Meritocratic Elitism

It’s been curious to watch the reactions to Brian Schmidt’s appointment as Vice Chancellor (VC). Some reactions have been positive – see the exclamations of joy on the ANUSA page – just as some have been humorously bizarre (“Schmidt Happens” puns, I’m looking at you here). But the most surprising reactions have been those that come close to accusing Schmidt of elitism, and expressing concern for the ANU’s prospects as a fair institution under his guidance.

It’s worth noting the original purpose of the ANU: it was established to be the foremost national educational institution. It was meant to be the best; taking in the best students, having them be educated by the best academics and sending them out to be the best leaders in the nation. In its strategic objectives, however, it is not mentioned that the ANU is meant to be “big”. It is not mentioned that the ANU is meant to cater to a specific demographic of students. It is not mentioned that the ANU is meant to provide a breadth of programs from the incredibly academic to the vocationally oriented.

Of course, this idea of educating “the best” seems both wishful thinking and more than mildly elitist. In fact, it seems to run contrary to the tall-poppy culture that exists in Australia – what the hell does the ANU think it is, trying to exceed the pack? Other universities do fi ne with big student populations and vocational programs, right? Why does the ANU have to be any diff erent?

But this ignores the reason that the elitist mentality of the ANU was engendered. Even if it runs contrary to our national egalitarianism, Australia needs an elite university. As a country, Australia doesn’t just need people to “do the job” – it needs people to reinvent it. Australia needs innovative and genuinely insightful academics, politicians, scientists, and workers to understand what needs to be done to make our country better. As clichéd and awful as it sounds, Australia needs “thought leaders” in more than just the sense of a poorly executed marketing campaign.

Hence why the ANU is allowed to be elite. It is allowed to be elite because it nominally works as a meritocracy: the best are allowed to come and receive an elite education, and in turn they go out and “fi x the country”. That was its original mandate. The ANU earns its right to be elitist through producing leaders who give back to the nation. That’s what makes it diff erent to other institutions, and justifi es its title as the national university.

So how does this relate to the Schmidt hitting the fan over the new VC appointment? Many of the policies advocated by the incoming VC could be termed “elitist” – things like interviewing prospective students, reducing student numbers and working towards truly research-led learning, as opposed to the vocational. But in the case of the ANU, that’s exactly what we need. They may well be elitist, but in the positive sense of the word – they generate the sort of elite institution and students that Australia needs to succeed.

Concerns over equity are very valid. It is true that regional New South Wales needs a good quality university which doesn’t solely concern itself with lofty academia and thoughtful leadership. It is true that Canberrans need a high quality institution where they can be educated. It is true that few other universities have the accessibility and ubiquity of the ANU college experience. None of these are arguments why ANU specifically should concern itself with equity over elitism. There are tens of other universities that could assuage any and all of these equity concerns – more importantly, these tens of universities do not have the same mandate of providing for the nation as a whole.

The ANU is tasked with a national mandate: to be the best university so that we can be the best country. Ultimately, this goal overrides its provision of mid-high range education – it overrides its need to be concerned with the equity concerns of any one group. Brian Schmidt is not an elitist in the sense that he sits in his offi ce drinking high tea and talking about how the poor don’t drive cars – he’s solely an elitist in the sense that he wants both the ANU and Australia to be meritocratically elite. And that’s a goal worth working towards.