroke this strategy would avoid the need to step up masking, and instal test and trace and lockdowns. Nor did it depend on a responsible citizenry. The government would not be required to give orders and would incur no unpopularity. The economy would stay open and would be armed against fluctuating outbreaks of Covid-19 in future. It was immediately apparent, as was demonstrated by Imperial College modelling, that the only problem of this ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach was the horrendous death toll that was certain to result. The herd would be immune, for a time at least, but would also be culled. There was massive pushback and in two days the strategy was dropped as if it had never been, though given later events it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that it still colours British policy. The government moved to lockdown, though like many European and American governments it did so several weeks late, given the fortnight incubation period and the high incidence of asymptomatic carriers. The multiple airways and shipping lines into the UK meant that the pandemic had already taken hold in many centres. March-April were bad months in the UK.

As the lockdown proceeded the government frequently promised but failed to deliver on comprehensive test and trace. At the time of writing in October 2020 it was still failing. Its tame committee of scientists, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said in a report in late September that the £10 billion official Test and Trace system was having a ‘marginal impact’ on Covid-19 transmission because of a ‘relatively low level of engagement’, and probable ‘poor levels of adherence’. The impact of the system was expected to ‘likely decline in future’. Masks, which have never been unequivocally advocated by government in UK at any stage, only slowly became readily available in the country. It also became apparent from early on in the March lockdown that the main political issue in the UK was going to be not how to save lives but the restraint of individual freedoms, especially the freedom to socialise in private and congregate in public. Inevitably the tabloids, those redoubtable right-wing Robespierres, hoisted the banner of liberty. It was not Trump’s idea of Covid-19 but it was pointing the same way.

Given the level of agitation against pandemic-related regulation within the ruling Conservative party, it was inevitable the lockdown would be lifted sooner than the science said. The return to work, urban travel, schools, colleges and universities in the August to October period coincided with the second wave of the pandemic. In Europe and UK the outcome was predictable. Amid the numerous regional flare ups, a succession of contrary national decisions were floated or announced, there was a city by city tug of war between local and national authorities, and poll evidence suggested that popular consent for the government’s handling of the pandemic had reached a new low. All of the professional associations that represented the staff in education institutions opposed the resumption of face to face classes. When the universities re-opened at the government’s direction in September/October, the student residences, which combined people from all over the country and abroad, became gigantic incubation chambers for the pandemic.

Incubators.  By the first week of October, over 80 UK university campuses reported a spike in cases. Many student residences were in full lockdown. Instances of students defying Covid-19 disciplines were rife, as had been happening in the US (which returned to study earlier than UK) for weeks. On 3 October police in Manchester broke up a ‘Covid Positive’ party where the entry requirement was a positive test. The same weekend, police in Tallahassee in Florida used a helicopter to shut down a 1,000-strong student party near Florida State University where 1,400 had already tested positive.

 On 12 October The Guardian reported that at the universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham the Covid-19 infection rate among students was between five and seven times that found in the surrounding population. At Manchester there were 1,155 cases. One university union official said: ‘we are in a nightmare situation where large numbers of asymptomatic people may be spreading the virus to higher risk groups in the local community’. The government had passed down to universities the responsibility for manging the pandemic; while for their part, the universities had called on the students to behave to rule. But there was no common ethical framework in which either the students or the universities could have done what the state required – even if the state had known what to require, which it did not, for the same reason: the absence of a common and widely understood ethical framework in which the individual was nested in society.

No single element better captures the cultural differences between countries than mask protocols. The evidence on the value of masks is clear. The virus is transmitted more effectively through droplets in the air, the outcome of breathing and talking, than through any other means. For the wearer, a mask eliminates at least half of the airborne droplets that might carry the virus; for another party close to the wearer it takes out four fifths. Wearing masks is the only possible conduct. Yet many in Western countries disagree. The case for masks is not self-evident and not made consistently. Here the US and UK stand out. Early on in the pandemic some UK scientists were unconvinced about masks, which in any case had to be ordered from China. The government opted for social distancing, which was harder to practice and enforce. A Financial Times poll found that more than 25 per cent of people in both UK and US believed that mask wearers were ‘overly cautious as face masks are not useful’. In Australia the figure was 40 per cent.

