The new University of Melbourne Estate Master Plan, which was released at the end of last month, has been celebrated as ‘opening up the university’. The university is a public institution, however, and as the public we have the right and the onus to interrogate its merits.
The plan, which is laden with the language of opportunity, renewal and redevelopment, includes the demolition of six buildings and must be read against the reality of the climate crisis, last week’s intergenerational report, and the third of Australian school students who failed to meet proficiency standards in numeracy and literacy in this year’s NAPLAN results. These are just some of the metrics that guide our interrogation. The remainder are the 50 to 80 per cent of university staff (depending on the work area) who are employed on casual or fixed-term contracts, and the university students themselves, who in 2022 once again confirmed the it as the nation’s worst-performing university in terms of student satisfaction.
The new plan introduces 22,000 square metres of green space around the Parkville campus, creating an open and airy space in the so-called ‘Melbourne innovation district’. The plan aims to create a seamless link between the main campus and its southern outposts, the Melbourne Law School and Melbourne Business School. Moreover, the design intends to break down barriers between the campus and the local community in Carlton, who have reported that they feel cut off from the campus and the resources it has to offer: Martin Brennan, vice-president of the Carlton Residents Association, was reported in The Age in reference to the Master Plan as saying that ‘it’s a bit like a building that’s been closed off and someone’s taken a jackhammer … and started pelting at the walls and broken through.’
True to his words, the plan will involve the ‘retirement’ or demolition of six buildings on campus. This will include taking a jackhammer to the John Medley building, designed by Sir Roy Grounds, a leader in Australian architecture. Like several other buildings, the John Medley building is no longer considered part of Melbourne’s vision. These buildings will not be able to celebrate the proclamation made by architects globally that we need a ‘moratorium’ on new construction. According to the plan, they are beyond repair; they cannot be retrofitted, despite the university’s proclaimed commitment to carbon neutrality and investment in retrofit as a research aim. With demolition, the university has declared itself incapable of inheriting the memories embodied, literally as carbon and figuratively as student and staff experience, in these buildings. Replacing these buildings, the Master Plan projects a future image of the university where new buildings will have a lifespan of twenty-five years (for reference, the John Medley building was opened in 1971). Assuming the buildings of the new Estate Plan were built today, they would already be ready for their own retirement when that generation whose future was so bleakly reported upon in last week’s Intergenerational Report arrived at the university’s door. Nevertheless, the plan is described as ‘improving University campuses for future generations and [creating] a lasting contribution to the City of Melbourne’. In an era of political short-termism, perhaps twenty-five years is the new timescale of future thinking.
Anticipating the orientation of the Estate Plan, in 2019 the university’s former vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, whose tenure ran from 2005 to 2018, described one of his approaches to running the university. Referring to the marketisation of tertiary education towards international students and the fees they pay, Davis told university magazine The Citizen, ‘It’s [like] a mining boom and like all mining booms it comes to an end, so you invest it in things that will matter into the future’. He continued: ‘What you don’t do [is] load up the institution with expensive permanent staff, because you know that later this will be a significant problem’. In a week of Union strikes, as NTEU members across the university join the picket line demanding secure working conditions and fair pay, Davis’s words reveal themselves as the law of current vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell.
As one of the many at the university employed on a casual or fixed-term contract, I am troubled by the plan. I am troubled by the idea that the demolition of buildings is what it takes to ‘open up the university’. My precariously employed colleagues and I are the university. We run events that are open to the public, live streamed, recorded, held after working hours and on weekends. We publish in newspapers and magazines, appear in radio interviews and news programs. We offer our services where we can, work with students when we aren’t paid to and strive to advance debate.
When we work to open up the university, we are working against a system that closes it down.
The university is open despite the unaffordability of rent in surrounding suburbs and the failure of university administration to intervene and provide affordable housing for students. The university is open, and when we join the picket line, we aren’t blocking access to education but demanding it. The university is open despite successive managements’ marketisation of education and exclusion of poorer students, rural students and students whose accessibility is not provided for by the university. The university is open even if you don’t see green spaces. The university is open because we are working without pay, without security, without institutional support, and without—despite the twenty-five-year imaginary of a Master Plan—a clear future.
Paul James, 13 Aug 2020
Here, the cruel irony (of destroying people’s working lives in order to balance the budget) shifts into a further phase: what might be called ‘structural cruelty’.