When you reflect on the University of Sydney, on what it is as a place and an institution, it feels almost too appropriate that a sandstone Quadrangle comes to mind. It’s an icon and an image the University consciously promotes. Primary school students dressed in primary school colours are taken on tours through its well kept facade. Glossy brochures adorned with the building’s image and words like ‘opportunity’, ‘experience’, and ‘leadership’ are mailed to seventeen-year-olds sweating through HSC nightmares all around the country. At rowdy Inner-West house parties old high school friends one-up each other with boasts of their new intellectual homes, and one inevitably brags about the building they know their UTS and UNSW friends can’t match. A sandstone Quadrangle is an easy object to mythologise. But the real reason a Quadrangle is an appropriate image for the University of Sydney is because it is all about the surface.
When you look beneath the surface – of the building and of the University – things get complicated. Inside the sandstone Quadrangle itself are overcrowded lectures taught by academic staff who a recent study revealed to be some of the most dissatisfied in the country. Dig a little below the boasts made about Australia’s University export industry and you find the thousands of international students being abused by landlords, employees, and their classmates. Take away the rhetoric about the ‘student experience’ and you will hear the stories of students forced to do little more than work, study, and sleep, to help them afford living in the city where their chosen university was built.
This is essentially what the job of a student newspaper should be. We are here to help you tear away topsoil and see what really holds this place together. But it’s a job made more difficult by the smothering instincts of an institution supposedly committed to the proliferation of knowledge and information. The University has become a carefully managed and heavily centralised PR machine. It becomes only too obvious every week when we try to interview a member of staff, or a Senate Fellow, or a head of department. All these people know that speaking to us candidly about the current state of the University and the success and failure of its policies is not possible. Instead, we are referred to carefully worded PR releases, always to be attributed to “a University spokesperson”.
Forced to constantly sell itself to the world, the University of Sydney has become closed off, for fear that something might offend the customers it so badly needs. When you consider the falling ratio of education funding to student numbers, it’s not hard to see how this mentality has come about. But it doesn’t have to be this was. It’s time for glasnost. It’s time for the University to dump ‘public relations’ and have real conversations, arguments, and fights with its students and its student media. It’s time to talk about the faults and the challenges rather than bury them in obscure committees that don’t take minutes or visitors. It’s time smash the sandstone surface and see what lies beneath.