Let the University speak for itself

University management doesn’t speak for the USyd community, argues Timothy Scriven.

Universities Australia has just sent out a media release, and it’s one of their bluntest statements in favour of fee de-regulation thus far. The first paragraph reads:

“The peak body representing Australia’s universities calls on the Parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities with changes to the Government’s proposals that will assure affordability for students and taxpayers.”

It doesn’t get very much better from there. However, all this got me thinking: what is a university?

The 20th century British philosopher Ryle told a story of some tourists wandering through Oxford. They saw the great hall, they saw the colleges and they saw the staff and students bustling about and they were suitably impressed. However, they turned to their guide and asked “but where is the university itself?” The point being that they had made what Ryle termed a category mistake, they had assumed the University must be a special sort of building somewhere on the campus, but really the University was the sum of all this.

When I hear comments in the news such as “The Group of Eight universities have come out in support of de-regulation” I’m not simply nerve-shakingly angry, I’m also confused. For it would seem that the University is being confused with its management.

The University is all of us who participate in the functioning of this University – the staff, the students and active alumni and community members. Whatever the association which calls itself “Universities Australia” may say, the Universities of Australia are not on their side. We have seen the University of Sydney’s view through protests, through the town hall meeting, through discussion and through polling – we have seen it clearly, and that view is the University of Sydney opposes deregulation.

Consider, for example, the Town-Hall meeting. The meeting was organised by management, they picked the chair (Adam Spencer) who picked the speakers. They picked the venue, they picked the time. They allotted Spence ten minutes for an introduction at the beginning, and similarly allotted space to Belinda Hutchinson. They set the rules, and yet they lost.

Twenty out of twenty six indicated some opposition to de-regulation, and only one of the twenty six indicated support. Edward McMahon, board director of the USU and member of the Education Action Group (EAG) read out a motion condemning de-regulation. By my gaze, and by his, at least three quarters of the room stuck their hand up in support, and only two stuck their hands up in opposition.

Universities around Australia are finding their voices and more are finding them with each passing day. Each protest on each university campus is far more a communiqué from that university than any press release by its management could ever be. I’ve heard it said (and said it myself) that a better university is possible. More than that though a better, kinder, university is real- it’s already here. All it needs now is for management to stop stepping on its throat, to gather itself and to stand.