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NEWS GRAB: Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU on Sky News ‘Govt university package all ‘smoke and mirrors’ “The COVID crisis, which hit Australian universities very early and very hard, really demonstrates the problems of funding being pulled for the sector.”

NEWS GRAB: Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney on the ABC ‘Education in the Age of Covid-19, Q+A’ “To have us in the type of strife that we’re in at the moment, will have consequences for how we consider ourselves to be a clever country.”

NEWS GRAB: Professor Des Manderson, interdisciplinary scholar, law and the humanities, ANU on RN Big Ideas ‘The purpose and future of the university’ The university was and, I think, in many ways always have been engines of social change.”

NEWS GRAB: Professor Claire Macken Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor Learning and Teaching College of Business and Law at RMIT University on KMPG, Talking Tertiary Podcast Series ‘Future of higher ed with Prof Claire Macken’ “And there’s a lot of analysis of what is it that actually universities do in society and can that actually be replaced by something else?”


Mark Scott, head of the New South Wales education department, on the ABC, ‘Education in the Age of COVID-19, Q+A’ “This is a vital industry important to all across the country, important to the future of the nation. And it really is facing very significant threat now and attention must be paid.”

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I think we’ve all been wondering what the future will hold. Just a few months ago, no one had heard of COVID 19. And now the virus has spread to almost every country on the globe. It has crashed economies. It has filled hospital beds and it’s emptied out public spaces. It has transformed our daily lives and disrupted society in a way we had not previously imagined was possible. Already we can see that its impacts are going to create changes that are far reaching. And we can also see that the shape of those changes will in part depend on the decisions that are taken in the next months and years. So how do we grapple with this? Each of us are dealing with the ripple effects of this event in our own corners of the world, both private and professional. My corner? Well it’s  a university in Australia, where I work as an historian. My name is Tamson Pietsch and I’m from the University of Technology Sydney.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I’ve spent my career thinking about universities and their entanglement with society. I know it probably sounds a bit nerdy, but I love universities. I love them because for me they’re really crucial institutions that help orient us to our world. They are places that reach out beyond the present moment. Connecting the past and the future, the here and elsewhere and the known and the unknown. And it’s this orienting function that is one that we need more than ever. As our societies confront not only the effects of this pandemic, but the imperatives of the ongoing ecological crisis. Yet I also recognise that there is much about how our universities have come to work that is unsustainable and that needs to change. How Australian universities will fare in a post pandemic world depends on an influential but rarely talked about relationship. This is the relationship between the state, its institutions and the public. What’s often referred to as the social contract.


Prime Minister Scott Morrison, on ABC 7:30 Report ‘Scott Morrison discusses the government’s approach to coronavirus’ “Well, sure, it is a social contract.”

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : See even Scott Morrison is talking about it. The social contract universities had when COVID 19 erupted was one that patched together a variety of largely unstated hopes and expectations. And this has enormous consequences for where we find ourselves today.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what is the new social contract for Australian universities? What is their purpose in the 21st century? And what role should government play? To find out I’m going to speak with university leaders, students, economists, journalists, policymakers and a bunch of others.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And because it’s really hard to imagine wholly different societal settings, I want to begin by talking to historians. After all, their job is to try to understand world’s structured on different terms and to look closely at people and societies living through moments of change. Joining me on The New Social Contract, remotely, of course, while we are social distancing, is Dr. Hannah Forsyth, who’s a senior lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University. She’s written a book on the History of the Modern Australian University. So who better to talk to?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: It’s a good time to be rethinking the university.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And I’m also speaking with Senior Research Fellow Dr James Waghorn, who is based at the Centre for the Study for Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. And yes, surprise, surprise, he’s also an historian who works on the history of universities.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Universities have not really had to face an ongoing period of stasis or reduction in demand throughout their history. We’re in new territory here.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And just before we go on a small note about the audio quality. As this podcast is being produced in the times of corona, and I’m recording from a makeshift studio in my home under a ladder with a doona on top of it. And my guests are joining us via phone line. The sound is not going to be perfect, but I’m hoping that the people and the ideas of what will keep you here and also keep you coming back.


DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Hello, Tamson. Lovely to talk to you.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Where are you talking to us from today? Are you in, like, a lounge room or?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: The Home Office is in my wardrobe, actually. We have three children here who are doing remote learning. And so the house is full of energy and life. And if I’m in this wardrobe, I’m able to shut the door at the end of the day, which is very important for everyone’s sanity.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : I mean, Virginia Woolf would have endorsed that.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Could do with a little more oxygen, but it’s cozy.


ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And Hannah, where are you coming to us from?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: I am sitting in a little studio in Katoomba where I am temporarily accommodated while I wait for my home to be available. We had to race home from the UK before the border closed.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Well, we’re glad you made it.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So we’re here today to talk about the relationship between Australian universities, society and the state and how it has changed, really, several times across the course of the 20th century and perhaps how under the pressures of COVID-19, it looks set to shift again. But what will it look like? And how should we turn to the past to answer this question? So, James, as a historian of higher education, you’re well placed to know the answer to this. Why do you think we should be looking to the past right now as we try and imagine what the future of higher ed will look like?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Well, I think the Australian higher education system is quite unusual in that it has gone through a number of really substantial changes throughout its history. It’s a surprising system that it doesn’t it hasn’t had a central organising authority throughout its history. Rather, it has had a series of different settlements that have been reached between government, the public and the institutions themselves at different times. So for that reason, there are lots of different moments that we can look at that offer really interesting insights into what a university system might look like into the future.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Hannah, are we seeing the greatest disruption to the university sector in Australia since the First World War?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: It’s a big call. It’s probably a bit too early to say, to be honest, but it does look like it could be a very big change. But I guess we’ve been feeling that big change is coming for a little while, haven’t we? That perhaps the structures that have been in place are not wholly sustainable. There’s something a bit wrong with the various ways of doing things. Our ways of teaching, the numbers of students, the very heavy managerial role at the top levels of the universities have had and not least the market that’s created, very high levels of pressure that young people are under to invest in their own human capital. I think all of those things have been looking like a system that might be on the verge of toppling. I think that the COVID-19 crisis is probably giving it its push, but it’s a bit hard to say exactly what will happen. What I’m concerned about is that some of the things that are at stake, because we’ve got really a very large sector with many thousands of employees and a very large casualised workforce whose lives and livelihoods are sitting in the balance as we do that thinking. That being said, given the problems that we’ve had with it for such a long time, it’s it’s a good time, I think, to be rethinking the university.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what then is the risk of not contextualising this crisis?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: When we don’t think about the history, we tend to think about the university in a very romanticised, idealised way. And to imagine there to be one single original model that has no capacity for change. Whereas, you know, really, there’s a very rich history of the university that has changed a lot over its thousand year history.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Yes, I think that there have been a number of really profound disruptions within the Australian university system. Those, when we think back, include the Great Depression, where government funding to universities was slashed as the country tried to recover from the devastating economic hardship. We think of the Second World War, where universities were drawn into the war effort and were required to provide trained graduates to assist all of the things that were happening as part of the war and then as reconstruction. We could think, perhaps, of the Dawkins changes, which brought enormous mergers and amalgamations into the system and converted what were formerly colleges of advanced education into universities. There are a number of examples. I have named three. It does feel like that kind of moment again today.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Hannah, in the start of your book, which was on the history of the modern university in Australia, right up until the present. You paint this amazing picture of 1857 at the University of Sydney when all the students could fit into one single photograph. And now we look at a sector in which there’s one point five million university students. So how has this sector changed since the mid 19th century?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: My current project is a history of professions, and so I’m interested in the ways that the universities interacted with that. In the late 19th century, this is really underpinning the growth of this new professional class who are seeking to pair the moral and the economic.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: So their relationship to society is one whereby our work, we create an economy that is simultaneously producing moral and financial profit, which is seeking to promise something to society through the work of university graduates.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: But by the mid 20th century, that has really changed among the many changes to the forms of government provision. So that higher education starts to seem like a citizen’s right, not necessarily a right that everyone should access, but that everyone should be able to access on the basis of merit.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So, James, what about the social contract that exists for universities today?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: I think today we have an unusual kind of social contract actually, in that it isn’t particularly explicit. I feel that the social contract in higher education is one that has been slightly muddied in recent years and that we’d do well, actually, to to look at in more detail. We’ve seen the enormous increase in the number of international students which have brought enormous benefits to universities and to the country generally, as well as challenges. We have seen various proposals for deregulation and to unlock the system and to allow much more market mechanism into it that have not quite landed. We have a system where the HECS system offers a deferred repayment so that the pressure to think about what degree you might take is deferred, which has brought enormous benefit and massively increased the number of students able to attend universities, but has also made it less of a direct discussion about what your benefit is from going to university. Sometimes it can feel like it’s something you fall into after secondary school. You fall into a higher education position because you’re encouraged to apply and then you take it and you think, I’ll fix it up later. So I think at other stages in our history, that social contract has been much more clearly defined than it has been today. I think today it is something that we have perhaps lost sight of in a number of ways.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what then would you describe as the key elements of the social contract in those different periods across, say, that 20th century?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: When we think about the long history of Australian universities, they’re founded by the state. They’re public institutions in Australia until the more recent period where we have private universities. But they’re public institutions. A student entering university in the early part of the 20th century would most likely have relied on family support. That individual is faced, usually, with the need to provide an upfront tuition fee to come to the university. They recognise that the university is a public institution and it has been funded by government to allow them to go to university. But somehow they need to find the wherewithal, find the means to go to university. And that can be quite substantial.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : How does the state derive benefit under that iteration of the social contract?