ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: There’s a story about the University of Melbourne that goes something like this. In the late 1870s, the university decided to build a fancy new fence to keep out the young larrikins roaming the Carlton streets and protect the growing number of university students and faculty who were living on campus. So it erected big stone pillars for a gate. In fact, you can still see them on Grattan Street. And also a perimeter fence made of iron. But the people of Carlton who walked across the campus every day to get between what is now Swanston Street and Royal Parade were not at all happy about this. The act under which the university grounds were reserved contained special provisions for the right of transit by members of the public. And in 1882, they made their rights known to the Crown law offices.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Much to the disquiet of some of the professors. The Minister for Lands directed that a path be built right through campus giving access to the residents of Carlton.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Welcome to The New Social Contract. I’m your host Tamson Pietsch. And in this episode, our sixth in the series, we’re asking who are universities for and who do they serve? Who is it that makes up the constituencies of a 21st century university? And what should different sections of the public be demanding from them? These questions go to the core of higher education’s purpose.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Do universities create communities or do communities create universities? And why might we be seeing the answers to these questions changing? Today, I’m speaking with Jim Nyland, the Associate Vice Chancellor at the Australian Catholic University and the chair of Engagement Australia, which is the country’s peak body for Australia and New Zealand university engagement. Its mission is to champion the unique role that universities can play in wider society by addressing contemporary global challenges through teaching, learning, research and partnerships.
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: For a university to be meaningfully embedded in this community, it must be seen by that community as more than just a trendy title. Rather, it needs to constantly work at raising aspirations across the entire city region because actually it’s really hard work to get the community to think positively about the university. It’s constant work.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I’m also going to be speaking with Matthew Cox. He’s the director of Logan Together, a collaborative initiative that aims to break the cycle of disadvantage in Logan City.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: The Logan Together Project is hosted by Griffith University’s Logan Campus, which is just south of Brisbane. The initiative brings together the university with community agencies and all levels of government, and its focus primarily is on improving early childhood development.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Matthew chaired the working party that founded Logan together in 2015. And before that, he spent a decade at the Australian Red Cross heading the Community and Economic Development Program.
MATTHEW COX: It always does baffle me a little bit that there isn’t much more scaffolded and strong link to translation. Why would you develop that knowledge and then not do everything you can to see it used? And I think that’s probably a broad comment about the tertiary sector and its place in society.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Jim, could you start by telling us what you think universities mean when they talk about engagement.
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Engagment Australia are really clear what we mean by engagement. We draw very much upon the US based Carnegie definition that sees engagement as very much part of university’s core business, of teaching, of learning and indeed of research. And the engagement that describes the interactions between universities and their communities, be they business industry, government, not for profits or other community groups for mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. And in a context of partnership and reciprocity. So the term reciprocity is really important because for many years I think there has been a view that universities are the epicentre of knowledge and that they transfer that knowledge to communities. We take a different view. For us, that’s quite a one way process. We see engagement very much in a two way process. So it’s knowledge creation with our community partners rather than knowledge transfer to our community partners. That’s our starting point.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So you mentioned the communities that universities serve. What are those communities?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think it really depends upon the university in the sense that it’s the strategy and mission of that university. We’re really direct what communities they serve, but without a shadow of doubt, I think there has been a shift in recent times from global to more local communities. And we certainly saw that in the bushfires here where universities did begin to stack up and support their local regions and communities very visibly. And we find ourselves, I guess, in these unprecedented times where we are forced to think local, quite simply because our borders are closed. What I’ve certainly learned is that great global universities are first and foremost great local universities. And I think making sure that’s part of the mission and strategy of the university is really important to identifying those communities that we seek to serve.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What kind of benefits do you think universities bring to those local communities, not just in terms of teaching and research, but the kind of wider sort of non-academic jobs and impact on local economies? And how can that be made tangible?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Education is now the third largest generator of GDP in Australia and without doubt in recent times, universities have proven themselves to be really the economic engine rooms of our towns and of our cities.
