In May 1831 William Ewart Gladstone delivered a speech to the Oxford University Union that resulted in him being offered a seat in the House of Commons 12 months later, thereby launching his career as the most important British political figure of the 19th century. In the current debate about voluntary student unionism it has been forgotten that the original purpose of university unions was to foster debate and discussion on national issues. In 19th century England they played a key role in ensuring that English universities were key national institutions in which many leaders were educated for their future roles.
When the fledgling Australian universities established unions it was in the hope that these unions would play their own role in fostering statesmen and debate. From the establishment of the University of Sydney in the early 1850s, Australian universities were understood to be national institutions with a role in national life, including being nurseries for future statesmen. Many Australian political leaders, from W.C. Wentworth to Henry Parkes and to Robert Menzies, held this vision.
When the University of Sydney Union was established in the 1870s, it was envisaged as an opportunity for those entering law and public life to hone their debating skills. Fifty years later Joseph Carruthers, a former premier of New South Wales, wrote that “from old students of those early days … and from those who joined in the union debates, there have come many prime ministers, in either the state or federal parliaments, as well as a very high percentage of justices of the Supreme Court, High Court and district courts”.
And yet this vision of the university as a national institution went quite sour in the 20th century. Far from wishing to contribute to national life, many academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, came to understand their role as being in perpetual opposition to the mainstream of national life. Over time this group has come to dominate our universities to the exclusion of those who have a more positive outlook.
This stranglehold of the disaffected and dyspeptic in many key areas of the humanities and social sciences has had quite dire consequences. The first is that in these areas Australian universities have ceased to be national institutions and have become instead strongholds of minority sectarian views. To be a national institution, a university has to be as comprehensive as possible. It has to include within itself as broad a range of intellectual positions as is feasible. Unfortunately in the recent past this often meant a full range of Marxist ideologies from Stalinism to Trotskyism to Maoism. More recently feminism and postmodernism have been added to this list.
This lack of comprehension has meant that those who do not share these minority extremist ideologies have usually found themselves alienated from university intellectual life. This is reflected, as Michael Warby has recently pointed out, in hostility towards academics, and ultimately, I think, universities, by many of those who would call themselves liberals or conservatives.
That anger is understandable. It is the product of the failure of Australian universities to ensure that they are comprehensive in the range of ideas that they offer to students. In many ways the situation is quite extraordinary. Universities are obsessed with ensuring that they are as diverse places as possible. They fuss endlessly about women and ethnic minorities and sexual groups, but they do not seem to care less about ensuring that they embody as wide a range of intellectual positions as possible. What is the point of taking measures to encourage female academics if they simply mouth the same old left-wing views as their male colleagues?
This is a matter about which pro-active university administrations could have done something. They could have taken steps to ensure that the national quality of their institutions was protected. They could have taken as active a role in ensuring that a variety of intellectual positions were on offer at their institutions as they did in looking after the well-being of minority groups. But they did not and must now reap what they have sown.
Their failure has very important ramifications because it removes universities from their position as national institutions that can, and should, contribute positively to national life. It leaves them in a nether land, constantly sniping at the mainstream and thereby threatening to become increasingly irrelevant.
And it has left universities in a hostile relationship with many in the wider community, including many in the public arena. One wonders if the current government would be as hardline towards the universities as they are if the universities were genuine national institutions. That is to say if they were comprehensive institutions that welcome a range of intellectual viewpoints.
The real issue remains: what is to be done? How are universities to be rescued from the margins of Australian life towards which they seem to be pushing themselves and be restored to the rightful role as national institutions?
The answer is obvious. They must embrace diversity and comprehensiveness. They must be prepared to foster a range of ideas, they must cease their obsession with being merely places of opposition to the mainstream. They must reconnect with the wider Australian society.
However, this is much more easily said than done. A hostile environment has effectively chased away a whole generation of potential academics who did not share the dominant ideology of Australian universities. The ball is really in the court of the universities themselves. How they deal with this matter may well determine how relevant they are to the Australia of 21st century.
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