An eloquent and at times charming performance from Dr Michael Spence on last night’s Q&A did not stop the Twittersphere from erupting in old prejudices.
Thomas MacDonald (@tsmacdonald) tweeted: “30 seconds into #qanda and Spence has quoted Blake and mentioned the devil. Aww yeah.”
The topic of school class sizes dominated the first half of the discussion, in response to shadow education minister Christopher Pyne’s Lateline interview last week in which he said that the size of classes was less important than teachers and unions portray.
Dr Spence’s contributions on this subject were more warmly received. Ahrem Jaye (@ahremjaye) tweeted: “Well said, Michael Spence. Can we have you on more regularly?”
Meanwhile, the former SRC President and now NUS President, Donherra Walsmley, repeated the VC’s words: “The problem in Australia is educational inequality – hear hear. Fund our public schools!”
Mr Pyne took the opportunity to suggest that teacher training at universities was partially to blame. That was met with a hostile reaction from Dr Spence and some former Sydney University education students.
“My training at USYD was really good & thoroughly prepped me. I found that statement from Pyne offensive,” tweeted Alice Leung (@aliceleung).
Kelly Mc (@kel_082) also said: “My 4 yr teacher training at USyd was fantastic and included sufficient practicum, other uni’s 1 year dip edu not good enough”.
James McGann (@It_rhymes_with) commented: “It seems that the teaching profession is uniquely expected to be perfect and have every skill after graduating.”
But it was on the matter of cuts to staff at the university itself which proved the biggest test for the Vice-Chancellor.
James Evans (@j_evns) asked: “How much will class size change when we sack all the teachers, Dr Spence?”
It was a question which went largely unanswered. The SRC Vice-President, Tom Raue, was in the audience to ask the VC whether the budget bottom line was more important than higher learning and free thought.
Dr Spence argued that building maintenance and other costs had made savings in academic expenditure necessary.
Twitter’s response was mixed. Kelvin Yu (@kelvinsyu) tweeted: “USYD academics need to be world class. Like any business, underperforming staff should be cut. But they shouldn’t go unreplaced”.
Former Honi Soit editor Naeda Bulseco said: “Any informed USyd student could tell you that Spence has not cut staff based on the standard of their teaching. #shame”
But @tweet_frankie had this to say: “SRC guy is delusional if he thinks running real organisations properly is bad. They’re running the entire USYD!!..not the SRC office!”
And Patrick Massarani (@PatMass) commented: “Despite Spence’s faults as VC usyd does tremendously on cultural diversity and equity.”
Overall, even Dr Spence’s regular detractors credited him with a reasonable performance.
Michael de Waal (@michaelrdw) observed: “Love him or hate him, Spence is a pretty excellent communicator”, while SRC Education Officer David Pink noted on Facebook “the awkward moment when Spence is fighting our fight”.