Impact Studios

Australia’s no 1 university for research impact

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: This might sound like a strange kind of question, but how big is your university’s campus? It might be an old sandstone place with ivy growing down the walls or, all shiny and sharp edged, part of a modernistic city skyline. Before COVID, this was probably a place where you spent most of the hours in your day. Well, imagine all of those buildings starting to shake one by one, they start to break up and then collapse in a heap of rubble. That part of your city or your town that you know so well, it’s falling apart right in front of you.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What you’re hearing now is the rare sound of the largest breakup of a glacier on record. It was recorded in 2008 in west Greenland. The calving, as it’s called, lasted for 75 minutes and the glacier retreated at one point, six kilometers across its face and five kilometers across its width. Now, that’s probably about the size of many university campuses.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: But what does the sound of a melting glacier have to do with you and the future of higher education? I hear you asking. Well, the answer is everything. I’m Tamson Pietsch, host of The New Social Contract podcast. And today we’re delving into universities and climate and thinking about how the imperatives of the ecological crisis might renew the purpose of universities in the 21st century.

NEWS GRAB Journalist Hamish McDonald on: ‘Flames rip through towns, fears death toll will rise as bushfires rage on’ ABC News: To the south there were bushfires, to the west there were bushfires, to the north there were bushfires.

NEWS GRAB Journalist Karina Carvalho on: ‘Flames rip through towns, fears death toll will rise as bushfires rage on’ ABC News: It’s been labeled an apocalypse, a nightmare.

NEWS GRAB Journalist Eddy Michah Jnr from DW News: ‘East Africa braces for severe tropical storms’ DW News:For weeks, torrential downpours have triggered landslides and flash flooding. There are growing fears of starvation and disease outbreak.

NEWS GRAB Former US President Barack Obama, giving a speech at the. 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris Source: Euronews: We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

NEWS GRAB Journalist Sarah Dingle on RN Breakfast: ‘Scientists believe Earth is now in the Anthropocene era’ from the 8 January 2016 on ABC RN: We’ve now entered into the Anthropocene.

NEWS GRAB Mayor Carol Sparks from Glen Innes, on The World Today in the news item:’Climate change debate refuelled amid bushfire crisis’ ABC Radio’: When people’s houses are burning and you’ve lost lives and you’ve lost friends and you’ve lost family. You don’t think, oh, this is climate change. You think, what am I going to do next and how am I going to save myself?

NEWS GRAB Journalist Eric Sorensen reporting for the Global News, ‘Growing evidence Australia’s wildfires connected to climate change’ Global News: A new climate report labels South Korea, Canada and Australia as the G20 countries furthest off their climate commitments.

NEWS GRAB Sir David Attenborough in the news item:’Sir David Attenborough calls for ‘urgent’ climate change action’on ITV News, 2018: If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.

NEWS GRAB Greta Thunberg, from her speech at the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York, as reported by The Guardian :The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Joining me to discuss what all this means for universities and their relationship to the state and the wider community is Associate Professor Lauren Rickards.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: So I’m recording from my Attic office, which is at the top of a foldable retractable ladder. I’ve chased the family out to the park. It’s nice and quiet for a change. It’s me and the cat.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Lauren is a human geographer and an ecologist at RMIT Centre for Urban Research. She co-leads the Climate Change Transformations Program, which is a research group that focuses on the far reaching challenges of climate change. Also helping us look at what it means for universities to take seriously their mission in the face of climate change, is Professor Mark Howden.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Mark is Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, which brings together over 300 climate related researchers. He’s also a vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the IPCC.

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : I’m in what we call the shed, so I’ve been relegated to a place outside the house itself. But it’s got a lovely outlook into the garden. So I can see the birds flitting past and the dogs running around the grounds.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: It sounds pretty insulated as well.

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : Not that well insulated. I actually do have a sort of a sleeping bag on the bottom half of my legs. Just to keep me warm.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Now, there’s been a lot of talk about COVID-19, providing the opportunity for a reset, for thinking about how we live and how societies use natural resources. Mark, you’ve publicly called for emissions reduction to be front and center of the post-COVID recovery plan. And for us to be focusing on nation building activities which reduce our emissions. What might those nation building activities look like and how might universities be part of them?