On 28 May, almost three months into the pandemic in the UK, The Economist ran a piece hesitantly titled ‘Masks probably slow the spread of covid-19’. It then qualified that limited advocacy with ‘but wearing one is mainly an act of altruism’. The fact that this altruism was seen to detract from the value of masks, for a UK readership, exactly captures the problem. ‘In the West nobody normally wears a mask’, stated The Economist, ‘though the practice is spreading’. Not very far in UK. Six weeks later on 10 July the Financial Times ran a longer article on ‘Why are we not wearing masks in the UK?’. Throughout the pandemic, wearing a mask in public has been the exception rather than the rule. Not wearing masks on public transport has been a criminal offence since mid June in UK but many fail to do so, especially on buses, though more masks are worn on the congested London tube. Mask wearers across the country have reported the stigma attached. There are parallel stories in Anglophone US and Australia. Though mask protocols have had more support in continental Europe there are rebels everywhere. The Czech Republic did well to minimise exposure in the first wave but the second wave was different. In early October it led Europe in new cases per head and the Prime Minister Andrej Babis noted that 7 per cent of Czechs never wore masks. The West has a problem.

Individualisms.  In all Western societies the rights of the stand-alone individual have normative primacy over the social unless this is modified under specific conditions. Where the unconstrained individual has primacy, the requirement that a mask must be worn, like the requirement that one must stay at home during a pandemic until allowed to leave, is less the regulation of common social protection than a violation of the person. As such, the individual has a right to resist, and, argues the true believer in freedom, a duty to do so. In societies in the Chinese civilisational zone, the individual is nested in the larger spheres of family and state and there is a normative bias in favour of the collective. In the core Confucian outlook, individuals are free to think what they will – this is how self-determination is understood – but not to act as they will without taking into account the effects on others (Marginson and Yang, 2020). In all East Asian societies, whether one-party states like China, Singapore and Vietnam or electoral democracies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the anti-statism of Anglo-American countries is absent. People do not always agree with government, but they do not see its collective project as intrinsically flawed. This is a stronger starting point for social regulation and self-regulation in the pandemic.

Some Western societies have found a better balance between individual and collective than others. For the most part the German-speaking and Nordic countries have modified individualism to meet the challenge. As the demographic outcomes demonstrate, they have achieved a high level of ethical compliance coupled with an effective public health response. Again, the difference between on one hand Anglo-America and Spain, on the other hand the outcome shaped by the social market and the Nordic model, is traceable to political culture. In this context the floundering of the UK government makes more sense. The negligence, wrong-headedness and inconsistency are inexcusable. The herd immunity strategy, which smacks of a late revival of British eugenics, was criminally careless and callous, inhuman. Yet the Tories also have had a finger on the pulse. If they had sought to implement a policy that was responsible in public health terms, it would have been a steep mountain to climb.

The pandemic and politics

Not all of the national differences during the pandemic can be attributed to variations in epochal political cultures. As ever, more localised politics matter. Consider two countries that exhibit broadly similar social philosophies: Nordic Finland and Nordic Sweden. In both the state and society are understood as compatible rather than intrinsically antagonistic. In Finland, the shift to collective discipline in the pandemic rolled out with little pushback. In Sweden the decision was made early to use untrammelled self-regulation with minimal direction. The appeal to self-management was right but in this case the individual was not nested in the social. There were few formal closures, mask wearing was spasmodic and in October the accumulated death toll was ten times that of Finland per head of population.

Similar states can behave differently. Consider the respective policies on higher education followed during the pandemic, by the conservative governments of the UK and Australia. There are few polities more like each other than the UK and Australia. They are not identical, but political strategists move easily between one jurisdiction and the other. Despite its geographic location in the Western Pacific and economic engagement in East and Southeast Asia, Australia has not developed its own political ideologies. It flies largely in the slipstream of Anglo-American conservatism and UK labourism. The university systems are even more convergent, though there is no Australian equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge.

