Smashing boundaries that limit us? How Australian

Published 21 October 2019
Photo only to be used with this article. Adam Shoemaker Credit Marc Stapelberg of News Ltd Professor Adam Shoemaker (credit Marc Stapelberg, News Ltd).

Rather than mourning the putative loss of a narrowly defined Australia, we should be celebrating these new and productive re­framings, says Southern Cross University vice-chancellor Adam Shoemaker.

Every so often a front-page article confects a non-existent crisis. In my view “Creeping uni ‘cringe’ fails nation” (The Weekend Australian, October 12-13) is one of them.

According to the article, senator Amanda Stoker has claimed that there is “academic disdain” for what the article calls “Australian culture and identity”. After three decades of work in five Australian universities I cannot agree.

Furthermore, the claim that Australian universities are walking away from their “national responsibilities” is just plain wrong. Our institutions were founded for that purpose. We take our nation-framing and nation-forging roles incredibly seriously.

For example, the Australian National University Act specifically references “subjects of national importance to Australia”. Read any university enabling legislation (as forensic historians do) and one will find, time and again, obligations to place, people and civic life.

The universities of Western Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and Adelaide have clearly denominated state and representational responsibilities. And the founding legislation for my own institution — Southern Cross University — highlights its role in the service of regional locations and their people, with a special emphasis on the “interaction of research and teaching, and academic excellence … having particular regard to the needs of the north coast region of the state”.

How much more Australian could our remit be?

There is no doubt that scholars such as historian Stuart Macintyre have done fabulous work. He was one of the first historians I read when I arrived in Australia and I continue to reference his writings to this day when I teach and research.

But one cannot generalise from individual experience to claim, as Greg Melleuish does, that “it is positively disadvantageous to have an Australian focus to one’s research”. I can point to at least 40 scholars in my own university who would disagree, and there would be hundreds of others in Australia’s public universities who would feel the same way.

In my experience, academic colleagues are as passionate about Australia and its future as they have ever been. They may disagree about the best way to approach that future, but that is the nature of academic discourse. Div­ersity of views is what the collegium is all about. It is a clear example of freedom of intellectual inquiry — and freedom of speech — at work.

Just as SBS was born in the 1980s to challenge Australian cultural and broadcasting orthodoxy; and National Indigenous Television was launched 12 years ago to celebrate the perspectives and achievements of Australia’s First Nations, no country’s identity is fixed or immutable.

I argue that it is that flux and flow in Australian society that fascinates both us and the world — not stasis and blinkered wistfulness. In the above examples it is the outstanding quality of those broadcasters that tells a persuasive story on the world stage, and the excellence of Australian higher education does the same.

As one who is privileged to be leading an Australian university, I can guarantee that the last thing that I or my colleagues aspire to is authoritarianism. That is death to collegiality.

Even more: Australian students and academics are far from being cowed or conformist. Anyone who thinks that has never attended an academic board meeting or been on the receiving end of a student demonstration (and more power to them).

There is a further crucial aspect. It is that the most Australian studies of all — subjects designed, taught, researched and delivered by Australian indigenous scholars — have exploded over the past 15 years.

These include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, indigenous jurisprudence and many others. These are some of the fastest developing disciplines in this country. They are receiving worldwide acknowledgment — but they are not mentioned at all in the article. Rather than mourning the putative loss of a narrowly defined Australia, we should be celebrating these new and productive re­framings.

And what of international university rankings? Of course they are a reality. But, like ATAR scores for Year 12 students, they denote excellence; they are not excellent in themselves. They act as a proxy for quality, but that eminence derives from the talents of colleagues who form the (predominantly Australian) academic workforce of our institutions.

In like fashion, when Australian authors such as Peter Carey or Richard Flanagan are awarded the Man Booker Prize, or a comedian such as Hannah Gadsby wins an Emmy award for her Netflix show Nanette, those achievements represent a form of achievement and ranking that is just as international as our own aspirations. Why should our universities be any less globally ambitious?

My colleagues at Southern Cross teach and research in a variety of nationally significant areas — from Great Barrier Reef restor­ation to flood resilience; from Australian popular music to complementary medicine; from social welfare under the National Disability Insurance Scheme to Australian law. Studies of “things Australian” appear in title after title, topic after topic.

Like thousands of others, I came to Australia as a foreign student. Like many of them, I was fortunate to have the support of an international scholarship. And, like thousands of other young scholars, I came to this nation because it was the best possible place in the world to pursue my area of postgraduate research.

So let there be no doubt: all Australian public universities fulfil a huge role as not-for-profit, taxpayer-endowed institutions. And they teach and research across the spectrum of new and existing disciplines. From Australian maternal and child health to astronomy; from oceanography to the Australian visual arts; from epigenetics to philosophy: our colleagues are breaking exciting new ground daily. Their methodologies and topics are often distinctively Australian, and their results and discoveries are relevant to the future of this nation.

I argue that we should be celebrating the civic, intellectual and entrepreneurial roles of our tertiary institutions as banners for Australian culture and identity.

Now is not the time to be laying down restrictive boundary lines that define Australian studies. Now is the time to celebrate the boundary-smashing talents of Australians and all those who study this country in our public purpose institutions.

Adam Shoemaker has taught and researched in the field of Australian and indigenous cultures for more than 30 years. He is vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University.

The article was published in the Higher Education section of The Australian on October 16, 2019.

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