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: The state obtains skilled graduates, predominantly. This is what is needed in colonial Australia in the late 19th century. The state is funding enormous growth in the provision of education more generally. So there’s a great need for teachers. They’re building infrastructure, so they need engineers. So what they’re gaining by this is trained expertise, trained experts who are able to go out into the world and not only provide solid, dependable work, but also have access to the new developments and new understandings in how you make sure the bridges don’t fall down, how you make sure that people are provided with the best medical treatment they could be provided for. And so on. So that’s what the state is getting out of this. And they are providing significant sums to support these universities throughout this period as well.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Look at the late 19th century, there’s a global shift from the production and circulation of commodities towards a more financialised economy. And this is part of what’s pushing the growth of professions, especially law and accounting.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: But in fact, the professions that are growing process are teaching and nursing. But this professionalisation is something that the universities latch on to very quickly because this is going to be the key source of their fee income for the next hundred years. The Australian colonies are really only beginning to focus on their own self-government and need, or they believe they need, a locally educated set of youths who would become the meritocratic elite. So that this would both justify self-government as in simple separation from Britain, but also facilitate it. It would mean that there were people, in the absence of a British aristocracy, there were people who we could consider legitimate rulers instead of birth and wealth on the basis of merit. And that was quite an important vision for the development of the colony.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So when does that period end and how how does it change?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: I don’t know whether it ever quite ends. When we think about different periods throughout the history of the Australian higher education system, rather, we have different things overlaid on top of existing ideas about what universities are providing. Universities today continue to provide that civilising influence, that access to the best ideas expressed well, even though we’ve gone through many different iterations. So I think that gradually, and and influenced by various other forces, this model of individuals finding support from their family in order to go to universities erodes at different universities.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Another way a student might arrive at university, say, from the early part of the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, might be through a bonded place whereby they are supported to conduct their education and binded to a period of postgraduate work within a certain industry. At the same time, after the war, we see the increasing involvement of industry in providing this financial support to students. And we see large companies such as BHP, Shell, Dunlop providing cadetships to university students whereby they are paying them a stipend for the duration of their degree on the understanding that afterwards they would then go off and work for that company for a certain period of time. So previously you have this discussion where we have a family deciding to support their talented family member to go off to university. Now we have a different kind of arrangement whereby an individual might come to a contracted arrangement with the state or Commonwealth government for undertaking their work. They know that they’re going to be supported. They know that they’re going to have a future career. They know that they’ve been selected by the government as providing an essential service. But they’re also bonded and required to continue in the degree that they are supported to do. They’re not free to change if they so desire. And afterwards, you serve your time, if you like. And then you’re free to go. You don’t have that ongoing responsibility, connection with family where you feel that not only do you need to do well at university, but you owe a debt to that wealthy uncle for the rest of your life, for the education you’ve you’ve obtained. So it’s quite a different kind of arrangement under those sorts of schemes.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what changes then? What’s the next iteration of these sort of layered social contracts that you’re describing?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: I think the next main iteration we might think about are the ones that emerge in the Second World War, where you no longer have scholarships that bind you to subsequent work. Rather, you just have scholarships on the basis that your work is essential to the war effort. And then after the war it’s going to be essential for the public good in general. And we see this in the Commonwealth scholarships that are introduced from 1951 that provide all of this maintenance, as well as the admission of fees for a certain number of students, this number of thousands of students across the country. So in general, it’s a small number, but it does free you from the obligation of undertaking work after your degree. The government is providing this on the basis that it just needs graduates, but also that it sees the value of supporting high achieving students, whatever background they’re from.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what does the government need graduates to do in the 50s and 60s?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: During the 1950s and 60s, there is an enormous increase in the number of university graduates in general. This is the period where new universities are constructed en masse and the emergence of the colleges of advanced education as well. And what these universities are offering, what these graduates are moving into, are those white collar careers that emerge after the Second World War, where you have a great managerial class for whom higher education is an expectation. There’s a great, much wider acceptance of the benefits that come from obtaining a university or other higher education qualification than in the previous era. Where the model is, the cliché is, that the person working in the mailroom works their way up and becomes the CEO. Now we have an increasing technical class who are requiring a university degree to come.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: So there’s there’s an enormous increase in the number of students coming to universities and an enormous growth in the number of universities. And those scholarships that are offered from 1951 have no chance of keeping up. They begin at three thousand and they increase up to 4000. But there’s a recognition that they are not providing enough. At the same time, there’s a whole network of other scholarships that are joining that Commonwealth scholarship such that a majority of students are able to access some form of support throughout this post-war period. But we’re leading into the next big stage, which is the changes introduced by the Whitlam government.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : How does Whitlam’s policies change this, this arrangement?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: When Whitlam announces in 1973 that he’s going to abolish fees from the next year, this is extraordinary. He’s going to abolish all fees. He’s  going to make the Commonwealth the sole supporter of higher education or university education, and he’s going to introduce a program called the TEAS, which is and is Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, which is going to provide a frugal but a living allowance for students to go to university. And he does so because he has a very different idea about what higher education is. This isn’t only about providing the leaders who are going to move into industry and into the government, but also he’s concerned about who can come to university. And he sees higher education as a pathway into opportunity that had been always there in a way. But never expressed quite as directly as this or as was well-funded to this extent. And so he in sweeping aside all of these previous arrangements, he really does redraw the social contract that we’re talking about.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So do you think behind that change there’s a different notion of who derives value from universities?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Yeah. Look, I think in the mid 20th century, the idea is that having a segment of the populace that is highly educated is good for society. And there’s no doubt that in the early 20th century, it seemed to be good for individuals and that individuals were expected to invest in their own education as a part of their pathway. But because this was good for society, society invested quite a lot in them.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what would a student arriving on a campus in 1974 or 1975? What sort of set of decisions would they be confronted with that would mark them out against their predecessors?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: They don’t have to enter into any kind of arrangements at all, any kind of contracts, if you like, before they arrive at university. Actually, they’re free to pursue their studies and they’re free to change course. What we see here is not that this ushers in a generation of layabouts, but rather it ushers in a generation who are able to follow their interests and able really to realise all that they want from their higher education — in a way that previous generations weren’t really able to.