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: It does go back to strategy though. When I think one of the most impressive strategies and engagement that we have in Australia, I think of the University of Melbourne and the strategy to create a health precinct or indeed in more recent times, an arts precinct, one that works very much in partnership with business, with industry, with not for profits, with think tanks – a whole range of different partners to create that precinct. It shifts the idea that the university is the single epicenter of the creation of knowledge, but rather there’s a precinct and partnership approach. And that strategy is a significant one, because what it ultimately means is that resources will shift off campus in order to drive forward the city as a whole, I think. That’s what I would see as a great example of, you know, how a university can engage with its cities once it’s identified the areas it wants to work in.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I mean, one of the measures perhaps of a university that is really embedded in its community is that that community feels an ownership of the university. And perhaps when that university is in trouble, as many of our universities are at the moment, that community stands up and makes really explicit demands about why that university is valuable. Are we seeing that in the ways that you would like to see at the moment?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think for a university to be fully embedded in its community, it’s really hard work to get the community to think positively about the university. It’s constant work and it does mean that we need to spend a lot of time out in the community to achieve that goal. And I’d like to see a lot more of that. I’ve spent my life on the community engagement side of the universities I’ve worked in, and I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to do much more of that in order to build those aspirations, of great universities and great cities and regions.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And who should pay for this?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Well, it is interesting to know that there are countries that have funded this, I think in the UK of the Blair and the Brown governments in particular, who did generate large amounts of money for third stream funding in order to turn universities towards working and supporting their communities and industry much more effectively than they had in the past. And I think as we are looking to the new normal here, whilst there is a focus certainly around online learning domestic students, but in particular on industry and and community engagement, I think there is certainly a government role to play in supporting engagement and moving forward in Australia.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So I’m wondering how really there’s another way to think about universities, which is that they are fundamentally both local and global institutions in that they’re obviously located in particular communities in the ways we’ve been describing. And they have to kind of serve those communities and their legitimacy, as well as some of their funding, as well as their enabling legislation comes from very specific polities. But their legitimacy also comes from maintaining a connection to international and global knowledge. And if they can’t demonstrate that they are retailers of international learning, then they’re also unable to fill their local function. So I guess I’m wondering, when you talk about the communities that universities serve, what is the place of the international in that?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think it’s really significant. Clearly, sort of, you know, the microcosm of universities is very much a strong multinational, multicultural enterprise. Engagement Australia run an event whereby we invited Professor Mary Stewart, who was the Vice Chancellor of Lincoln University, to present. And she talks about the things that she’s done in Lincoln to try to capture that local and global. There she opens the doors to the community, but also internationally. And it very much has a two way conversation, a two way process of capturing what is of significance to the public coming in and how the university should respond. For her, there’s no distinction between, global and local, but rather the global challenges, the grand challenges, in fact, that as much that can be done locally about them – we think of, of course, some things like migration, which is a huge issue, I guess, across the world – but trying to solve some of those issues locally is one way of addressing some of those global issues.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And of course, one of our past episodes was on climate change, which is perhaps the archetypal global issue, which manifests in lots of local specific ways. But I just want to ask maybe push you a bit more. I mean, publics don’t necessarily agree with the Vice Chancellor of Lincoln. I mean, is there a popular perception that universities should cater more to local students?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: What universities should do is provide the platform for those conversations to take place. That’s certainly one of the goals of Engagement Australia I think as well, there may well be contested views as to how we manage some of the what we might call the wicked issues, the wicked problems facing our society.
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: But providing that platform for those conversations to take place is really important. So democratic, I think, offering that universities and networks of universities can provide. So I think as long as we can keep the doors open, the conversations going about those contested issues where we would want people to have differing opinions, but to air them, I guess, in a very respectful manner is one of the most useful things universities and networks like Engagement Australia can do.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I mean, what we’ve been talking about really is sometimes referred to as the third mission of universities. There’s teaching, there’s research and there’s relationships with the community. How do you think that focusing on that third mission and putting it at the centre really, of how universities think about themselves changes what a university is and perhaps what its social contract is?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I would argue that it is very much part of our core business. And in fact, engagement would be the overarching banner of a university’s core activity. And from that would flow teaching, flow learning and would flow research. And I think that mindset just puts an added focus on the fact we need to work really closely with our partners and with the communities we serve in all of our activities. And so that mindset, I think, is worth fighting for. Given the fact that within Australia we’re not funded separately. I know that in the UK over many decades, they did receive third stream funding that supported a lot of third like activities. One of the benefits, I think, of not getting government funding to support this area here is that we can perhaps develop what rethink engagement should look like. As I say, I would argue that that’s very much part of a university’s core activity rather than being seen as an add on.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Is there an existential question here for universities that goes to the heart of their social licence? Where does the legitimacy of a university come from and how might that be changing?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Universities have been around for a thousand years. One of the great surviving institutions that has survived many a catastrophe. For those of us who want to change universities in a different way so that engagement is absolutely at the heart of everything that we do, I guess we have to see an opportunity in the current challenges, the opportunity being that we can come together very strongly with the communities that we serve. Because one of the things we are witnessing, I think, at the moment is that there is a strong bonding, I guess, of trying to sort of work through the current crisis together. And I think if we can do that with our closest partners, we might be in a lot better shape with regard to having very much a focus around supporting each other in a new way, once we get through a pandemic. Because I think the pandemic is not necessarily an existential problem. It shouldn’t be beyond us to solve it with regard to a great sort of researchers that we have. But then it will allow us to maybe sort of have another look at those issues that are existential crisis for us versus have a significant role to play. Certainly around climate and around other issues that present a real challenge for our society.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Many higher education commentators are predicting that there will be a real possibility that the higher education system that was put in place in the 1990s will be re made in the wake of the challenges of COVI-19. And that could, of course, go in many different directions. And you’ve been laying out some of the ways you hope it might go. But what would you like not to see happen in, say, 10 years time? What should Australian higher education not look like?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think the Australian higher education system is in many ways the envy of the world. We have 40 universities in Australia, all of a really, really good standard. And when you look at other countries, perhaps there’s a lot more variance in the quality of what you might see. So I wouldn’t want to see a change in the system that was trying to be so diverse that we actually end up with variable quality in our universities.
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: It would be really important not to go down the route of teaching only universities. I think the broad activity of research, teaching, learning and engagement are elements that we absolutely want to keep within our universities. The challenges are really significant, particularly for those universities who are relatively small. And indeed, some of the numbers we’re hearing with regard to budgets are hugely challenging I think, for our university sector. But I would certainly want us to try and maintain that excellent quality standard across our entire sector rather than seeing it divided in a way that would lower quality overall.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: It’s fascinating to you talk about a kind of diverse sector, but not a divided one. You know, one of the things some of those advocating reforms for many years now, not just in the context of COVID have been saying is that Australia needs more diverse institutions. You know, the sort of settings, the policy settings of higher education are pushing universities to kind of all be a bit like each other. But it strikes me that the university you are employed in, Australian Catholic University, is a bit different. And one of the reasons it’s different, its constituency is in many ways in its name. So in terms of being connected to communities, having a sort of sense of workforce integration, the ACU is really there in some ways.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Is it a model for how other institutions might rethink how they are and what they do?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think in many ways, it’s been quite a straightforward process for us to think quite specifically about our mission, about our vision and about our strategy. So, I mean, for example, as a university creating our first international campus for us, it was pretty obvious that Rome would be the place to be. From our point of view, the mission, the vision and the strategy of the university really does, I think, drive forward our resources. Indeed, it drives forward our curricula. We are, I think, the largest producer of nurses and teachers in the country. And of course, we offer a specific curriculum around health, business, law, education, and in many ways that health, education sort of focus is directed by, I guess, being a faith based institution as well, in the sense that helping the sick and the poor. One of the greatest ways out of disadvantage, of course, is through education.
