Purpose and Future of the University recording at NLA, March 2020Back in the far off land of The Time Before, in an empty lecture theatre at the National Library of Australia, I was part of a socially-distanced discussion about the purpose and future of the university.  Planned as part of the ANU College of Law’s 60th anniversary celebrations, it was recorded on 17 March 2020 for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas programme and has recently been broadcast in two parts.

Part 1: Focuses on the value and purpose of the university, and the form it has taken in Australia. How have universities changed in the twentieth century, and what might they become, under the pressure of this present moment? >> Listen now

Part 2: Takes up the question of the university in the post-COVID19 world, focusing on possible reforms as well as wider questions of climate, technology and what we want and need from our universities? >> Listen now


  • Professor Brian Schmidt – Vice Chancellor, ANU; 2011 Nobel laureate for Physics
  • George Megalogenis – author and journalist
  • Associate Professor Tamson Pietsch – Director, Australian Centre for Public History, UTS.
  • Dr Rebecca Huntley – social researcher
  • Professor Des Manderson, interdisciplinary scholar, law and the humanities, ANU.
  • (moderator) Dr Natasha Cica – founding director, Kapacity.org; author; honorary professor, ANU College of Law.

The question of how COVID-19 is reconfiguring the relationship between universities and their societies is one I’ve been thinking about *a lot* in the wake of this discussion. It’s something I’ll be coming back to in the next few weeks, but for now here’s my definition of a university from Part 1 of the above discussion, and why I think it matters so much, both in our current moment and more broadly:

The university has changed a lot over the course of the last one thousand years and it will continue to do so if it will survive. But … a university remains an orienting institution. It is one of the great institutions for how we make sense of the world as humans and also how we have ruled the world, so it’s connected to power. But if we think of it as an orienting institution, the university sits between the past and the future, between the dead and the living and the yet to be born, between the here and the elsewhere, and also between the known and the unknown, and research sits in that space. As a consequence, it is an incredibly important institution to hold us through uncertainty and in times of certainty. And that’s a useful definition to hang on to in this moment.