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: But also, it does cut them off from that connection to future career that they might have had that previous generations might have enjoyed. One of the interesting things to think about is what the state might be getting deriving from this arrangement. It’s multifaceted. On the one hand, it is about encouraging social mobility, which is a social good or public good, but it’s also about ideas of social capital. That it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to bind students to subsequent careers. Rather, we need students who, because they’ve been doing the things that they’re most excited and interesting about, are better graduates. This is a public good worth paying for.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Then if we zoom forward, I guess the next generation is going to be the Dawkins changes, which completely redraw that kind of social contract.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: So the universities, again, go through a long period of simultaneously growth and starvation where in order to steer the universities into the thing that Dawkins really wants to become he starves on one side and pours money into them on the other side, and growth becomes so important to them that they can’t survive without it. And that growth depends on conforming to the things that Dawkins wants them to do: recruit ever more students, particularly from overseas, to operate with efficiencies of scale, to compete with one another for research funding and over time, to become kind of institutions that we’re seeing now that are concerned with ranking as a form of marketing and marketing as a form of ranking, if you know what I mean.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: The Dawkins reforms, where really very big and endlessly growing universities that were established on a kind of supposed market basis, where their underlying economic logic has been one of relentless growth and a kind of faux form of competition. So not real competition it’s been — and not to say that real competition would have made it any better — but a really very inefficient imagined form of competition between the universities that I think has done a couple of things.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: One is to contribute to this relentless credentialising of the labour force that helped to push a kind of hyper industriousness among young people, over several generations now, who really felt the need to invest a lot in their own human capital so that they are competitive in the labour force. But also has created these very large institutions.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And James, how did the Dawkins reforms in 1989 change higher education?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: The Dawkins changes are about remaking higher education across the board. They combine former colleges of advanced education in universities. They create a unified national system where everything is a university and encourage universities to respond more actively to the education market, ushering in the international student market as well, coincidentally. But the government urges universities to take much more care about the skills that they’re providing graduates, to be much more responsive to the wider public. So an individual coming to the university might be coming to a university degree that was previously not part of a university in the health sciences. They might be coming to do new kinds of degrees, like a communications degree or something like that, which emphasises the skill rather than the old qualification through this period. And of course, they’re able to access HECS, which is a deferred contribution to the cost of their higher education. And they repay that through the taxation system. So what you have is this enormous influx of new students. Much access is provided in additional places, in ways never before imagined, which is absolutely a social good and a justification for these these reforms as well. You have much more pressure on students, though, than previously, because they are they understand that they will have to repay their contribution to their higher education degree at a later date. So they they will have to bear the cost of their degree at some point. So they agree they have to move into some kind of career. And, of course, the great majority do. It’s an accepted part of the arrangement between universities, students and the state. And in public policy terms, it is a shift towards a recognition of the private benefits that accrue to students who go through university.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So, Hannah, how would you characterise that change that happened in the late 80s and 90s?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: When you look at the labour force from the late 80s through to the present, the growth of white collar work has been really substantial. And so the contrast to 100 years before is incredible. So the enormous amount of labour in manufacturing, transport, especially in agriculture, has really disappeared in favor of that. We’ve got this very large white collar workforce. So that was facilitated and could not have been achieved without the massive growth of the universities. But Because it’s a very different kind of labour force and one that kind of an up and out model year, or up or out, really. You need to be continually moving up the career ladder, which requires this relentless investment in human capital.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: And as we’ve gone along, and that labour market has become ever more competitive, that’s, I think, where young people’s very intensive investment capital has come about.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So would you characterise the idea underpinning the late 20th century as one of investment in individual capital?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Right. So rather than thinking about the university and the labuor force at society as a collective enterprise, as you would have in the middle part of the 20th century. By the late 20th century, this is now an individual endeavour where it’s not just universities that are pitted against one another as competitive forces that individuals are. Rather than considering this to be a sort of social investment, this becomes an individual investment for your own personal financial return. And the moral is really become quite separated by that point.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Yeah. And that kind of brings us back to that concept. You know, you’ve run through the last hundred and seventy years of Australian higher education history, which is that notion of merit or the idea of merit that adhered to those different underpinnings of higher education. And I’m guessing that’s something that you’d also like to kind of contest a little bit?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Yes, it’s it’s quite hard to contest merit, isn’t it, because we inherit such a strong sense of it ourselves. So that merit seems like the right, and maybe even the only, way to value work and our differences in standing at work and within professions and disciplines.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: I’m thinking about merit, almost like it’s become a form of currency as a way of valourising the qualities that professionals and academics bring to their work. So that, how do you know that this person has more value than that other person? Well, that’s because of the measures of merit that have been in place. And merit operate as a kind of store of value that enables the professional expertise and levels of education to be exchanged in a kind of moral economic market.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And if that market and that moral economy is socially specific and historically specific, so the currency that adheres to merit is produced by particularly historic moments which have economic and social settlements attached to them. Are we seeing under the pressures of social and economic change at the moment, a notion of change to merit?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: I suspect we will see changes to merit and that we can feel them coming. I’m expecting forms of teaching to change out of this. So once we’ve moved everything online, I think it becomes more possible for people to begin to do their professional training at work with an online component to supplement that. And that that might start to change the forms of merit that have been highly linked to educational institutions, like especially universities, as a way of measuring the objective value that is acquired. I think that might start to move towards some practical, more workplace based experiences and other kinds of things than just the credential that universities have had a monopoly on.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what kind of university? Do we want to grow out of this moment? What sort of university do you envisage? What is a new social contract going to look like? What might it look like in its best iteration?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Look, it’s a very good question and it’s a question that I would love to think about. I think it’s important that we should think about collectively rather than me is an expert on higher education making declarations.