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : We are at a crossroads, I think, and we can go down a range of different pathways from this crossroads. I fear that the default pathway will be very much return to the way things were. And that’s the return to the new normal. The bounce back, snap back sort of ideas. For me, that actually means that we’d miss a great opportunity to do something different and to leverage off our skills and capacity as a nation to do something different. To have some leadership that takes us into an Australia that we want to have rather than we just by default. And I think in particular, that means dealing with climate change. We’ve just come out of the horrendous summer period and we’ve seen the damage that climate change can do to our country, to our people, to our environment and to our economy. Most people don’t want to go there. We want to actually take a different path. But to take a different path means we have to do things differently. And that’s why this crossroads is a great opportunity. But to do that, we actually have to continue to leave aside some ideologies which are again attached to the past. We need to set aside some of the preferences for the way things were and to start reimagining our future. And renewable energy and solutions to climate change are integral to that future. And last summer showed how integral they were.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Lauren, as institutions that employ lots of people, have large facilities and travel commitments, universities are deeply entangled in the 21st century high carbon economy. Is that something that you think is widely recognised by university decision makers and staff?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Well, I think it’s definitely dawning at a rapid pace, actually. Typically, universities have had a public image and, I would say, self image of being somewhat distanced from kind of the hustle and bustle of the world. And so part of that is that role of the expert and looking out and being able to talk about things like climate change. But it’s actually only more recently that we started to realize that we are actually thoroughly part of the world that needs to change – as part of climate change – in this part of the world that’s being impacted by climate change, whether we’re talking about the smoke that closed universities and caused all sorts of have havoc throughout south east Australia earlier this year or whether we’re talking about shifts in policy settings and new pressures upon how universities use their money, about how universities power themselves. I think a lot of us have been, myself included, more accustomed to kind of advising others on providing tools and frameworks. Now, very much are things that we have to take, you know, in a much more practical sense as well.

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : I’ve had a longstanding view that universities need to be seen as part of our community. It’s not ivory tower, us and them. We should be part of that community in which we’re operating. Both physically, so it’s the surrounding city or town that we’re operating in, but also as part of a much broader global community. We need to see ourselves as integrated rather than separate. And as part of that, I think we’d need to take responsibility for leadership across that community. And so that’s leadership not only in terms of climate change, but also in terms of so many different things, whether it’s gender issues or indigenous issues or whether it’s thinking ahead in terms of different policy stances that can achieve multiple goals. But we do have to get our own house in order.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Mark and his institute have been key drivers in getting the Australian National University’s own house in order when it comes to climate. In February of this year, the Vice Chancellor of the ANU Brian Schmidt announced that the university would become carbon negative with a timeline as fast as possible. Mark, how did this shift come about?

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : As always, there’s many things that come into. But we see across the science community an understanding and acceptance that meeting the Paris agreement temperature goals – that’s well below two degrees, and if possible, keeping temperatures to one point five degrees above pre-industrial. To actually do that requires not only reducing our emissions essentially to net zero by something like 2045 or 2050, but also absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere. So that’s what we call negative emissions technologies. To actually meet the Paris agreement goals at a global scale, we have to do that not only reduce our emissions, but also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And given that was the clear synthesis of science in the IPCC 1.5 degrees report, amongst other things, as a science entity ANU thought we should also be following that science and doing the same thing. So that’s where that negative emissions – or below zero goal – came from.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And what does that mean in practice? Like what sort of measures are you looking to put in place?

