Students at universities across Sydney today held an online forum to discuss the corporate and military ties of modern Australian universities, with over 100 in attendance including eminent sociologist and author of The Good University Raewyn Connell.
Deaglan Godwin, a member of the USyd Education Action Group, co-chaired the forum with UTS Education Officer Ellie Woodward, and kicked off the event by declaring the modern university “a corporate behemoth, enmeshed in a web of close connections with some of the worst and most destructive corporations on this planet.”
“Far from being a hotbed of Cultural Marxism, they [universities] are often at the forefront of the right-wing’s ideological campaign,” Godwin added.
Woodward acknowledged the colonial nature of universities, reminding attendees that universities “have been and still are used to actively silence and erode Indigenous knowledge, and to actively oppress Indigenous people.”
“What we’re fighting for is not a return to any past glory days of Australian universities. We are not fighting to defend anything, but to build a new, good, truly emancipatory radical education system that has not yet existed in colonial Australia,” Woodward said.
USyd Education Officer Tom Williams, spoke to the experience of science and engineering students working in the Nanoscience Hub, where much of the research space is exclusively for “private knowledge or military knowledge that is locked away under non-disclosure agreements.”
“This is work that’s spent developing weapons, developing mining equipment, developing private tech that the University profits off, that the private sector profits off, but the public sees no benefit from.”
Williams emphasised that the research facilities rely heavily on students for cheap labour in “ridiculously underpaid or unpaid internships” which are mandated in degrees.
He also noted that compulsory Industry and Community Projects (ICPUs) allow private industry to profit off students’ free labour through semester-long group projects.
“At the end of the day, we should be hostile to uni bosses because their profits come from us and are used to support horrific projects that we have no interest in,” Williams said, calling on students at USyd to come to the Student General Meeting to Stop the Cuts.
Dr. Steven Hansen, an earth scientist at Macquarie University, then spoke to the issue of research funding being directed toward natural resource exploitation.
“There’s an interesting tension between the scientists who like to think that they’re not in any way associated with the exploitation of natural resources, and the actual natural resource companies to which [they] are intimately linked,” Hansen said.
“Science plays a key role in benefiting all of these destructive dynamics in society. It’s used by the capitalist system to help destroy the planet … Whether or not science wants to be involved in politics, politics will involve science.”
The forum also featured sociologist Raewyn Connell, who helped found the Free University in the 1960s, a radical experiment in emancipatory education run by students outside of the established university system. Connell said that a significant factor in the failure of modern Australian universities was the “corporate culture” of management.
Acknowledging that “there are countries in the world where the majority of universities are completely private,” Connell suggested hopefully that “we do actually have something to work with in Australian universities for an agenda of progressive change.”
She emphasised that there are working models for progressive change in the “rich and largely unknown history of democratic and anti-colonial universities,” citing Visva-Bharati in India and the Bolivarian University of Venezuela.
“Thinking outside the box and into imagined spaces is a really important part of any radical movement. But I would also emphasise that utopian thinking can also be practical. And we need to think in that practical, utopian way about the issues we’re now facing in Australian universities.”
UNSW Education Action Group member Cherish Kuehlmann spoke further to the relationship between universities and the interests of capitalism in Australia.
“[In UNSW] we found they oversee millions of dollars of research in military technology. This includes partnerships with weapons manufacturer Thales for research into metamaterials that seek to make submarines more undetectable, more stealthy and deadly for war.”
“UNSW also recently announced last week they’ve received a $1m donation to UNSW’s Nuclear Engineering Masters — the only one in the country — which comes as no surprise in the context of increased military cooperation with the US and the UK, and Australia attaining nuclear submarines amid rising imperialist tensions with China.”
Speakers at the forum plugged a petition recently launched by the USyd Education Action Group, demanding that Belinda Hutchinson resign from her position as Chancellor. Hutchinson acts as the Australian Chairman of weapons manufacturing company Thales Australia, whose parent company has been involved in bribery, corruption and human rights abuses.