So as the Australian Catholic University, we’re very much a national university and a faith based one as well, but one that’s proudly open to all faiths and those of none.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: You know, this term anchor institution is one that’s often used too. What does that mean for you? And to what and for whom is a university doing that anchoring work?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Well, I think the term anchor institution is one that doesn’t let go of its roots. So I think it’s making sure that even though there are other drivers for universities to operate internationally, that we don’t forget our roots. Because I think the moment we do that, we are quickly reminded by our communities that if it wasn’t for them, many of us wouldn’t be here. I’m conscious of the fact that places like Western Sydney University or indeed here Griffith’s Gold Coast campus, only came about because of their communities who drove really hard against the federal government of the day, who perhaps didn’t support those particular developments at that time. But it was the local drive from the state drive to establish those enterprises that made all the difference. So I think we forget that at our peril. So being anchored in our communities means that we are able to fully engage through curriculum, through robust research or socially robust research and indeed in resources that we can bring to bear. Because in my experience, universities can bring a range of benefits to the local community, that really nothing else can.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Yeah, they’re one of very few institutions that can think across past, present and future. And I think that’s what makes them remarkable. But we tend to talk about universities as bringing these kind of benefits and social goods. But what if a community was interested in developing coal mining or something that may sit against what public policy objectives arguably are?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: How is an institution anchored in the needs of its community also anchored in a set of other priorities that might sometimes come into tension with the needs as expressed by that community?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I would see those tensions as a good thing in that context. And we should celebrate the differences and the fact that universities, unlike probably any other institution, can bring those different viewpoints, in particular in this in this post-truth era that we find ourselves entering in so that I think this is a really terrific role that universities can can provide the right platform for that conversation to take place.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: There’s this phrase that is often used in connection with universities and that they’re ivory towers, which tends to sort of cast them as institutions separate from society and somehow elite in a precious palace. But you’ve been talking about the ways that the foundation of many institutions in Australia was driven by community groups. And if I think back across the history of universities in Australia, you know, there was a long time when professors would sit on matriculation examination panels and research in Australia was completely about economic priorities and needs through the CSIRO and through state government funding. Universities have been embedded in their communities from really their foundation. So what’s different about this?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: Knowledge can be found in a whole range of different ways. So there is an imperative for universities to partner in a way that they haven’t done before. To put the onus very much not on the university, but on the university partner. And that does require quite a shift in mindset and a shift in resources with regard to how we think about knowledge and how we access knowledge in the future. So when I think about some of the developments here that we’ve been involved in, I think in the in the 60s, in the 1980s, the training for nurses used to happen in hospitals. After that time, the training for nurses happened in university campuses. What we are finding in recent times is establishing a presence alongside a hospital where perhaps the best education is not necessarily in a hospital or in a university, but maybe where those two areas come together is a new way of approaching training and indeed you know knowledge creation with our partners. So I think that there’s a new model that’s very much partnership based, quite different to the way that universities have practiced before. Whilst I hate the phrase the new normal, because there’s nothing normal about the current conditions we find ourselves in, there’s no doubt in my mind that we will not return to the old normal once we work our way through and once we resolve this pandemic. I think the new model that universities will have to adapt to will see universities partner more effectively and more obviously, because I think in the end, universities will no longer be seen as the single repository or the epicentre for the creation of knowledge.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And is that the new social contract for universities?
PROFESSOR JIM NYLAND: I think it is. So the social contract is very much, I think, in partnership with society, individuals, communities and university and partners. And it’s one that may identify those global challenges. We must work really hard resolving and often at local level or with local input. And I’m conscious of the fact we’ve had an explosion in online learning. We’ve had a massive vocation of higher education. Without doubt, what we haven’t seen is a corresponding change within the curriculum of universities. And I think that is one that would have to change. I would have to be focused far more on solving the wicked issues, those grand challenges that we’ve identified through universities’ core activities of learning of research and of teaching.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: At the start of the podcast, Jim described his definition of university engagement. He sees it as a two way process and one which ideally happens through knowledge creation with community partners, rather than knowledge transfer to community banks. One person who has dedicated the last five years of their working life to putting this into practice is Matthew Cox.
MATTHEW COX: I’m Matthew Coxs, I’m the director at the Logan Together Project, which is a child development project hosted and supported by Griffith University in Queensland. So Logan’s a satellite city of Brisbane. It’s about 30 kilometres to the south of the Brisbane’s CBD between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. And it’s an extraordinary community. It’s one of the most diverse communities in Australia. It’s a large refugee population and it’s one of those communities where people come to settle when they first come to Australia. It’s got a very strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait community and an enormous and vibrant Pacifica community. A lot of Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islanders – about 10 per cent of the entire citizenry of the Cook Islands lives here in Logan.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Can you tell us a bit about the Logan Together initiative and how that fits into that community?