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: So I suspect what we’re seeing, and that might not be too bad, is in some disciplines and fields a kind of fragmenting of research out of the university into other kinds of networked institution. So medical research, for example, might be done across much more heterogeneous institutions than universities and other kinds of technical research. For us in the humanities and social sciences, I suspect that we could move our work closer to the communities in which we are, and ought to be, embedded and so that our teaching is close to what communities need, but that we would always need to be networked. And I think actually our current kind of, all of our emergency measures, including the one that we’re doing right now, are showing a pathway through where we can sit in separate, small, perhaps institutions, but be deeply connected through forms of technology as well as forms of geography that don’t require such large institutions, but might not necessarily mean for less education.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So reconnecting to the kind of constituencies in which universities are embedded?

DR HANNAH FORSYTH: Yes. And I think perhaps not necessarily having to be as highfalutin as our universities have wanted to be over time. We could combine our forms of deep research into philosophical inquiry, along with forms of local agriculture or whatever particular area is needed. In ways that would not have such a strong separation between ourselves and our bodies and our lives and household economies – from ideas and thinking and things that I think that would enable us to break down some intellectual barriers as well as some social and community ones. For professions, I suspect something closer to a combination of apprenticeship type work things and some online study, it might well be the pathway through. So I’m thinking something much more fragmented than what we’ve been used to.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And given what we now know about the past, James, what do you think the future holds for higher education? Are we in new territory?