A small but important difference is that the ruling Liberal-National parties in Australia are more touched than are the British Conservatives by the US Republicans, including the Republican zeal for culture wars and scepticism about science and universities. The political right in the US presents the university as an ideological institution, a radical liberal institution rather than a source of knowledge, evidence, and intellectual contest in service of the public sphere. This political reimagining of the American university and science may have dire consequences in future. However, the British Conservatives have a different vision. They are troubled by the pro-Labour, cosmopolitan and anti-Brexit biases of the universities. They want more people to aspire to vocational and further education and less to humanities degrees. They seem pleased to see the universities squirm amid the financial pressures generated by the pandemic. But the UK government retains a stake in the elite university project and is not especially anti-science or anti-intellectual. In this respect, though not all respects, current Australian conservatives are more American than British.

Neoliberals and organic conservatives.  Since Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s Anglo-American conservatism has been constituted by an uneasy but practical alliance between organic conservatives and neo-liberal modernisers. This is also an alliance of rural property with globalising city business. On the whole the neoliberals have been ascendent in policy on higher education, in both UK and Australia. Most conservative reform policies have been variants of one master-policy: the introduction of quasi-markets in which the universities would compete with each other as modernist businesses subject to market discipline, fee paying students would be less like political activists and more like consumers, and the state’s fiscal burden would be reduced. The strategy was urged by James Buchanan, the founder of public choice theory. Buchanan attributed the student revolt of the 1960s to the absence of a higher education market. Because the good was free, students did not value it, while academic staff were under no pressure to conform to student requirements (Buchanan and Devletoglou, 1970). Hence both wings of the conservative alliance stood to gain from marketisation of the universities, or so they thought. On one hand, it would build opportunities for business, drive allocative efficiencies and draw the heterogenous universities onto the ground of the more familiar corporate world. On the hand it would render the universities less politically and culturally radical; and their idiosyncrasies of knowledge and ritual, having been rendered marginal to the new bottom line, would be less threatening. Both neoliberal and organic conservative goals would be met. Or so it seemed.

The Thatcher government originated the full fee market in international education in 1980. This was subsequently embraced by all UK and Australian governments regardless of their political colour. Later tuition charges were introduced for domestic students; on an income contingent loan basis, blunting the discriminatory effects of price, but soaked in the ideology of a ‘student-centred’ consumer market. Meanwhile international education with commercial pricing became a large export sector in both countries, and a necessary source of university finance. In 2019 international students constituted 20 per cent of all UK students and 15 per cent of university income. In Australia, the level of dependence was greater: 34 per cent of students and 25 per cent of income. In both countries universities drew on international student fees as their main source of discretionary cash for new buildings and facilities, prestige academic appointments, and the supplementation of official research grants, which in both cases were subject to less than full cost funding arrangements.

Aside from the level of international student financing there was another difference between the two cases, which has become crucially important. Despite the rubric of marketisation the British government, like the US government, continued to treat research as a public good in economic terms and sustained the bulk of UK science through research council grants and general research funds distributed on the basis of successive national research assessments. The Australian government’s public funding of research had long been at a lower level than UK, especially in the leading universities. Despite this, between 1996 to 2016 the Australian universities lifted the proportion of their scientific papers that were in the top 5 per cent of their field by citation rate, from 5.96 to 9.65 per cent, well above the proportion in the US and Canada and only just below the UK at 9.78 per cent (NSB, 2020). In any other research countries such rapid improvement could only have been achieved by rapid increases in government funding. In recent years improvements in the quantity and quality of research in each of China, Singapore, South Korea and France derive directly from the state. Uniquely, Australian universities have built science, which policy economists define as a public good in economic terms, to a large extent on the basis of the commercial income from international education. For example, in 2018 the cartel of the eight oldest research universities in Australia, the imaginatively named ‘Group of Eight’, funded 60 per cent of their research activity, estimated at $2.2 billion USD, from their own corporate funds. Those funds were largely created in international education, with most universities in the group enrolling 12,000 fee paying international students or more.

Both the UK and Australia have built strong science systems in world terms, especially in medicine and the related biological sciences. In the Leiden University ranking for papers published in 2015-2018 Australia had five research universities in the world’s first 60 universities, as measured by the number of science papers in the top 5 per cent of their field by citation rate. The UK had six universities in that top 60 of which three were in the world top ten. But the point is that Australian science is more financially vulnerable. Australian universities have sustained a public good subject to market failure and unable to sustain itself, scientific research, on the basis of market incomes generated from an entirely separate source. Until the pandemic, the more prestigious universities were able to control that level of revenue on the supply side by determining the number of international student places they offered, subject to government issued visas. But if conditions changed so that either government visas or market demand fell, their research budgets and their global research ranking (which helped sustain student demand) were immediately in trouble.