MATTHEW COX: So Logan Together, on the surface it’s a child development project. We’re interested in kids 0-8 in our city. It’s quite a large city, so there’s 45,000 kids in that cohort. But underneath, it’s really an intergenerational change project because we’re convinced that the place to strike, if you want to make lasting change in a community is very early in the life course. So we’re interested in child maternal health. We’re interested in health care for kids and early detection of vulnerabilities or developmental delays as they may come through in about the sort of two and a half to three age group. We’re interested in more kids going to high quality early learning, particularly kindergarten, which in Queensland is that year before school, and then some of the foundational issues that are important for childhood like stable housing and a reasonable income and some financial literacy in the household so we can make the most of your income. So those sort of Maslow’s issues that underpin good childhood. And we work with partners all across the community to make improvements in the experiences of childhood for every kid in that 0-8 cohort.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And as I understand it, those partners include schools and health organisations and churches and local businesses and governments, but it also includes Griffith University’s Logan campus. What role do they play? I mean, that you wouldn’t necessarily think of a university as embedded in early childhood development?
MATTHEW COX: Well, Griffiths has been an unbelievable partner in this project and the capacities that most major universities has, but certainly this one have, really awesome to deploy into a community change project like ours. Firstly, the physical facilities of the university are really valuable to this community. So our project’s based on the campus. But the ability to convene large groups of people to hold meetings in all sorts of formats and forums to build understanding, well, that’s really facilitated by a university campus which has all of those facilities. The research and teaching disciplines that happen from this campus are directly relevant to what we’re trying to achieve for children. There’s early childhood specialities, the midwifery specialities and nursing social work, all of those sorts of teaching disciplines. And our project is about doing those things well in the community. So we’ve got on tap relationships with some of the best people in the business and the ability to bring a wide stakeholder group from the community, from the service sector, from government, close up to that expertise is a formidable capability to have. Then there’s the soft power that the university has. It’s a very big brand name. When Griffith speaks, people listen. And we’ve used that in an advocacy way on all sorts of issues over the years.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: How has working with the community perhaps challenged some of the assumptions that the university brought to that project?
MATTHEW COX: There’s probably the broader issue of translation of knowledge that’s worth talking about, and it does continue to strike me that the pursuit of knowledge and the discovery of knowledge and the building of practice wisdom is such a valuable resource for society and for community and for the community effort that we’re putting in. It always does baffle me a little bit that there isn’t much more scaffolded and strong link to translation. Why would you develop that knowledge and then not do everything you can to see it used? And I think that’s probably a broad comment about the tertiary sector at its place in society. And I think there’s much further we could go undoubtedly to really scaffold how that extraordinary resource of knowledge and practice wisdom can then be translated into action.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: One thing that is being talked about a lot, particularly in the context of impact, is embedding the problems of society within the process of knowledge development to begin with, which means universities have to perhaps listen a lot more to what their end users want. It seems that you’ve really worked on that relationship. How is that working out in practice? You talked about teaching and research as one of the major assets that Griffith has brought. How is Griffith listening to the community as it develops its teaching and research programs?
MATTHEW COX: Well, the key leaders in the university are sitting around the table regularly at our monthly leadership meetings at many of our project meetings. I give you an example. We did a wonderful piece of work with our local health service, very much led by the expertise out of the midwifery service here at Griffith. And that was really turning the way that midwifery services were provided to a more vulnerable community on its head really. It was taking midwifery services out of the hospital into a very local community locations. And really a lot of the intellectual and practice excellence, thinking and design that was put into a project came straight out of Griffith’s midwifery school and there are deep links they have into professions. So to this day, the professor of midwifery, Jenny Gamble, an incredibly dynamic leader in our community and in the university, sits on the oversight committee that continues to monitor the performance of those hubs to build on it, to include students coming through that practice area. So it’s a very dynamic, engaged, action oriented one. And I think that’s what we’ve seen, is it is relationship based and it is dependent on some key leaders. But most good things in life are, of course, if you come to Logan, you’ll see Griffith professionals sitting down with community service leaders, with mums and dads and kids and making plans for the future and helping to execute them and thinking about how they are resources of the university. But also the the very best practice, knowledge and wisdom in the world can be brought to bear to what we’re trying to do here in Logan.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What are the ways that it has become something that perhaps community members see as theirs?
