Universities: rethinking their special place in society

Posted on April 2, 2012


By Dennis Altman, Professor of Politics, who retires this year after 25 years at La Trobe University

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Professor Altman in 2004 when he was appointed to the Harvard Chair of Australian Studies: Photo by Ponch Hawkes

La Trobe University has a special place in the history of higher education in Australia. It has been home to some of our most interesting and significant intellectual and scientific figures, has made its mark on almost every aspect of national life and produced many of the country’s, and the state’s, leaders.

La Trobe was founded in 1967 as the third University in Victoria, with a mission to serve the community.  Many of our early students were from lower-middle and working-class households in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with no family tradition of higher education. La Trobe was the first university in Australia to admit mature students who had left high school before matriculation; and a high percentage of those were female.

Curriculum design was radical, with emphasis on integration and dialogue between disciplines, creating an intellectually more exciting environment than the much more traditional Melbourne and Monash universities.  The radicalism of the early years extended well beyond the academic: the University designated part of its land a wildlife reserve to safeguard local native flora and fauna, and surrounding communities benefitted from a La Trobe instigated and run legal aid clinic.

Reinventing the ‘idea of La Trobe’

What do these commitments mean in the current environment where governments demand universities to be more accountable while providing a smaller share of their funding, and where the dominant view is that universities are about training individuals who should pay for the privilege? Can we reinvent the ‘idea of La Trobe’ so that it both provides a first class education in a range of subjects while it also preserves a broader mission to serve the larger community?

Could a university today embrace public-sprited roles such as urban conservation or community legal work?

The benefits of university education are in the end benefits for the whole society, not only in terms of new jobs and innovations, but because as citizens in a rapidly changing world there is a need for us to constantly expand our knowledge and understanding of that world. Humanities and social sciences are sometimes attacked as subjects that offer little of immediate practical benefit.

Good policy needs social knowledge

It is strange to hear such assertions from politicians who in their day-to-day lives grapple with exactly the issues that we deal with – be it the consequences of economic growth and urban gridlock, the moral dilemmas of involvement in Afghanistan or global climate change, or debates around euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Good policies depend upon the knowledge and skills that come from the study of history, literature, philosophy and sociology.

The great universities of the United States require education in social sciences, humanities and the natural sciences as a prerequisite for professional degrees – precisely because they recognise the need for professionals to understand the forces that help shape the natural and social worlds in which we live.

As the balance of economic and political power is shifting radically, Australia needs more people who are capable of understanding and analysing the ways in which the global order is being realigned. Yet the current financial arrangements for universities are reducing our capacity to teach precisely those subjects that will underline Australia’s ability to compete and flourish globally.

Australian education  fails to keep up

Long before discussion about the rise of countries like India and Brazil, La Trobe pioneered the teaching of Hindi and Portuguese, and the teaching of languages remains an important task for universities. But even where there may be a national interest in teaching particular subjects, this is not sufficient to make them viable at a time of shrinking resources for universities. As a country, we are failing to keep up with the explosion of growth across much of Asia, let alone the huge investment a number of Asian governments are making in their higher education systems.

Professor Altman, right, speaks with former High Court Justice Michael Kirby during a recent La Trobe public seminar

Over the past several years I have been involved in trying to develop the University’s ability to contribute to the national conversation around that cluster of major threats known as human security.

Renew radical challenge

Most of us watch events such as the ongoing slaughter in Syria, the growing number of humanitarian crises, and the spectre of millions of people being made homeless by drought, famine and civil conflicts with a sort of fascinated horror, but also a sense of hopelessness.

And there is the AIDS epidemic, which tragically is still spreading rapidly in countries where the response to homosexuality, sex work and drug use is to stigmatise and criminalise these behaviours, thus forcing people to hide and to be denied access to services.

Universities need to return to the original vision of La Trobe as radical.  Not in the narrow sense of teaching a particular view of politics, but in the full meaning of the word: they need to become life-long communities, rather than places where students stop over for a few years on the route from school to work. Only in this way can universities continue to challenge society to rethink what is taken for granted, and to ask critical questions of those in power.

This is an edited text of Professor Altman’s Graduation Address last week to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences