Behold! Uni Serfs Go Medieval To Block Higher Ed Reforms


It’s a desperate time for higher education in Australia. Facing the prospect of increased fees, ballooning debts, and cuts to welfare assistance, those fighting the deregulation of the sector have been turning to more creative, and sometimes desperate, methods.

But now a group at the University of Sydney have taken it a step further: the fight against deregulation just got medieval.

While students on the streets have heckled Coalition MPs and turned campuses into a Tory no-go-zones, the effort underway at the University of Sydney is serene, formal, and draws on a tradition far more ancient than the picketing of prime ministerial campus stopovers (a hallowed tradition though that is).

Certain members of the Senate, one of the university’s most important decision making bodies, think they’ve found a way to test management’s acceptance of deregulation. They’ve begun petitioning the Chancellor to call a meeting of the Convocation.

And what, prey tell, is that?

The term ‘Convocation’ has meant different things at different universities during different historical eras, but its roots appear to go back to the medieval universities of Europe

Since that time the term has referred variously to meetings of governance bodies or groups of constituents connected to a university.

Skip forward a few hundred years and the group of University of Sydney Senators – including former state Labor minister Verity Firth, the ABC’s Andrew West, and The Conversation’s Catriona Menzies-Pike – have discovered that the rules governing the university still allow for a grand, town hall style meeting of graduates and academics to be called, at which a proposition may be discussed and voted on.

In other words, a meeting of the Convocation.

The University of Sydney’s university historian Julia Horne told New Matilda she was not sure when the last convocation had been held. According to Horne, convocation was originally established at the foundation of the University with the official purpose of electing members of the university senate. After the 1912 electoral reforms were implemented, convocation’s role was diminished in this process causing the graduate community to complain of a loss of influence.

"Graduates were increasingly frustrated at this loss of voice," Horne said. "In 1939 the University agreed to form the Standing the Committee of convocation as a go-between for members of convocation and the Senate."

Though a major meeting of the Convocation has clearly not happened for some time, the motivation of the current day senators to call one is fairly transparent.

A parliamentary vote on the deregulation of the higher education sector is now on the horizon, and the vice-chancellors of the country’s biggest universities have been lobbying hard to win public support for them.

As the deregulation fight has played out, Go8 figures have been given a sturdy platform in the mainstream press from which to make their case.

Last week, Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young declared in The Age, “It is worth remembering why we are having this debate and why, the sector is now generally in favour of deregulation, although the enthusiasm does vary by institution”.

True to form, the Sydney Morning Herald trotted out an editorial backing the University of Sydney vice-chancellor’s criticisms, after breaking the news about the Convocation push.

Perversely, the editorial demonstrated exactly why a Convocation is such a clever idea. With Go8 university vice-chancellors dominating the public conversation, it’s hard for other sections of the university community to seriously register their opposition, outside of the radical and highly visible actions of student activists.

Students, staff, and alumni are given little space to air dissent, and the same goes for the regional universities who are set to lose the most if Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s plans go ahead.

Convocation would allow some of these voices to be heard by giving the University of Sydney graduate community and academic staff a chance to put their view to the university’s establishment, making a noisy public statement along the way.

If it takes place, the Convocation will vote on the following proposition: 

“That Convocation expresses its concern at the federal government's proposed changes to higher education. We request the federal government restore the higher education funding cut in the 2014 budget. We further ask that the University of Sydney refrain from supporting fee deregulation, which will prevent or discourage potential students from seeking admission to the University because of an inability to meet or repay tuition costs.”

Given the vice-chancellors and the Coalition have so far failed to convince the community of the merits of Pyne’s plan, it seems reasonably safe to assume the majority of graduates and staff would vote in favour of a motion like this.

Aggressive forms of student protest aren’t hard for vice-chancellors to bat away, but the idea of a Convocation fits closely with the way contemporary Australian universities try to present themselves; benevolent and ancient institutions where the critical discourse flows on tap, and the views of the community are taken into serious consideration.

If the University of Sydney’s Convocation goes ahead, it will make it tougher for Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence to publicly back deregulation, as he has long done (albeit with less gusto than leaders of some other Go8 universities)

Advocates of Convocation say it is a way to have a civilised debate about a major university reform.

“We can forgive politicians for being political but we can’t forgive universities for being anti-intellectual,” undergraduate senate representative Patrick Massarani, who is supporting the move, said.

Massarani rejected arguments made in the SMH editorial that those worried about deregulation should pipe down until Christopher Pyne’s final bill is released.

“We should be revelling in the opportunity to shape the debate, to be part of it rather than being victims of it,” he said.

Vice-Chancellor Spence does not appear to be pleased by the development.

“Convocation could be considered an anachronism, commonly used in the 1880s and 1890s, at a time when the graduates of the University were members of a small professional class, few in number and largely based in Sydney,” a university spokesperson wrote in response to NM’s questions.

“Under those circumstances it might have been reasonable to see that a meeting of staff and alumni would genuinely be representative of the University community.”

“Now, with more than 280,000 alumni worldwide, more than 3,000 staff and 50,000 students, such a meeting now cannot realistically be representative of anything but a small part of our diverse community.”

The spokesperson also told New Matilda that a whole-of-university consultation would be taking place soon.

Problematically for Sydney University, it is likely that student organisations will support the idea of convening the Convocation.

The University of Sydney Union, which has been vocal in its opposition to deregulation, will discuss the idea at its next meeting.

Massarani welcomed the university’s process but said one form of consultation should not preclude others.

It’s far from certain that the Convocation will go ahead. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine how such a large meeting would be conducted.

“It would obviously be a pretty tight squeeze in the Great Hall,” Massarani conceded.

But if it does, it could mark a public humiliation for Pyne and a blow to his desire to uncap fees, increase the interest on student loans, and move public money to the for-profit higher education sector.

The backers of Convocation are promoting it as a means of civil debate, but it also brings to mind Marsellus Wallace’s vengeful threat in Pulp Fiction.

“You hear me talkin', hillbilly boy? I ain't through with you by a damn sight. I'ma get medieval on your ass”.

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