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: Throughout its history, the Australian university system has experienced unrelenting growth. And this is the mechanism that has allowed them to adapt and adjust to change. As the university increases in size, it allows it to move into new areas, new fields as they emerge, by employing new staff.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: How do you rebuild your university? If you don’t have that underlying growth of additional resources every year coming in? It’s an enormous challenge and one that universities are definitely experiencing today. The main other period we think about is the period of the steady state, which is the second half of the 1970s, through to the Dawkins changes, where the growth in the number of university student places fell away. And that provoked all of this kind of concern throughout that period. How can universities adapt, given that they employ academics for their expertise in a certain area? You’re a bit fixed in in what you can do and how how easy it is to adjust. But universities didn’t really confront those questions. They waited it out through the 1970s and 80s, before the Dawkins changes allowed the growth to return. They being the introduction of HECS, but also the emergence of the international student market.

DR JAMES WAGHORNE: So universities have not really had to face an ongoing period of stasis or reduction in demand throughout their history. So this we’re in new territory here. What will the new arrangements be made? What aspects of the social settlement, the social contract, can they retain now under these different circumstances? What is essential and what is not?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And that’s the question we are all asking.

Thanks so much for joining me on this inaugural episode of The New Social Contract. If you’ve got an idea for us or something you’d like to hear us talk about, or if you want to share your experiences of university life at the coalface of COVID, we would love to hear from you.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Please email us, or even better, use your phone to record a voice memo and send it to: And please do feel free to  leave a review //  or rate us on your pod catcher, tell a friend about us on your next Zoom chat or share our first episode on social media – because this is a conversation we all need to be part of.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Thank you to our generous guests today who were brave and kind enough to join us for the first episode. Hannah Forsyth from the Australian Catholic University and James Waghorn from the University of Melbourne. Next week on The New Social Contract, we look at the context of the crisis: how COVID 19 is pulling on the threads of the already worn fabric of higher education policy.

TIM DODD: They discovered what really was a magic money machine. You could bring in international students.This would pay for more research, which in turn led to a rise in the rankings which attracted international students. So it was a way to bring in far more revenue than they had access to in the past. And it was a virtuous circle for a long time. But as we can see, there was a weakness. This circle is now going to be exposed.Universities are going to look very different in the future.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : So what does the virus reveal about the ways universities and the state have come to operate over the last few decades?

