ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt defended ANU’s remaining fossil fuel investments on Q&A tonight, in a program dominated by debate over free speech, university fees and climate change policy. Schmidt argued for a broad liberalisation of speech, the detriment of higher university fees, and effective climate policy, but remained moderate and carefully spoken on all issues discussed.
ANU student Bella Himmelreigh, in a question on the show, challenged the university’s investment policy. “In your position as VC, you’ve publicly stated you want the university to be a leader in climate action… why, then, does ANU still invest millions in coal, oil and gas?” she asked.
Schmidt argued that investment in fossil fuels was a minimal fraction of ANU’s overall portfolio, and that complete divestment now would be hypocritical while humanity still relied on the industry for power. “The total amount … it is a very, very small fraction of our total portfolio of 1.4 billion,” he said. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite, and say ‘sorry, can’t invest but don’t get rid of them, because the lights are going to go out.’”
Despite these concerns, Schmidt still contended that climate change needs strong action from political leaders. “Climate change is real, it’s something we need to think about, it’s something we need to take steps over the next thirty years to deal with.” He predicted disaster if there were a four to five degree increase in global temperatures. “The most likely thing that will happen is some breakdown of society, potentially war, certainly famine – you can’t put a price on that.”
Fossil Free ANU, the key group calling for divestment on campus, called Brian’s response “unhelpful rhetoric,” and accused Schmidt of intentionally delaying the transition to renewables, arguing “The longer they can delay our transition to renewable energy, the longer Prof Schmidt will keep saying it’s hypocritical not to finance them and give them social licence.” Fossil Free ANU has previously called for ANU to completely divest from fossil fuel investments, arguing that the university cannot claim to be a climate leader or be fulfilling their fiduciary duty while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. ANU has not revealed the full extent of their investments in recent years.
In a discussion on university fee changes, Schmidt suggested higher fees were overall detrimental, but that the effect of these specific changes would be minimal. “The beautiful thing on the income contingent loan system that we have here is that the actual deterrence to individual students is relatively small, but it will be there.” However, Schmidt wouldn’t endorse the changes, arguing there remains “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 so yeah, you can ratchet the price up and [students] can’t really do anything other than go along with it.”
Q&A host Tony Jones challenged the Vice-Chancellor to say whether the higher student fees, unveiled by Education Minister Simon Birmingham earlier in the day, were a direct result of fee deregulation’s failure. “It’s a political decision in both cases,” responded Schmidt, “it would be unfair to categorise it as a direct consequence to deregulation not happening.” Birmingham’s fee increases will total 7.5% by 2021, with the threshold for loan repayment falling from $55,000 to $42,000.
When the topic of free expression was raised, Schmidt argued for a general liberalisation of the definition of acceptable speech. “We are not able to have the frank conversations we need about certain issues”, he asserted, regarding the ability to openly criticise faith. “This is a re-occurring issue, there’s a real hypersensitivity out there about certain issues… people are scared because if you say something on Twitter, suddenly you have 5000 things come back at you.” With reference to Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s recent controversial comments on Anzac Day, Schmidt suggested that it was time to move on. “I think probably ill-judged based on how we treat that day, but I don’t think it was treason… We need to have tolerance, we need to get rid of the hypersensitivity, allow people to make mistakes, move on, so we can have the conversations we need to have.”