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Ok Covid-19.

It’s a thing.

A big thing.

And its consequences for universities are going to be enormous.

Like really.

That’s why now is the time to start a conversation about how the relationship between universities, society and the state might be remade.

Because, let’s face it, the virus has pulled on the threads of the already worn fabric of higher education policy.

What comes next is a question the sector has been asking for some time. Now it’s a question that has a great deal of urgency.

What kind of universities does our society need?

As someone who has long been interested in universities and their relationship to society, I figured I’d better have a go at talking about these questions.

So with UTS Impact Studios, I’ve been making a podcast — recording from under a ladder with a duvet on top of it, in my spare room.

The trailer is out now and the first episode will release 4 May so SUBSCRIBE on all the usual podcast platforms (just search for “The New Social Contract”). Here are a few handy links:

Apple Podcasts  //  Spotify  //  Stitcher // Whooshkaa

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,; 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.

Screenshot 2019-07-17 at 13.24.01

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about expertise and its history and the ways that academics like me deploy it to underpin our knowledge and authority claims.

This is my current bio, taken from my UTS website.

Screenshot 2019-07-17 at 18.14.11I send versions of this bio to conferences and academic journals and reproduce it in thousands of conversations. It follows a pretty defined formula, beginning with my name (often also given with pre-noms), my position in a hierarchy and my employing institution. It then proceeds to mobilise my publications in order to establish my authority and field of expertise, complete with the sanction of academic publishers and grant-making bodies. At the end come more references to credentialising institutions that stand as further markers of status and serve as evidence of my international formation and legibility.

It is a bio that is geared towards establishing my standing as a professional and as an expert, who is fluent in a language of specialised knowledge that is portable, authoritative and objective.

And this language does work. Since the early part of the twentieth century university credentialed expertise has extended its reach into more and more knowledge domains,  underpinning the technocratic forms of rule-making that have shaped our societies, political systems and economies. Today it continues to be my passport to speak in academic and professional contexts across the world.

The problem is, I’m just not sure that apparently objective and disembodied expertise is what our world needs any more (if it ever did), and not least because there is no such thing as objective and disembodied knowledge free from social and economic relations in the first place.

When you look at it, my academic bio says very little about me. Although it obliquely speaks to some episodes in my life that were hugely important to me (my time at Oxford for example), it says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home. The only thing to which it holds me accountable is the world of trans-local expertise and the institutions that retail in it.

Reading Bruno Latour’s recent book Down to Earth: Politics in the new Climate Regime* has mobilised me to try something quite different and unfamiliar. He ends his book by introducing himself and describing “where he would like to land”. In the process he turns on its head the usual formula for performing academic credentials to re-situate himself in a place and a set of values, hopes and solidarities.

So, following Latour, I’ve attempted to write a different kind of academic biography, one that locates me as a part of an historical process of formation (familial, settler colonial, religious), points to the ground I call home, foregrounds my commitments and my values, and understands my institutional location as the outcome of these commitments.

In short, it makes me political. But it also makes me a person who is much more than a brain on a stick.

It was, I confess, deeply uncomfortable to write, and probably it’s still a work in progress. Stripping away the apparatus of status built up over nearly twenty years (eek) of life in universities, made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

But I think that, really, is the point. In speaking about where I stand, I make myself available. And from there grows the possibility of relationships with both others and with places, and of common action. And goodness knows, that is what the world is going to need a lot more of as we find a way to live together in our common home.

Tamson Pietsch was born and grew up in Adelaide on the lands of the Kaurna people, as part of Australia’s German Lutheran community, and now makes her home in Sydney. She believes that the ways we make sense of who we are and how we got here helps to shape the societies we are striving to build. Tamson is committed to the roles that universities and other cultural institutions play as homes of this meaning-making. This commitment has been shaped by experiences and relationships made in academic and civic institutions in Adelaide, Melbourne, Oxford and London. It is a commitment that underpins Tamson’s work as an historian of higher education and ideas, and as Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney. 


* Go read this book! Not only has it helped me make sense of the entangled politics of ecological destruction, inequality, deregulation and globalisation, but it also points to an alternative. We need to learn new ways to inhabit the earth in order to live together in our common home.


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