DR GWILYM CROUCHER: I think the other thing about Australia is that universities have always been seen by governments, and to a large extent by the population, as a signalling device for the middle classes. And that’s problematic.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Episode two ‘The Context of the Crisis’ drops on Monday next week – so put your timers on for Monday 11th of May.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : The voices at the start of the podcast came from a number of places You heard from:

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU on Sky News

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Lisa Jackson Pulver, a Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Sydney on the ABC, Education in the Age of COVID-19, Q+A special

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Professor Claire Macken a Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor at RMIT University on the KMPG, Talking Tertiary Podcast Series

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : Mark Scott, head of the New South Wales education department, also on the ABC, Education in the Age of COVID-19, Q+A special …

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And Professor Des Manderson, from the ANU College of Law and College of Arts & Social Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU). He was speaking on Radio National Big Ideas ‘The purpose and future of the university (part two)’ which was a broadcast version of a fantastic discussion I was fortunate to be part of back in that far off land of the 17 March, just before COVID-19 transformed our lives. It was an initiative of the ANU College of Law for its 60th anniversary and was curated and facilitated by Natasha Cica of I highly recommend listening to it via the Big Ideas podcast.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : And while you are at it, for more higher education discussion check out the Talking Tertiary podcast too.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH : You can find all of this information including the links in our episode notes. I’m Tamson Pietsch and I’ll talk with you next week.

MALE VOICE OVER: The New Social Contract is a podcast series made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology Sydney. The production team live on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, whose lands were never ceded.

Links to the news grabs used in episode one of The New Social Contract Podcast

Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU on Sky News ‘Govt university package all ‘smoke and mirrors’.

Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney on the ABC, Education in the Age of Covid-19, Q+A.

Professor Des Manderson interdisciplinary scholar, (ANU) on Radio National Big Ideas ‘The purpose and future of the university (part two)’ – a broadcast version of an event presented by the ANU College of Law and the ANU Centre for Law, Arts & the Humanities, that was curated and facilitated by Natasha Cica of at the National Library of Australia on 17 March 2020.

Professor Claire Macken Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor Learning and Teaching College of Business and Law at RMIT University on the KMPG podcast series, Talking Tertiary.

Mark Scott, Head of the New South Wales Education Department, on the ABC, Education in the Age of Covid-19, Q+A.

Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, on the ABC, 7.30 Report, 16 April 2020.


Podcast playlist


8. The future of higher education – who will set the settings?

July 12 · 44 MIN

In the season finale of The New Social Contract, host Tamson Pietsch is joined by Dr Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, to consider for the final time how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this episode we look beyond Federal Education Minister Tehan’s proposals to ask three questions:

  1. What is the vision for higher education that lies behind the Coalition Government’s plans?
  1. What bigger questions about universities do they raise?
  1. What might be some of the other ways those questions could be answered?

7. The purpose of universities in the 21st century – A Vice-Chancellor and Shadow Education Minister’s perspective

July 12 · 40 MIN

Higher education leaders and policy makers in Australia are facing a lot of hard decisions right now.

The New Social Contract Podcast spoke with UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs  and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek to find out their different perspectives on the purpose and role of universities in the 21st century.

There are lots of factors contributing to the uncertainty in the tertiary sector at present – will international students return? How much debt can be sustained? What will happen to research funding?

But one thing that would make it easier to act in the present, is a clear plan for what universities should do in the future. What are universities in Australia for? The answer to that question will shape the kind of system we get.

*Note: The interview with Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs took place on Tuesday June 9 2020.

The interview with Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Training took place on Tuesday June 16 2020.


6. Universities and Communities – who should they serve?

July 12 · 43 MIN

Who is it that makes up the constituencies of a 21st century university? And what should different sections of the public be demanding from those institutions?

These questions go to the core of higher education’s purpose. Do universities create communities – or do communities create universities? And why might we be seeing the answers to these questions change?

Thanks to The New Social Contract episode six guests:

Matthew Cox Director of Logan Together, a whole-of-community initiative based at Griffith University and within the Logan community

And Professor Jim Nyland – Chair of Engagement Australia and Associate Vice-Chancellor Brisbane at the Australian Catholic University.