From the point of view of the conservative parties now in government in both UK and Australia, the overall outcome of neoliberal reform has been mixed. Universities in both UK and Australia have become more business-like than the first neoliberal reformers thought was possible. However, they continue to produce higher education for domestic students, and research, on an essentially non-market basis (Marginson, 2013). The ideology of the consumer market has not become deeply rooted among local citizens because of the delayed payment of tuition loans. In the UK, the universities have become more corporate loyal and frenetically performative, but the commercial tail does not wag the academic dog. International education is partly decoupled from the rest of the operation, universities as institutions remain more focused on status than revenues, and most academics are more focused on teaching knowledge than employability. In Australia most of that is true, except that government funding policy and university entrepreneurship have created a stronger link between commercial international student revenues and research. At the same time, in both countries, neoliberal marketisation had failed to achieve its other core objective, the objective most valued by the organic conservatives. While the universities are more neoliberal, more corporate and competitive, they had not become less liberal in the American sense. They are not occasional red bases of student revolution as they were in the late 1960s but they continue to be a burr under the conservative saddle. They remain idiosyncratic and threateningly cosmopolitan, culturally open and continually different. They are also socially larger and stronger than they were in the 1960s, partly because of the growth of social participation from 10 to 45 per cent of the school leaver cohort (UNESCO, 2020), and the expansion in the social role and material weight of university science.

Divergence.  The two polities, led by similar looking governments with parallel world views, have now diverged sharply in higher education. The UK and Australian governments each regulate higher education systems that are in Covid-19 induced crisis with the survival of some institutions in question. Each benefit strategically from the fact that they have passed financial responsibilities downwards to the universities while continuing to control the national system settings. The two governments face differing national circumstances in the pandemic with divergent effects in higher education. They have moved differently in higher education policy. However, the policy difference is not a simple function of the different national experience of the pandemic. The two conservative regimes have drawn different tools from their policy toolbox to secure divergent ends in higher education.

Both governments have been only partly effective in lockdown and neither fosters universal masks and test and trace. However, Australia unlike the UK, has had the option of isolating itself, securing a low rate of infection while maintaining much of its economic and social activity. It has taken that option. One effect has been to cut the inward flow of the international students who provide a quarter of university finances. The UK remains internationally connected, the pandemic in that country is rife, while at the same time the UK government has sought to maintain business as usual, including international education.

The UK lockdown shifted students to their computers at home – except for the one quarter of students who reported inadequate online facilities, and the many international students left stranded because they could not fly out. The UK government considered and rejected the option of financially compensating the universities for the expected drop in international student numbers in the next academic year in 2020-21, though it brought forward some research funding. Instead it signalled that schools and universities would reopen in the autumn term. It was apparent that if the universities were to maintain revenues, they would have to persuade students to enrol regardless of the dangers and uncertainties. University surveys indicates that many prospective students would be reluctant if the only mode of teaching was online. During the pandemic a strong finding in many countries has been that students overwhelmingly prefer face to face higher education. They want the in-class experience, the contact with faculty and the contact with each other. Suddenly optimism broke out across the system. All was going to be just fine. Every UK university promised to open on a face to face basis, knowing that if they did not do so they would lose ground to competitors. In September 2020 it was announced that despite a downturn in 18-year olds, acceptances for 2020-21 were at record level, 7 per cent above the previous year. The growth was almost entirely concentrated in the most prestigious (’high tariff’) institutions where numbers were up by 11 per cent. Remarkably, within the total non-EU fee paying international students were also up by 7 per cent, and there had been a massive increase of 15 per cent in non-EU international students in the high tariff institutions, though their numbers had dropped 7-8 per cent elsewhere.

It is likely that the UK universities overestimated the dangers of students refusing online only offerings. In economic downturns higher education is a recession shelter. If you have the option it makes more sense to obtain a degree and enter the next period with that advantage, than to struggle for jobs in a youth labour market that has been decimated. But in the outcome both government and universities (or the more prestigious universities at least) had achieved their goals: business as usual, money flowing. The cost was to the health of students and public, and to the truth. ‘How universities tricked students into returning to campus’, said one commentary. ‘Students have been sold the lie that they are able to have a full university experience. They can’t’, said another. The universities were left to manage locked down residences and the accumulating frustrated expectations. The government, freed of any funding obligations, could sit back and watch.

