Speaking out for students

It’s time for University of Sydney alumni to break their silence on fee deregulation.

When Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence took to the Great Hall last Tuesday, he was armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a hands-free microphone and a few choice excerpts from the University budget.

Throughout his presentation, Spence steered well clear of the podium from which the evening’s other speakers would make their cases for or against university fee deregulation. Instead, he paced the stage, and with visual aids and a liberal time limit, set out the case for why the university’s current financial position is becoming untenable.

A few minutes into his remarks, Spence was interrupted by heckling from members of the student body angry at the format of the meeting, and at what they perceived to be Spence’s lack of true consultation.
MC Adam Spencer tried to put an end to the heckling, but, when the students refused to be quiet, Spence stepped in. “Why don’t we have a vote?”

Spence turned to the room.

“People who would like me to finish my brief remarks, can you now clap?” His request was met with polite applause from the audience.

“People who’d like to listen to more shouting, can you clap?” This time, there was much louder, much more enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Spence looked momentarily bemused, but managed to maintain his game face.

“Well,” he said, “I have the microphone.” And so he continued. Eventually, the hecklers sat down.

It doesn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination to read symbolism into the scene we’ve just described.

In the fight over fee deregulation, there is a power imbalance between the people pushing for fee deregulation, and the people campaigning against it. In one corner, you’ve got the Vice-Chancellors of the Group of Eight (including our very own Spence) and the boys of the Federal Cabinet. These are powerful organisations and individuals whose opinions on higher education are regularly solicited, and afforded respect, by virtue of their positions. In the other corner, there’s a motley crew of students, left-wing academics, and unionists. Surveys indicate that a substantial majority of Australians are actually on this side, but, in a political system where silence is tantamount to assent, there’s a very good chance that this quiet majority could be overlooked.

In order to try to rectify this power imbalance, a few months ago, a number of fellows of the University Senate began petitioning the University of Sydney to hold a meeting of Convocation, which would call on University of Sydney alumni to debate the merits- or otherwise- of the government’s fee deregulation policy. The significance of this move was immediately noticed by the national media, with a Sydney Morning Herald report declaring that “a revolt inside the powerful ruling body of the University of Sydney is threatening to undermine the federal government’s [fee deregulation] proposal.”

The University, however, was extremely reluctant for Convocation to take place. Spence – who, with some qualifications, had already come out in support of fee deregulation – told the media Convocation was “an anachronism”. Alongside Chancellor Belinda Hutchison, Spence worked against efforts to get it off the ground inside the Senate. Eventually, a compromise was reached, with the University agreeing to host a “town hall-style meeting” where select members of the University community would be able to speak to their concerns before an audience, the Chancellor, and the Vice-Chancellor himself.

There is a very good reason that this “town hall-style meeting” was offered as a compromise by the University to the rebel Senate Fellows. As long as the debate about fee deregulation is taking place on the same terms as debates about staff cuts and enterprise agreements, the University is in well-charted territory. By now, opposition to University change proposals from groups such as the SRC, the NTEU, the CPSU and SUPRA is virtually a given, and the University knows that, as long as opposition is confined to only these groups, it commands sufficient resources and respect to win nearly all the fights it chooses to pick.

While the town hall meeting was open to all members of the University community, it was, unsurprisingly, dominated by USyd’s most familiar faces. The speeches were generally excellent, but entirely predictable; precisely no one in the room was surprised when a group of current and former student activists, academics, and union representatives argued against higher university fees, preaching to a chamber of the already-converted. Truly novel contributions were absent. More importantly, so too were new contributors.

Ultimately, the town hall meeting did little more than situate a debate that is occurring anyway in a more auspicious-looking location than usual. It allowed the University to avoid opening a new front in the ongoing conflict over fee deregulation, while still giving the impression of consultation and engagement.

A meeting of Convocation, by contrast, had the potential to prise open an entirely new space in this debate, a space that the University has never had to figure out how to navigate before. This would be a space where thousands of USyd alumni could add their voices. It is perhaps, optimistic to think that Convocation would have drawn Michael Kirby and Germaine Greer back to the sandstone halls of their youth to fight Tories like it’s 1962 again. However, every year, thousands of these alumni are prevailed upon to donate vast amounts of money to this University, suggesting that they realise their ongoing vested interest in improving their alma mater. They need to leverage that position. From public statements to boycotting donations, the alumni can put pressure upon the University’s management, and also upon the government, in a way that student activists cannot.

The importance of the alumni in this debate shouldn’t be underestimated. Graduates of this University, as we are often reminded, hold positions of power and influence across Australia’s political, corporate, and cultural spheres. They command far greater respect in the public imagination than student activists, and many of them possess the means of exerting actual influence over political and policy processes. Opposition to university fee deregulation is a mainstream position. But while it continues to be articulated in the public sphere almost exclusively by student activists, it will continue to be perceived, and treated by the government, as a marginal one.

Less than twelve hours after the conclusion of the town hall meeting where Michael Spence had heard almost unanimous opposition from staff and students to fee deregulation, he joined his fellow Group of Eight Vice-Chancellors in Canberra to lobby the Federal Government to pursue the policy. Student activists who had hoped that Spence’s willingness to listen to all 26 speakers at the town hall meeting might have indicated a willingness to actually pay attention to the will of the University of Sydney community threw up their hands in frustration.

But, as Michael Spence reminded us last Tuesday, we are not the ones with the microphone. That privilege and power lie elsewhere. Much of it lies in the hands of USyd alumni.

They need to use it.

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