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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Jul-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 856

The brutal reality about halls of higher earning


The university, says John Ralston Saul, is “where civilisation’s knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories”, where academics daily invent “dialects sufficiently hermetic” to preclude internecine seepage. Each faculty, discipline or research team thus becomes a kind of Da Vinci Code cryptex, and university politics an arcane strain of gang warfare.

That’s not the rhetoric, of course, nor the intent. The very word university implies not just unity but, from the Latin versare to turn, a plurality turned into unity; many made one. The narrative too, the postmodern university’s self-talk, is soaked in collegium; from the team-teaching and “project-based learning” of undergraduate pedagogy to the partnership polemic that allows – nay, welcomes – the muddy boots of commerce into those hallowed halls.

The knowledge revolution, you remember, was supposed to virtualise all learning, and by extension all campuses. This was probably always fanciful, but we’ll never know because the funding revolution, so much more formative, had precisely the opposite effect. On the ground, flesh-and-blood campuses are these days of the essence.

Yet, funded or not, higher learning still suggests something, well, higher, right? Not just “school the sequel”, or “work the prequel” but an enchanted hiatus; an interregnum that is magical precisely because it is distinct, inviolable, irrecoverable and unsullied by compromise. Where inquiry is the hunt and truth the quarry; where just chasing a new idea can set the blood racing. A place to feed the mind, touch the soul.

So the question for universities now is, what kind of created place best captures and holds such enchantment in its branches? The same kind that attracts international rich kids and research dollars, or the opposite? Should universities spread or consolidate? Should they cultivate their uniqueness, or fawn on the global crowd? Should they lead or follow? Can they serve both gods?

Sydney’s two city-centre universities are addressing these questions in ways diametrically opposed both to each other, and to what you’d expect. The University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Sydney are part of what is known, by them at least, as the “education gateway” – comprising also TAFE, a Notre Dame University rump and the largely promissory Australian Technology Park. Both are growing, in overall numbers, and to that extent weathering the funding storm. But they’re taking opposite directions.

Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most campus-blessed university, plans to more than double its volume by 2020, UTS, by contrast, with less than half Sydney’s per-person floorspace, is determined to shed its last outlying property, consolidating on a city campus people love to denigrate.

Both moves are controversial, largely because locals fear change.

UTS has been trying to drop its Sulman Award-winning Kuring-gai campus pretty much since the Broadway Institute of Technology and the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education were John Dawkinsed together in 1990. The two campuses – one grunge-urban, the other a bush campus in the best romantic-Brutalist tradition – should have made the perfect complementary pair. But UTS found Kuring-gai unadministerable, due largely to the tyranny of distance and near absence of public transport. (Even now it runs 24 shuttle trips a day).

Finally, last month – and with callous disregard for the sensitivities of Barry O’Farrell’s constituents – Frank Sartor rezoned UTS Kuring-gai for 345 dwellings. There is an argument against selling ex-Crown land for private profit, but UTS promises to reinvest all proceeds in its city campus. Who could deny it that?

Sydney Uni, meanwhile, has 50 per cent more students, four times as much building space, 10 times the campus space, half a dozen ovals (instead of none) and exponentially more gardenia bushes than UTS will ever have. Not to mention the adjoining park and pool. With it goes all the confidence (and perhaps pitfalls) of old money compared with new.

It also has several new buildings – IT, law and the catchily named Jane Foss Russell student centre (be thankful it’s not her married name, Barff) with its clunky, pea-green footbridge. Not bad buildings, but guaranteed, once the new native-nazi landscape is complete, to feel more exurban office park than dreaming spires – the global campus look du jour, a bland-leading-the-bland, death-by-vanillacide catering to kids whose primary world experience is screen-mediated.

And so to Sydney’s campus cravings. Apart from its main campus, it already has eight others, from Camden to downtown. But it wants more. Eveleigh, where it proposes 160,000 sqm of built space up to 18 storeys; Harold Park, if and when; Callan Park, slated for 100,000 sqm in four precincts – plus another three ovals.

This is already agreed. But the Callan Park Act bans building outside existing footprints and any for-profit education. To amend it, the argument is crucial. It hinges on Sydney’s “demonstrated record, expertise and interest in heritage conservation”. A year ago, maybe. But to see those fabulous sandstone gothics now, stripped of their evocative ivy-league habitat, left naked among the pitiless eucalypts, makes you wonder. How far will higher learning go to prove it is really just business?


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