Australian conservative policy still parallels British conservative policy but the correspondence is that of a parallel universe. In Australia there is no symbiosis between government and university interest. A radical and lasting destruction threatens.

It became apparent in Australian universities that with inward flights largely blocked international student numbers would stay well down for the duration of the pandemic. Only a minority of the number in Australia in 2019 could be expected to enrol online in future; and of those, not all would be prepared to pay the same price as for the in-country experience. The financial impact of the pandemic in 2020 was expected to be $2.7 billion USD and the loss of up to one staff position in ten, including many research jobs. Similar losses were projected for future years. It was clear that given the dependence of Australian research on international student revenues, unless the government injected substantial sums then science would take a major hit. But the universities were surprised to find that when they approached the government, it was notably unsympathetic. They were told that their ‘business model’ was flawed, though it was the outcome of government system settings; that they were too dependent on international students, though the government had flaunted the education export industry before the pandemic; and that if they wanted more research funding they should seek it from industry. Yet Australian business had never been a strong funder of R&D – and business was now in recession. To make matters worse, the government introduced a new funding system which reduced government grants per domestic student by an average of 6 per cent. After a public campaign on research funding the universities secured a one-off payment of $0.7 billion in the October federal budget but it was a quarter of what was needed, and unlikely to repeat.

Most governments across the world want to build a strong science system. It is a truism of both business-minded and security-minded states that technology is power. Perhaps no government in the world except the Australian government would allow a strong science system, once achieved, to wither. Further, to the extent that science survives it will be partly at the expense of the other disciplines, the social sciences and the humanities. In the struggle between the medicos and the sociologists for the vanishing cake, don’t bet on the sociologists. That will not concern the Australian government. Some of its leading politicians are climate change deniers. Many in the government oppose gay marriage and Indigenous rights, sensibilities which they rightly associate with higher education. The government is also rapidly spiralling downwards in its relations with China, at the behest of the US government. China is the source of much of the largest group of international students in Australia, and many Australian universities have a long history of fruitful collaboration in research and education with Chinese universities. Like the Trump government, though less stridently, the Liberal-National Party government in Canberra does not like universities.

The British government has sustained the neoliberal approach to higher education, spinning the hamster wheel faster, accelerating competitive pressures while ordering the system so as to both sustain the finances of the top half of the university hierarchy and minimise the pressure on the national budget. Essentially this is a continuation of the policy of the last three decades. The Australians have opted for an organic conservative response that has hit the universities at their moment of vulnerability, cutting back their public funding at the same time as their private funding plunged downwards almost overnight. A large Australian export sector, produced by bi-partisan policy, is being allowed to falter. It will not happen in agriculture. The rural sector is core to the ruling coalition. But while conservative governments care about money they sometimes care more about other things. The Australian government policy on higher education smells not British conservative but US Republican. In the longer run it looks likely to gut the material position of the universities and diminish their social-political power and their global science. UK higher education will come out of the pandemic broadly similar to how it went in, albeit more stratified and frazzled than before. Australian higher education will be diminished. Its international education industry will take long to recover. Its science and its other disciplines, all of the apparatus of research and scholarship, may be permanently weakened. These countries are making different choices about the effects of Covid-19. The fault is not always in the stars.


Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education, and Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education. He is an Editor of Thesis Eleven. Email:

Featured image: Alfred Wallis, Houses at St Ives, Cornwall, (?c.1928–42) Tate CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)


Buchanan, J. and Devletoglou, N. (1970). Academia in Anarchy. New York: Basic Books.

Marginson, S. (2013). The impossibility of capitalist markets in higher education. Journal of Education Policy, 28 (3), pp. 353-370.

Marginson, S. and Yang, L. (2020). China meets Anglo-America on the New Silk Road: A comparison of state, society, self, and higher education. In M. van der Wende, W. Kirby, N. Liu and S. Marginson (eds.), China and Europe on the New Silk Road: Connecting universities across Eurasia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 255-283.

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