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : Firstly, you’ve got to figure out where your greenhouse gas emissions are coming from. So all of the different sources of greenhouse gases across the campus. So that’s looking broadly at where those emissions come from, which includes what we call scope three emissions, like taking plane flights. And so then we start to look at where we can actually take easy, sort of, options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And then look strategically at our portfolio of greenhouse gas emissions and reduce those over time. And at the same time, investing in practical activities that actually can absorb or offset greenhouse emissions, such as putting in solar farms and also putting in place the research and teaching that takes us forward in terms of understanding that technologies, both the physical and the social technologies and the governance systems that can not only make us achieve the goal, but make it sustainable.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I asked Lauren how universities were carbon complicit.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: We all know now, universities are large corporations. They’re also often large landholders and they do a range of different activities, which have a whole lot of implications. So at this, at a most basic level, you know, all universities have a property portfolio and operations and campus operations that utilises energy. And often this is the kind of starting point and the focus in some of my classes, I get students to sort of start off by thinking about where are the emissions coming from in this room. And it’s often always that people pointing to the energy use, it’s the computers, the lights, et cetera. And so that that has been a starting point for universities. And there’s a lot of really interesting work going on about getting universities to utilise renewable power. So in the case of my own university, RMIT, you know, these are tied up with interesting research projects and often educational projects as well. So there’s a whole sort of awareness of the kind of energy sources that are powering universities. Slightly more complicated now with the days that we’re all working out of home. Then there’s other kind of energy based activities such as carbon offsets and things like that, which, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals. The 13th goal is on climate change action. Universities now have the option of being ranked globally, according to the Times Higher Education Impact Index.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Let’s just back up for a moment here. For those who don’t know, what are the Sustainable Development Goals?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: So the Sustainable Development Goals are signed up to by all of the nations of the United Nations and it’s a 17, sort of, part agenda, four interconnected positive change. And, you know, at kind of a superficial level it’s the next evolution of what were the Millennium Development Goals. But they are radically different in two ways. One is that they bring together a whole host of issues that typically have been addressed in silos. And so not only do you have the focus on poverty, for example. You have focus on life under the sea, you have a focus on industry and innovation and things like responsible consumption and production. And that’s the second thing which is quite different about them, which is that rather than that sort of old fashioned idea of developmental aid being something that sort of happens over there and those other poor countries and fortunately, some parts of Australia tend to still think the sustainable development goals are about. In actual fact, it’s about the entire trajectory of the planet. It’s very much about where are we all going? And what is our role? The SDGs look at things like energy use and campus operations. But that’s only really just to my mind, the tip of the iceberg.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: There’s just so many different directions in which you can think about what you’ve nicely called the carbon complicity of universities, which is not to point the finger at universities, but just to say that like every other corporation and complex organisation, there’s just many elements to this issue. So whether we want to talk about materials and universities love a good infrastructure project. So there’s no limit to the kind of decisions that are being made that have energy and carbon implications around use of materials. But I think one of the things about universities that is yet to be fully embraced is actually looking beyond that campus boundary and thinking about all of the other sorts of activities that we do. Now, one that has come to light, partly prompted by COVID-19, is, of course, the very high travel requirements – particularly research intensive academic career and also university professional career. So there’s initiatives calling for action and re-thinking, you know, the academic conference, and I think that’s well overdue. But then, you know, we have to also think about what are the carbon implications? And I’m not saying it’s at all measurable, but what are the carbon implications – broadly speaking – of our decisions around research, of our decisions, around what professions we train, our decisions about how we educate people to think. These are the sorts of biggest impacts that we’re asked to consider as we engage with the so-called impact agenda. But we haven’t yet looked at that through that really critical climate change lens. And I think that’s going to be the next step.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Universities and academics, through research and teaching, are creators of knowledge. But since the Enlightenment, if not before, at least in the West, that knowledge has been premised on humans seeing themselves as separate to nature and outside nature. Nature is something is really to be controlled or governed by humans. And in many ways, that structure of knowledge is one that is itself part of the problem. Would that be too big a call?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: If we accept that, you know, that ‘the university’ as a kind of ideal is a kind of Western Enlightenment invention. Obviously, there’s a lot of different histories and cultures and pathways involved there. But just focusing on that for the moment. Tied up with that is the very modes and frameworks of thought that gave birth to the very idea that humans and nature were separate. Universities are kind of stuck playing that modernist role. And in fact, I think part of what universes can really do very well, because of the privilege we have of being professional knowledge produces, we have the head space. We have the temporal reach, we have the spatial reach to think across time periods, and we can actually help devise and find and give voice to much more useful ways of thinking about the world and humans role in it as well.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: For the past 30 years or more, universities have really talked about themselves in a way that’s emphasised the individual benefit of higher education to students and how that generates GDP, the value to the economy, and how as a graduate, you’ll have the benefit of a higher wage and social mobility. But through the new impact assessment exercise, where universities now have to actually specify and quantify the real world impact of their research, we’ve begun to hear a shift in that narrative. And as COVID-19 has erupted, the emphasis universities have placed on their public benefit has really ramped up. I asked Mark what he thought about this.

