Back in April, the Times Higher Education magazine asked me what I missed about the physical campus. This is what I told them:

I even miss the library’s gigglings, munchings and canoodlings’

Now that they are gone, the value to me of whole tranches of everyday work life have come into view. These include lunch with colleagues in the sunshine on my urban university’s one patch of grass; a commute perfectly calibrated to the length of a half-hour podcast; and that wonderful feeling of the “after work” moment, when I would close my computer and open the door to the possibilities of the evening.

But, most of all, I think I miss the library. I miss the smell of its books, stored for years and brought briefly into the light by my retrieval. I miss the sounds of its muffled diligence and, yes, I even miss its less muted gigglings, munchings and canoodlings.

The library stands as a kind of physical embodiment of the shared enterprise of the university community. It is a community constituted collectively, not only by the students from near and far, the academics trawling the stacks, the countless authors who wrote the books and the librarians who catalogued and digitised them, but also by the security guards at the door, the barista making the coffee, and the porters ferrying books in the stacks. How often, pre-Covid-19, did I think of it this way? And what does my newly acquired sepia filter mask?

Higher education systems in Australia and elsewhere have for some time now relied on rising student debt, precarious work and financial dependence on overseas students and market investments. This is not a system for which to be nostalgic and, when this pandemic is over, I’d love to be able to say goodbye to this system’s reliance on casual contracts and investments in fossil fuels.

Then again, higher education is by no means the only sector whose increasing reliance on such practices has been exposed by the plight of its disenfranchised workers during the pandemic. Indeed, the entire contract between society and the state – between the past, present and the future – will be reshaped by this crisis, and universities will be reshaped with it.

So, as I look back to the things I once took for granted, I am also looking forward and thinking hard about how, in the months and years to come, higher education institutions might also be part of building a more just and sustainable society.

The New Social Contract podcast

Since April, I’ve been working hard to give that hard thinking form. Thanks to the wonderful people from UTS Impact Studios the result is The New Social Contract podcast. Listen online or search for it in any of the podcast platforms.