Just who is our Vice Chancellor, exactly?

“I’m not sure that anyone would ever say administration is the endgame. No one wants to end their days sitting in meetings.”

UWA’s Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson has decided to return to the classroom, albeit temporarily. He tutors, of course, in the senate room. It’s a contradiction of post-modern antiquity: the outside is the dank 1930s wood and sandstone facade of the original Winthrop Hall, but it opens to an ikea catalogue version of King Arthur’s round table, surrounded by portraits of our former Chancellors. As Johnson says, these are “a collection of old, mostly dead white men”.

His class, a short course for history honours students in British economic history, starts off as a tutorial that turns into a lecture. A lecture that highlights Johnson’s opinions on students and protest.

“It seems like students these days are not as focused or active on issues outside themselves, like they were in my student days”, he says. At precisely the same time, over a hundred students are on the steps of Parliament House protesting university deregulation bills. Dave, a middle-aged Scottish anarchist who owns an awesome FC St. Pauli fan club t-shirt, calls the VC out, highlighting some of the radical movements taking place in British universities at the moment.

The VC responds with the equivocal shrug that seems to be one of his trademarks; a John Cena-esque “some of y’all agree with me, some of y’all don’t” approach that serves to diffuse the heat of debate.

Leaving a cast of twenty bemused students behind and skipping off with his personal assistant to more pressing engagements, Johnson’s tangent was probably the main thing we all took out of the class. Why was this old white man suddenly so nostalgic for a student identity long past? After every academic and student I repeated this to had the same confused reaction, I decided I had to interview him. Luckily, he agreed.

We met at the University Club, the Bifröst between UWA’s lower realm of undergraduates and upper realm of ‘scholars’. Behind its gates lie respectability, smooth jazz and marginally better coffee. All VCs were undergraduates once.

“When I was a student there were a number of issues that mobilised student movement in Britain. One was the Anti-Apartheid movement… there was a boycott of one of the major banks because of its investments… in South Africa and I’ve been hardwired to avoid that bank ever since…” To him the Anti-Apartheid movement seems to be the benchmark against which effective and just student activism can be measured, based on principles of “basic humanity” that could be extended to protesting other oppressive regimes in the world today.

Oppressive regimes? “There are elements of the intervention in Northern Australia which seem to me to be racist, because the intervention has been to some extent based not on where [Indigenous people] live but on their race. So I think it was to some extent a racist intervention. Indeed I see a lot of racism in Australia. To some extents it is a great country… but we shouldn’t happily draw a veil over the bits of this country … which are reprehensible, and certainly the overt and implicit racism in this country is something to be shameful of.”

 

So why does he think students aren’t as active now? He insists that it’s not up to him to tell students “how to spend their time.” As he says, “the world has moved on” and “conditions have changed”. While students have been in the forefront of most revolutionary movements in recent years, particularly (as he notes) during 2011’s Arab Spring, in Australia he doesn’t think “students are as active… do we have very big and fundamental issues? I don’t think we do.”

“There may be issues that affect students, like Centrelink benefits and fee deregulation, but those are self-serving. In terms of global issues? The one area [is the] the environment… but I don’t see the environment as being the unifying subject of students as perhaps, Anti-Apartheid was… I think that is in part because it requires a much greater imaginative leap… It is less obvious that doing something today would have an impact…”

Here he hit on two points that required attention, university deregulation and divestment from fossil fuels, a movement which hasn’t yet taken hold here but achieved significant success at ANU last year.

“It’s the massification of higher education that has led to the change in funding model, but it’s also choice. Scandinavian countries continue to charge nothing or next to nothing for a university education… I think the thing that has shifted the opinion of 38 of the 39 Vice-Chancellors is that while funding has grown, the number of students has grown faster, which is why we have a student to staff ratio of around 20 to 1 today. The only plausible way of changing this trend…is by charging more for tuition. Either you have an increase in the student-staff ratio and we’re already in the upper end of the OECD…Governments Labor and Liberal have consistently shown they are unprepared to increase taxation to pay for it. Neither party at the last election would have an honest and frank debate on taxation.”

He continues to stick to the 38 of 39 figure. “If we had 97% of farmers saying something is a good thing [and] that good thing is rejected by the senate, people would be saying ‘we have a mad senate, how dare they reject the opinion of 97% of farmers, what would they know?’, well that is exactly what is happening with higher education.”

 

Well, sure, but aren’t they just a fraction of the stakeholders in higher education? While Mr Johnson says he doesn’t dismiss the opinions of non-administrators lobbying to federal parliament, the Vice-Chancellors are still the most privileged and knowledgeable voices, and those that he believes deserve the most weighting. He claims to remain unconvinced with the arguments forwarded by the National Union of Students, Labor Party and National Tertiary Education Union on the access and debt effects of pursuing deregulation. To his mind every group “will argue for their own interest” (though from the teacher’s perspective surely deregulation would be in their interests should it actually result in commercial growth for their institution).

“The access argument I think is often unclear…given no student pays anything (up front) for their education, I think the question is what is the impact of a larger student debt? I think this is unclear.” He disagrees with elements of the Coalition’s proposal, in particular the attempt to place a real rate of interest on the student loan as well as the decision to retain the three-tiered contribution system (that privileges some degrees over others in terms of receiving government subsidisation). Regardless, he thinks the package is largely dead. Did protest have any role in this?

“I don’t think protest…has engaged a significant constituency outside of the higher education sector. So probably much more effective has been some of the media coverage. I think probably Senator Kim Carr talking about $100 000 degrees has been far more effective than any student or staff protest.”

Moving on to divestment, he staunchly maintains that it would not be within the University’s best interest: “I think [divestment] is not intellectually coherent. At UWA we have an intellectually coherent approach to tobacco. We don’t invest in tobacco companies, we don’t accept funding from tobacco companies to undertake research and we don’t allow the smoking of tobacco on campus.”

Fossil fuels, he claims, are different. “We use fossil fuels… most people travel to the university using oil that they put in their cars… it was actually research conducted here that opened up the North-West shelf.” While he doesn’t at all believe that climate change is a myth, he thinks that a shift from coal to gas in the next ten years is the main step required for challenging global warming*. He sees divestment as “intellectually vacuous” due to the university, and particularly its economics and engineering departments, being closely funded and aided by Australia’s fossil fuel legacy. To divest, he says, “would not be consistent with the values of the university.” That is where I’ll leave him.

I find that final statement so depressing. “The values of the university” – are they still those decided upon by our founders? Do they not fluidly change over time as groups of alumni, staff, students and the external community negotiate them? Johnson’s sentiment depicts the university as a servant of the industries that much of its research critiques and enrages.

Is there some arbitrary distinction between university research funded through these sources, and that funded or not intended to be used by them? Does that make research here that doesn’t service those interests disingenuous? Is it not also intellectually vacuous for a university that produces research in climate sciences to refuse divestment of fossil fuels as intellectually vacuous? Does this mean the university has a stake in and measure of control over the work produced by those who would be independent scholars?

From his beginnings as a burgeoning idealist, to his days as an erudite if aloof administrator, Johnson seems to always stress the interaction between the structure surrounding him and his own choices. Between these poles lie many unanswered questions. In the distance I can hear a crowd chanting “Let’s go VC/VC Sucks”, unceasing, forever.

Words by Josh Chiat