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : It seems to me that universities have been operating in a hybrid model for a long time. So there’s been a clear communication for the individual benefit associated with attending universities and the broader sort of neo classical economic perspectives of the benefits of universities in terms of economic growth, et cetera. But at the same time, I think there has been a less well communicated or outspoken sort of element of universities, which are as a place of collective learning, which are as a place where different perspectives come together and be discussed in a non conflictual way, which are a place where advances in society can be tested both intellectually and in practice through on campus activities. But because of the dominant paradigm, a lot of that more collective and broader benefit of the university sector has not necessarily been talked about or communicated well. And yet, I think if you actually asked people who lived in university towns or university cities, they would actually recognise those sorts of broader benefits. So if you go to a place like Armidale, it’s very clearly benefited from the university being there. Similarly with Wagga or similarly with Canberra or Sydney or similarly Queensland universities are a defining part of our fabric as a society. And I think they’re highly valued in that way. And so a lot of social change, in the past, has occurred through universities, whether it’s the Vietnam protests or gender rights issues. So I think perhaps we downplay the strength of the social contract between the university sector and the broader public and also the governmental policymaking domains – at the expense of that much more individualist narrative that has dominated over the last few decades. So what may be happening is just a re-emergence of the strength of those other elements of the value proposition of universities, which do bring people together and do generate change.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And if one of those changes has to be a more sustainable society and economy, what does that mean for our education institutions? What’s the function and mission of public universities in the 21st century?