MATTHEW COX: Well, look, I think some days I think there’s more people on campus, on community business than there are students. In a lot of our work we essentially combine the perspectives of policymakers and sort of central government, of local mums and dads and kids, and community leaders, and of the institutions that are there to serve them. The local hospital, the local charities and service providers. We’ve got a phrase that, you know, whatever the problem or opportunity is, you want the people closest to that problem or opportunity to be involved in solving the problem. And I think it’s a bit the same to the point about the direction sitting in the higher education sector. Well, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? And what’s the opportunity you’re trying to grasp and get those people involved and share the problem and the solution and share the costs of the problem and the solution with those people. And you come up with different answers in different contexts. But I think it’s the ability to move quickly to grasp those opportunities and with agility. And that’s the things that big institutions typically struggle with. But I think that’s the 21st century. You know local, place based, nimble responses that involve local people is the way of the future. And we’re only the beginning of that journey and we’re proving that you can do it, at least on a small scale here in Logan. I think the opportunity is there to see the university as part of the human development journey that goes on in communities, that it’s a facility that has a particular role in education at a particular point in life, but it’s engaged in the problems, challenges and the opportunities of the community that it serves.
MATTHEW COX: Its doors are open to the community to use all of its resources and assets, tangible and intangible, to make a contribution to community life. And I think once you’re in that sort of space and once you offer those capacities of the university into the community, then people will take it up. People will be innovative. They’ll see opportunities in resources that a university can provide, and they’ll start making proposals for how the university can help. But that comes from basically a different conception of what the university is there to do, and that is to be part of the cut and thrust of daily life to embrace the challenges and the opportunities that a community like ours heads and consider itself to be an actor in that environment. And I can see all of that going on on a daily basis, not just the leadership of the university, academics and staff right across the university get involved and there’s that culture, I think, of openness and outwardness.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Sounds like the relationships you’ve built and thinking relationally has had a massive effect on the trust relationship between publics and the university. What do you think that means for government? What kind of demands? I guess it is thinking in this way place upon government.
MATTHEW COX: Well, I think it goes back to really any of the thinking and experience about what drives innovation, is relationships often anchored in a particular place. And you get clusters of people in an ecosystem who are good at what they do. They learn about each other. They form relationships. And then they spot their own opportunities and make that happen. So what that means, I think, for public policy is thinking about how to foster that at an institutional and a widespread level. How do you allow universities to be part of that ecosystem, not dominate it, but be an equal and very valued partner in such an ecosystem? And I think that’s got to be broadly embraced as part of the whole translation discussion. And I think you feel you can pull some policy levers that allow universities to not only participate, but even generate that ecosystem with other key partners, industry partners, community partners, the community itself, then that’s the sort of the magic environment that starts doing good things. So in terms of government policy, I think a better balance away from just teaching and research to certainly do translation. But I think that sort of civic actor role, how do you foster, encourage incentivizing and ultimately pay for that to happen?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What do you think the purpose of the university sector should be? I mean, how should it be articulating that purpose to itself and to its communities, particularly in the 21st century and under the guise of climate as well?
