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Considering the debate about the University's future

Professor Michael Rowan considers the current debate about the future of the University of Tasmania in a piece originally published in The Mercury on 13 May.

It is very good that there is a public debate about the future of UTAS. Universities are the pillars of the society and economy we need to build if we are to survive as a prosperous and peaceful community. We need the scientific breakthroughs and technological innovation that universities produce. We need the social and cultural rethinking that universities encourage, and we need the technical and professional education universities offer if our community is to develop the skills we will need to meet the needs of our people in education, health, industry, government and more.

But while it is good for there to be a debate, the quality of discussion leaves a great deal to be desired. Let’s apply a bit of critical thinking to the claims being made and see what withstands scrutiny and what should be crossed out with the red pen of reason.

First, we need to put the red pen through all the ‘nobody I have spoken to thinks the move is a good idea’ and ‘there is overwhelming community opposition to the move’ claims. These might be true, but they are not reasons for thinking the move from Sandy Bay to the city is a bad idea. If I decide to believe something because I think you do, and then you think my believing it is a reason for you to as well, neither of us have a rational basis for our view. And piling more people on the heap does not add to its foundation. Common beliefs without evidence beyond their being widely held are shared delusions. Witness Donald Trump’s ‘stolen election victory’.

What about the idea that a university is best located in the ‘idylic leafy surrounds’ of a suburban campus? Have those making this claim taken any trouble to find evidence for it? I just looked at the on-line campus maps of Harvard, MIT, Edinburgh, Bristol, University College London, the London School of Economics and Politics, the Sorbonne and the University of Bologna, and they show that universities with buildings spread around a few city blocks or so can be as good as any, and indeed the best in the world. So put the red pen through moving to the city will encourage students to ‘seek an education elsewhere’ claims.

What kind of university do we want? One that is of, or apart from, its community?

Try Googling ‘universities and cities’ and you will find many examples where universities are engaging deeply with the cities in which they are located to shape a more inclusive, creative, innovative, sustainable and prosperous future for both. There is a worldwide – perhaps ‘world-leading’ would be more apt - trend to embed universities in the concerns of their communities, driven by the best universities themselves. For a STEM view of this, have a look at MIT. For an arts view, the London School of Economics and Politics.

Critics of the move agree that those parts of UTAS already in the city are best placed there. That it makes sense for medical students to be near the hospitals and music and creative arts students to be next to the Theatre Royal. Even that visual arts students are best located in the IXL factory next to the docks, the logic of which escapes me if it is not simply ‘what exists is OK but change is scary’. Would it not be just as beneficial for business students to be next to and mingling with people engaged in commerce and its regulation, engineering students to be near industry, law students to be near the courts and psychology students near their future clients, say running a free drop-in counselling service in the Mall. What about arts students, wouldn’t they be assisted by being up to their brains in society at large whether pondering the nature of truth, beauty or humanity? In a knowledge economy and a society faced with enormous challenges of change, what discipline is best located in some idyllic setting away from the life of the community? Perhaps divinity?

Once we go through the arguments to ‘Save UTAS’ with the red pen of reason, in my judgement they boil down to ‘We like UTAS as it is’. Which might be fine if Tasmania did not have a crisis in education beyond Year 10. But we do. In addition to those I have provided before, another statistic showing the problem is that even though we have relatively few university graduates per head of population, UTAS is comparatively unsuccessful in widening the reach of higher education in Tasmania, with the percentage of its undergraduate intake who are first in family to study at uni down at 36% while universities such as Griffith (45%), UniSA (48%) and Victoria University (51%), are much more successful and in communities that already have a greater percentage of their populations with degrees. It is hard to see how ‘Keep UTAS like it is’ responds to that. Or indeed solves any problem for Tasmania.

Dr Michael Rowan is a Hobart resident, philosopher with expertise in relation to educational outcomes in Tasmania, and an Emeritus Professor of the University of South Australia.