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : Partly it’s about leading by example, and it’s demonstrating that there are alternative ways of doing things and which generate benefits as well as sometimes costs. And that’s being explicit about the nature of those benefits and costs and the pathways which we use to navigate those. And that’s important in a couple of different respects. One of them is by being clear about this, we can open up those pathways for other people. And secondly, it actually can improve our own practices and our own future options can become more clear if we actually do this. But in addition, I think there’s the capacity building element, which is really important not only in terms of the technologies which people tend to focus on very easily, but it’s the capacity in terms of our human elements, the education in ways which are going to be constructive and integrative with broader goals. But it’s also the capacity to bring the level of information in public and policy arenas up to the level where we can make ethical informed and just decisions.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And on the topic of capacity building, I couldn’t resist asking Lauren what she thought about micro credentials and how they might fit into universities role in building a more sustainable society and economy.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: There’s no doubt that a suite of micro credentials can not replicate a sustained period of thinking and learning about issues that far exceed the time involved in any particular micro credential. I think there is a way in which micro credentials can be seen positively as a series of provocations, as a number of seeds, and maybe those seeds don’t fully germinate and grow within the actual bounds of the micro credentials it can plant a number of different things. And so I would say it’s more about what we do with those micro credentials then the form itself. I think there’s an opportunity there to light up people’s imaginations and curiosity about certain things. You know, maybe one of the kind of philosophies behind a micro credential is to provide a plethora of different pathways and further materials that people can explore.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I think you are the first person I have ever heard talk about micro credentials using metaphors of nature and growth and flourishing. I think that is not the language that they talked about. And it really reframes them in a significant way. I also wanted to ask you about the research. How should the climate imperative be integrated into our research agenda? Should we be focusing more on targeted areas for research investment?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: I don’t think it is feasible, nor desirable, to direct everything towards climate change research. But my concept of climate change research is far, far broader than anything that would necessarily have climate in the title. I’m more interested in the extent to which what we do in our research intersects and influences the huge phenomenon that is climate change. Rather than, say, having a short list of things that we need to sort of push universities towards.I think it is time for us to have conversations across the university sector that replicate the kind of divestment question that we’ve seen in the finance element of universities. And that’s highly contentious.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: You know, there is a valid argument to say you need to be in the room with the hot, most polluting industries and groups in the world to actually get a change. But there are also some groups that have proven themselves to be dinosaurs. With research funding increasingly limited, we have to make choices about what we want to commit to and invest in and be known for. And so I think in making those choices, we have to consider stranded assets and we don’t want stranded research assets. Who really wants to be working on something that the market itself and the broader public itself turns away from? And you’re only halfway through a big research program, for example.So if you have spent a really large amount of time working on something to do with coal, and it’s increasingly clear that the world needs to shift away from that and the world is shifting away from that very, very quickly.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Yes, you can put in place a whole lot of defensive strategies and call it clean. You can talk about carbon capture and storage, a whole range of different little negotiations you can do. At the end of the day, if your research – hypothetical – university was strongly invested in coal research. I would consider it to be a major institutional risk at this point. That’s the hard edge. But, you know, that really is only a very, very small element of the way in which universities intersect with climate change. And there’s a whole host of ways in which we could consider the emissions implications of the sorts of research we do, both in terms of really practical things like the methods we use. I mean, could we imagine a day in which research ethics doesn’t just ask about what we’re going to do to animals or what we’re going to do to interviewees and participants, but asks us to justify our material resource use? I mean, that would be an interesting ethics form, wouldn’t it?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: What I also wanted to really emphasize is that often climate change is reduced to mitigation. But climate change adaptation has to be part of it. And the thing about climate change adaptation is that it’s only – to a limited extent – about climate. So, yes, we absolutely have to have specific methods and techniques and skills and knowledge around how to manage particular hazards. And in particular, it’s clear from my work in IPCC that it’s about compound risk, cascading risks and about what the hell you do when it all happens at once, because that’s something that our individual little limited research projects have had real trouble speaking to.The other thing about an impact is it doesn’t fall from the sky. It actually results as an emergent outcome. The intersection of some kind of change and it might be the climatic hazard or might be the flow on effect. So what I’m saying is that there’s a lot of different touch points between research and climate change.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: One very well-known touch point of research is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC. It’s a United Nations body dedicated to providing the world’s best scientific information on human induced climate change. And Mark Howden is one of the vice chairs. Mark, what do you think about the relationship between the nation state and international regulation and agreement?

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN :  It seems to me that as we’ve moved from a time where collective action through UN and similar arrangements, were seeing as a very constructive and progressive element within our societies to a period where these were starting to be derided and ridiculed even, and the benefits were largely dismissed. Issues like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, I think are starting to re-energise those institutions and to demonstrate their value to people in their daily lives. And I think that’s really important. I think if we keep on going down the pathway of having a very individualistic and fragmented society where those global institutions are dismembered or disempowered, I think we lose a lot. We lose that vision of being able to act in a unified and integrated way for the benefit of all. And examples of that include things like the Sustainable Development Goals, which are comprehensive, well thought through. And if we can achieve them, we’ll actually end up in a better world for the people, but also a better environment, as well as bringing together a whole series of new opportunities in terms of economic well-being. It’s about the material wealth that really matters and brings us happiness.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: You know, there’s any number of critics you could make of an essay. We really feel that we need to just work with them, as imperfect as they are. And to really embrace that and to think about what role universities can play in that. And that role is enormous because there’s no other institution that does all of what universities do. And so there’s really sort of special and unique and needed call to action there to universities. The other side is, in a sense, there’s a certain arrogance to saying, you know, ‘how can universities assist with the global challenge of the SDGs? What would you like us to do?’

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: It kind of performs that separation. I’m increasingly aware and it stems from my own work in climate change adaptation that the universities really need SDGs. They need the problems that the SDGsrepresent to be dealt with. I mean, all we have to do is look at few things like gender equality, decent work. I mean, there’s a few issues there that are pretty close to home. And so it’s not just about this. You know, ‘oh dear universities, could you please come and help?’ It’s much more about you’re part of this. You’re part of the problem. You’re part of the world that’s being impacted here. This is describing the world you’re in.And so you can either ignore it or choose to embrace it. And so I guess our take is we have to embrace it.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: How should universities go about doing that? I know you’ve written about setting up a transformation platform at your institution at RMIT – assisting in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. But where should universities even begin?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Well, this is the big question. So there’s no guidebook on this. It’s very much experimentation. And I think that’s also part of what we’re sort of saying is like, you know, you have to so start in the middle here. We’re in the middle. The timeline in SDGs is ticking away. And it’s a big agenda for integrated, connected change. And that’s going to be contested and contestable and messy. And so as much as we would really like to know, sort of, the top three things we should do, it really comes down to what works given particular locations and contexts. The Times Higher Education Group have this new index and that sets out a number of things and it ranks universities according to different things. Now, that’s useful in that it’s a it’s a focusing device. It really starts to foster the conversation that’s needed, foster the self reflection and the critical reflection universities are doing. On the other hand, exactly that sort of ranking and the sort of competitiveness is kind of the opposite to what actually is needed to achieve the SDGs.So we have to, with all of these, take everything with a bit of a grain of salt.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: There is, within that Times Higher Education ranking, this three part criterion by which it asks universities to consider their work. One is around research, and that’s very much about looking beyond the publication to research impact. So it complements the research excellence agenda by saying, well, so what? You know, you got your paper in Nature. And what did the world do besides publish another issue of Nature? Even looking beyond citations which are often taken as a kind of intermediate impact. What actually is going on? And again, you know, that really speaks to the urgency and the need to make real change. So that’s part of it. And then they also talk about outreach. So what are you actually doing? That sort of to do with this so-called third mission of universities – the social mission reaching out?And part of that is about really thinking not just about what, you know, often comes across as a bit of a marketing type exercise, but the outreach that is genuinely focused on real world changes. This might be the outreach that’s not visible to anyone. This might be the way in which universities or people within universities groups offer the university as a safe space to bring groups together and have dialogue, you know. A way of actually connecting different people where the university is not at the center of it.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: And so there’s a whole lot of stuff there in outreach, which I think is much more about relationships and about conversation. And the other one is stewardship. And this is like has a really lovely old fashioned type feel to it, but one that I think really resonates with a lot of people. And the question they ask of universities, to what extent is the university managing resources and teaching well and enacting that good – in inverted commas – university? And this is really about a return to values based institutions and a values based university. So in a sense, everything you can do to make the world a better place, to make everybody better place. They talk about this idea of generic resilience. So it’s kind of like I just find the sporting metaphor of the best. It’s about how fit and healthy you are. So forget about whether or not, you know, as a basketball player, you’ve got your layups and everything, you know, perfect. And all those specific skills, which is more about your specific climate hasn’t skills. It’s just how healthy and well you are as a person is a really, really strong determinant of how good you are going to be as a sports person. And universities can’t be just this agnostic kind of entity. You can pretend to be agnostic. But, you know, we all know everything is deeply and irretrievably political. So even choosing to pretend that you’re apolitical. You’re either fostering something that you’re proud of or you just try to sort of step away from it and pretend you’re disconnected, but you’re complicit.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: When we talk about resetting the relationship between universities, the public and the state, both in the context of climate change and amid the changes happening to the sector as a result of COVID, how might the climate imperative help the university to reconceive its role? Does thinking in these ways reshape our notion of what the public university might be?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Well, I think the idea of the public university is kind of, you know, three quarters of the way there. So it’s almost about returning to that and just reminding ourselves what that is. And of course, some people have never forgotten that, that they are absolutely in their university roles because it was a strong vocation. But I think what climate change does is really stretch our notion of publics. One of the most obvious ways it stretches us to remember the publics that are out of view, particularly thinking here about rural Australians. So in the Australian setting, we know that a lot of universities have closed in rural setting. So does that mean that there’s no public university concerned and interested devoted to working with rural groups in the humungous diversity? Likewise overseas, likewise into the future, too, in thinking about generations that we’re working to educate. Also thinking of them in the broader the public as well. The other thing about climate change, you set this so much leadership being shown from unfamiliar places, which I think is taken universities by surprise somewhat and so much amazing action on the ground. And I’m thinking here particularly of the climate movement, that the youth club movements, school strikes and the climate emergency movement.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: There’s a, a need for universities to think much more carefully about its publics. So beyond the kind of universal public, to actually thinking about specific groups that it wants to cultivate and help give voice to and help to arm with resources and skills. And sometimes it’s really, really depressing to be working on climate change. And it’s only through the incredible optimism and stoicism and strategic nous of a lot of the people that we work with that we really are motivated to keep going.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Mark says that despite the devastation COVID-19 has brought on the world. It has also shown humanity’s propensity for adaptation. And this gives him hope.

PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN : This experience, for all of the trauma that it’s caused in different ways, has opened up people’s eyes. Change can be possible. Change can be quick. People are prepared in different ways to accept costs. If the benefits are both clear and sufficiently large to justify those costs. So for me, it reflects really well on Australians generally, both in terms of their preparedness to take advice and understand something about the underlying science of the issue. And I think that’s a really positive example for Australia, because not every other country has done that. There hasn’t been that same element of community where we’re prepared to take individual action for collective benefit.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And Lauren, looking at the horizon, what do you think the public should be demanding of universities?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: I think pressure on universities to demonstrate their capacity and commitment to act positively is really important. Far beyond a kind of, you know, give issue a hit list of your top climate researchers to much more of this holistic approach of showing us that you’re part of the team. You’re actually coming to the party, and you’re gonna do what you can – in all elements of what you – do. Thinking about what do public universities look like under climate change? Hopefully they look less atomistic and they look less bounded. And they are much more about that intellectual community – that platform that they provide for conversation. And a lot less hung up about credentials and boundaries and things. And so we stretch not just across universities, but stretch out into all sorts of other institutions. I feel hopeful that some really good things are happening. It needs to keep happening, at pace, and we need some courageous leadership on it. I hope that this is a positive turning point.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And that’s a brilliant note to end on. But if anyone’s listening to this, what’s your call to action? What can they do right now to help bring their voice to the vision that you’ve outlined?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LAUREN RICKARDS: Well, I think one of the major things we all need to support is civil society and the incredible intellectual leadership and courage that’s being shown by a whole lot of civil society institutions at a time in which they’re under such unrelenting attacks. So my call would be to choose your group, whichever group it is.We just so desperately need our NGOs, our civil society institutions, as well as our social services, both for that leadership and also because as things do continue to be highly challenging, we need these networks to nurture us. And certainly for me, it’s one of the greatest reasons I keep going.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Thanks for listening to this episode of The New Social Contract and a special thank you to my generous and brilliant guests, Professor Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the ANU and a Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Associate Professor Lauren Records from the Center for Urban Research at RMIT. If you would like to find out more about how the imperative of climate change might remake the social contract for universities in the 21st century, look out for an article by Lauren Rickards and me in the conversation. Also, a big thank you to those of you who’ve taken the time to give us a review on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. Keep them coming in as it really helps others find us.You can also join us on Twitter. Our handle is @TNSCpod.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Next week on The New Social Contract, we’ll be looking at universities and the nation’s workforce. What kinds of work will we be doing in the future if we are to live within the boundaries of this planet’s finite resources? What jobs will be needed? And how might this shape the kinds of work that universities do? I’m Tamson Pietsch. And thanks for listening.

FEMALE VOICE OVER: The voices you heard in the climate change montage at the start of the new social contract podcast were from Hamish McDonald, Karina Carvalho, Eddie Michah Jnr, Former U.S. President Barack Obama, Sarah Dingle, Mayor Carol Sparks from Glen Innes, New South Wales, Eric Sorensen Erich’s or Ensign. Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. You also heard the voices of thousands of students who attended climate protests across Australia. And finally, we kicked off the episode with the rumblings from the largest glacier calving event ever recorded. It took place on May 28, 2008, while Adam Le Winter and Jeff Orlowski were filming the glacier in Western Greenland for the documentary film Chasing Ice. For all the details, check out our show notes.

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.


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.