ANU students saw plenty of protests in the first few weeks of semester. Plenty of valuable actions rallying community sentiment against the university for its failures on staff pay and institutional betrayal. These were well-targeted and put ANU on notice to enact real change.

Then there were the AUKUS protests. All our favourite radical left-wing student leaders huddled outside the Chancelry Building, demanding the federal government drop its plan for new nuclear-powered submarines and greater military cooperation with the UK and the USA. They returned to Kambri weeks later, shouting for Albo to “go to hell and take your subs as well.” Their protests build on the cross-campus Welfare not Warfare campaign led by the NUS, demanding military expenditure be redirected to social support.

We should seriously debate the costs and risks of the AUKUS commitment. Maybe the ANUSA Education Officer, Beatrice Tucker (they/them), is right to say AUKUS is “driving a dangerous arms race in the region and brings us closer to a disastrous US-led war.” Students who want Australia to boost its defence should be wary of depending on an erratic and isolationist America. Many would even question the need for Australia to exert greater military power.

But any chance for public debate was foreclosed the other week when we saw Albo inscribe AUKUS in the Labor Party’s national platform. Nuclear-powered military expansion is now bipartisan gospel in Australia. Protestors face insurmountable political obstacles in their battle to get rid of the program. Australia’s AUKUS commitment has never been stronger.

The student protests this semester have not just called to scrap AUKUS but also demanded that ANU reject any funding or involvement with the program. At first glance, this looks like an invitation to virtue-signalling, destined to drown in corporate compromise like the campaign for ANU to divest from fossil fuels. What difference would it make if ANU swore off support for AUKUS?

The truth is that universities are essential to delivering the program. The biggest obstacle to Australia’s AUKUS commitment, aside from the $368 billion price tag, is the massive shortage of much-needed workers. Defence needs thousands of new submariners, scientists and engineers for new systems and tech. Australia normally patches up its skills shortages with immigrants, but the high-level security clearances needed to work with sensitive military tech could require citizenship. There’s a good chance the new recruits will have to be Australian, and they’ll have to go through Australian unis.

As a result, the government has begun pushing the next generation of military minds into the AUKUS pipeline. It offered a nuclear technician scholarship to attract students and Australian Public Service employees to swap industries, with recipients now learning at the ANU and UNSW. In this year’s Budget, the government committed $128.5 million to fund 4000 extra STEM student places with a focus on “Nuclear-Powered Submarine Program initiatives,” one of the only measures directed at students. It’s not clear whether AUKUS work is a condition of these placements.

Australian universities are excited to be so essential. ANU and other universities were quick to jump on board and wave the flag for AUKUS spots. ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt praised this year’s investment and called for further funding so universities can “deliver the graduates and skills in the quantities required” for AUKUS. He recommended the government set up a pipeline for students in AUKUS fields to graduate straight into Defence. 

The ANU now seems to be developing a Nuclear Systems major and minor for the Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) and Bachelor of Engineering (R&D) (Honours) degrees. An apparently leaked slideshow indicates an ANU working group proposed the new program after consultation with nuclear-related agencies and the Department of Defence. 

As recently as April, an ANU spokesperson told Woroni it has “no involvement with the nuclear technician AUKUS scholarship.” It’s true that there is no formal ANU-government partnership to deliver Defence graduates. However, the government picked ANU as an eligible educator for scholarship recipients, then it threw some more money around, and then reports of nuclear science majors started popping up. You don’t need a scholarship to figure out whether this is correlation or causation.

But we can’t blame ANU for toeing the nuclear line. Over the last twenty years, government funding for the university sector has declined sharply. Australian universities have become so vulnerable to market pressures that they have no institutional choice but to follow the money. The ANU’s educational community is being hollowed out and replaced with rationalisation and profit incentives.

You don’t need a scholarship to figure out whether this is correlation or causation.

We can see the worsening staff pay and conditions, the rising rents, the course cuts and COVID job cuts. The money goes to higher-return investments and grant-baiting projects like international students, prime real estate and, soon, AUKUS majors.

Student politician rants against AUKUS won’t convince the government to scrap it, nor will they convince universities to stop taking the money. The last campaign that had any effect on ANU course offerings was against a proposed Western Civilisation degree in 2018 – and even then, Vice-Chancellor Schmidt denied the university’s withdrawal had anything to do with student protests. ANU is still hiding from years of criticism over course cuts and showed its indifference to student opinion again in the leaked slides, which suggest the Nuclear Systems proposal team only consulted one student. Australian universities don’t really care what the student community thinks of their academic program as long as enough people enrol and the money comes in.

The government needs universities to deliver AUKUS and modern universities are built to chase government money. This mutual dependency is driving us inevitably towards the AUKUS degrees. But for the degrees to work, you need students willing to take them.

Whether students enrol in the programs will depend in part on the money on the table. So few young people want to work in Defence that the Australian Defence Force loses more workers than it recruits and is missing its employment target by 3000 people. The Morrison government’s Job Ready Graduates program of HECS adjustments failed to push students into STEM, so the Albanese government has poured cash into more costly defence scholarships and program subsidies. Attracting students is expensive, but the government looks ready to pay up.

But student entry into the AUKUS pipeline also depends on whether they support the program in the first place. The Australian public is pretty indifferent towards AUKUS, and 2021 polling found young people were especially sceptical. Polls find support may even be sliding, despite the bipartisan consensus.

This presents an opportunity for the anti-AUKUS protestors. Students are already tending anti-AUKUS and many prospective nuclear majors would be discouraged by regular and strident protests tying their course to war and militarisation. If students keep hearing their degree is hated and harmful, they might just switch degrees. Even though protests won’t stop universities from offering nuclear programs, they could put students off enrolling.

It sounds unlikely, but if protestors deter enough students from studying the degrees and gaining the skills, we won’t have the workers to deliver AUKUS. If the campaigns are well-targeted and coordinated across the country, the labour shortages will remain unfilled. All the government expenditure and new uni programs could be in vain. Even if the government could find alternative candidates from the UK or US, costs would blow out and delivery would be delayed. AUKUS would be undermined.

Such a campaign would be incredibly destructive and wasteful. It could also be incredibly effective.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.