MATTHEW COX: I think universities are uniquely placed to try and solve Australia’s problems and grasp Australia’s opportunities. So could universities step back into that space in a way that does focus effectively on translation and not just on the traditional strengths of research and knowledge acquisition? I think that’s a pretty interesting question. Are universities here to help solve Australia’s problems and grasp opportunities? I think if the answer is yes, that sort of design principle would lead to in some interesting direction in my experience. So I think the success we’ve had in our partnerships, inviting people into opportunities where they can live out their innate desire to connect with a community and be of service and have what they know turn into things that adapt and see action flow from their knowledge and their expertise. So how to institutionalize it? That’s always the hard bit how to scale it from a set of relationships in one context to a broader framework. But I think inviting people in from the community, from industry, from government, from partners, interrelationship, letting that relationship grow over some years, it starts to do its own work. And I do think you have to be prepared to back the consequences of what you open up, if you open up those fantastic conversations and relationships and then you’re not prepared to pursue them, well, I think just everybody gets a bit disappointed fairly quickly. But if you’ve got a willingness to pursue some of the opportunities that flow from those relationships, you’ll find there’s plenty of fields to play in. And you do need to think about the mix of skills that you have involved in the university. Are there people who are connectors, who aren’t just people with deep skill disciplines and knowledge disciplines in particular areas, but who can connect and bridge disciplines and can bridge academia in the real world? Those connecting skill sets are very much a 21st century skill set. And I think, you know, if universities are going to pursue the sort of role we’re talking about then somewhere those skills need to come into the mix and they need to be either from the outside and brought in, or they need to be in the university environment and then look out. But you’ve got the right people with that right mental model and you’re open to pursuing it, you’ll make your own luck.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Universities have always been Janus faced institutions, looking in two directions. One of their faces is turned towards the local communities in which they are embedded and which have specific social, economic and political contexts.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: The other face is turned towards the international currents of knowledge and scholarship, which universities dispense, advance and represent.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Their legitimacy is grounded in both these constituencies and when they lose touch with either of them, they usually have found themselves in trouble.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: The question to ask, though, is what do these two constituencies want and need from universities? That question was answered in one clear cut way in an era in which only a few people attended university. But perhaps the answer needs to take a different shape in a society with mass education and ready access to information.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I’m a big fan of the science studies scholar Bruno Latour, and his book Down to Earth gets a highly recommended status for me. If you want people to have some grasp of science, he says, you must show how it’s produced. You must include everyone in the conversation about how we know. Perhaps it’s time we followed the example of the residents of Carlton in the 1880s and stand up and say, “This is our university.” What we want the university system to do and what sort of training we want it to provide, how we will pay for it and who it’s for? These are political questions in which we all need to have a say rather than just accepting the higher education system we’ve inherited. It’s time to shape it in a manner we all choose.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Thanks to my guests, Matthew Cox, director of Logan Together, which is a whole of community initiative based at Griffith University and within the Logan community. And Jim Nyland, chair of Engagement Australia and Associate Vice Chancellor Brisbane at the Australian Catholic University. To continue this conversation we’re having, head over to Twitter. You can find us @TNSCpod or send us an email at email@example.com. I also wanted to flag that there is a linked article for this episode by Jim Nyland and Verity Firth, who is Executive Director for Social Justice at UTS. She heads the university’s Center for Social Justice and Inclusion. To read it, head to the Conversation website.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Next time on The New Social Contract, we’ll be turning to different visions for the future of higher education in Australia. I’ll be sitting down with professor Attila Brungs, the Vice Chancellor of my home institution, UTS, to discuss what universities want and need from government, what a new social contract between universities and their publics might look like, and Atilla’s vision for the sector, as well as what’s keeping him awake at night right now.
VICE CHANCELLOR ATILLA BRUNGS: My biggest concern in the next little while is if you focus too much on costs, you can take yourself down a path that returns universities to a very elite, small mode of education. I’ll be quite blunt. The rich upper echelons of society get a great university education. Everyone else gets a poor education. And there’s very much a schism in our society. Not only do you not need that from an equity point of view. Not only do not be that from an Australian culture point of view, that destroys economic value. In this post-COVID world, we need all of our incredible people resources working for our country’s prosperity and our national wellbeing.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And also the shadow minister for Education and Training, Tanya Plibersek. Thanks for listening to The New Social Contract. Until next time. I’m Tamson Pietsch.
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.
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:
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.
What kinds of work will we be doing in 2040? What industries will still be going strong and which will have fallen away?
The training and education we need now will depend on the kinds of work – the industries and services – around which, as a nation we want to build our economy and society.
Australia is facing possibly the worst economic downturn in its history. So how should that sobering prospect reshape the relationship between universities, government and society – including industry?
Thanks to The New Social Contract episode five guests
The news grabs and additional audio in this episode of The New Social Contract podcast came from the following sites:
‘From Back in Black to recession’, reported on AM, ABC, June 4, 2020.
’The recession we couldn’t avoid’ on RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, Abc, June 4, 2020.
‘Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Australia has officially entered recession’ from ABC News, June 2 2020.
‘Treasurer warns the worst is yet to come as Australia’s economy enters recession’ from ABC News, June 3 2020.
The Paris Riots of 1968 ‘French students again clash with riot police, Paris, France’, published by British Pathe on Youtube.
‘The May 1968 protests that paralysed France’, published on Witness, by the BBC.
‘May 1968 Paris Riots’ on The History Hour, published by the BBC.