To a degree, it’s the end of university conversation
On the table, a hundred cups and saucers (arranged neatly, ten by ten). The university has pegged its hopes on this meeting, emailed the entire student body three times, plastered the campus with large, full-colour posters asking – begging – students to attend.
The meeting is an attempt on the part of administration to give students direct input into proposed campus redevelopments. The idea: have a cup of tea with members of the university’s Strategy and Space Planning department, air your grievances, and put forward your vision for a better campus. As they tell us repeatedly, desperately, “We’re listening.”
I count three students. (Hannah and I don’t count – we’re student journos. We have to be here). Anne, who’s in her fifties, is a mature-entry student who volunteers at the library. Gunter is an ageing hippy who’s been drifting in and out of campus for the past thirty years. The final ‘student’, Angus, doesn’t even attend the university.
This is a disappointment. Because students are unwilling to engage with administration, it has been increasingly difficult for the university to provide the college experience students wish for (but are refusing to explicitly ask for).
It’s not like students don’t care about what’s happening on campus. They do. A month ago, the university announced plans to demolish a historic theatre to make way for a state-of-the-art science precinct. Within weeks, five hundred students had joined a Facebook group petitioning against the redevelopment. A hundred students posted comments on that page, variously labelling the impending destruction a “barbaric act”, a “disgrace”, and a “tragic loss”.
But none of those students are here today.
I remember speaking to the editor of a local youth culture magazine who told me, “People can’t be f….ed anymore. I try to promote a show or an exhibition, and I’ll get hundreds of people clicking ‘Attending’ on Facebook, but they just won’t show up. You also have people who think it’s enough to become a ‘Fan’ of a local artist on Facebook, but then not buy any of that artist’s work, because they feel they don’t need to – they’ve already shown they’re a fan, by clicking a button. What I’ve realised, increasingly, is that what people do and say online is completely meaningless.”
I asked one of the students who joined and commented on the Facebook petition why he joined the group instead of speaking directly to a member of the university’s Strategy and Space Planning department. He told me that he assumed that, as soon as the group reached a “critical mass”, the university administration would have to sit up and take notice. When I point out that it’s unlikely that members of the administration actually use Facebook, he told me, “Yeah, but it’ll get on the radio or in the papers.”
Had he written to the papers? “No. But somebody else will, I’m sure.”
You can’t blame him, or any of the others, for not getting involved. Students have too much on their plates already to really give a damn about the state of the higher education system. A recent survey revealed that Californian students work an average of 23 hours per week – empirical evidence suggests that the Australian student experience can’t be much different. For all the talk of a “wasted generation”, students are actually spending the vast majority of their time working, attending classes, hitting the books – or in front of the computer, trying to resist the temptation of typing twitter.com into the browser window. Even before VSU hit, there was just no time for campus culture.
You hit a point where you realise it’s all become too darn complicated. On the one hand, students are feeling increasingly disconnected – universities have become so driven by the profit motive, students feel, that their concerns no longer factor into the equation. At the same time, the administration is struggling to connect with a student body that is distant and unresponsive. Nobody’s talking.
Two senior tutors, in their final tutorials of the year, implored us to send letters to administration. About anything – the IT system, course structure changes, even the quality of the food at the cafeteria.
“They don’t give a shit about faculty,” one tutor told me. “But they give a shit about you, because you’re the customer.”
In the closing five minutes of the final lecture of his academic career, a History professor spoke frankly about the changing face of the university.
“What is happening right now at this university,” he said, “will destroy higher education.”
This lecturer was speaking about course structure changes which force students to enroll in a larger number of introductory subjects across their undergraduate career. I’ve spoken to at least a dozen members of faculty: none are happy with the changes. Humanities students feel as though they’re now receiving a “joke education”. Yet – and here’s the kicker – the faculty are afraid to complain to administration, and students either don’t know who to talk to, don’t believe they’ll be listened to, or simply don’t have the time to voice their concerns.
I look around the room, with ninety-five coffee cups still gleaming and untouched. Angus is speaking, lamenting, “There’s no sense of collegiality. You get in, go to your lecture, leave.”
Members of the administration are writing this all down. It’s new to them. And this guy, Angus, who’s providing them with all this juicy info – he doesn’t even attend the bloody university.
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