The vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt, appeared on flagship ABC program Q&A on Monday night, where he faced questions on proposed changes to tertiary education funding and the ANU’s controversial fossil fuel investments.

The Nobel laureate quickly found himself at the centre of fierce debate on proposed tertiary education reforms. The question came from Lucy Schroeder, who asked ‘Will [the proposed changes] simply push higher education out of the reach of everyday Australians?’

‘We have six universities in the top World 100,’ Schmidt said. ‘That puts us third behind the US and the UK. We [generated] $22.4 billion last year of export income, which is more than the actual money spent by the Federal Government, so I think you could argue we are doing pretty good by world standards. And I should add that export income is unique by world standards. That is something we are able to do here in Australia.

‘When you look at how much students are paying for education in this country, they are actually paying more compared to the rest of the OECD [the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development].’

Schmidt’s final comment on the government’s tertiary education policy concerned it’s fairness.

‘There is also the question of it being fair. Ultimately, providing an education is a monopoly good, the government does it, no one else really does it, and … you can ratchet the price up and they [students] can’t really do anything other than go along with it.’

Compared to the partisan policy bashing that happened directly after Schmidt’s response, the vice-chancellor looked good. But there was one more surprise test to come – and it came in the form of a video question from ANU student Bella Himmelreich, who asked: ‘In your position as vice-chancellor of ANU, you’ve publicly stated that you want the university to be a leader in climate action … as a student of ANU, I want to know why then ANU still invests millions in coal, oil and gas?’

Schmidt’s response was long-winded.

‘I think the question really comes down to how you act effectively on climate change,’ he said.

‘We need to get rid of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 … we preferentially spend money on low emission areas [and] we have a screen so that if you primary produce coal, which we think probably doesn’t have a great future … we are not going to invest in that.’

But Q&A host Tony Jones pressed Schmidt to directly answer the question, asking whether the ANU invest millions into fossil fuels currently?

‘The total amount … it is a very, very small fraction of our total portfolio of $1.4 billion,’ Schmidt said. ‘If you want to go through and say, “We are going to divest completely of these things but we still need to use them,” I have a problem with that.’

Brian Schmidt managed the Q&A hour well, but he didn’t leave completely unscathed – his responses to the topic of fossil fuels ultimately left viewers with more questions than answers.

Schmidt was flanked by the deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek, and the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, as well as the satirist Armando Iannucci and social research director Laura Demasi.

Schmidt made his most important early contribution to the program in a discussion of Trump:

‘He clearly has resonated with a portion of Australia … People like me, running a university, we need to understand why that is,’ the vice-chancellor said.Later, discussing a question concerning the Yasmin Abdel Magied Anzac Day controversy, Schmidt noted the role of free speech:

Later, discussing a question concerning the controversy surrounding comments made by Yasmin Abdel Magied on Anzac Day, Schmidt noted the role of free speech:

‘You cannot have a provocative view without being attacked … We’ve gotten to a point where we are not able to have the frank conversations we need to, to work through some complicated issues.’

‘[Yasmin] apologised very promptly, I think we should move on … We need to have tolerance … to have the conversations we need to have,’ Schmidt said.

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