gustave-dore-new-zealander

Gustave Doré, The New Zealander 1872

In an academic world where we all need a tagline, I find myself hard to categorise. Writing the little blurbs for websites or talks is excruciating. British or imperial? International or Global? Cultural or social (or political)? Nineteenth or Twentieth century? And now, increasingly (and slightly surprisingly, even to me) the United States or the Sea? Since moving to Sydney I’ve ended up writing about Australian history too. What sort of historian am I?

At the heart of all my work is an interest in universities and the institutions and spaces of knowledge production, but embracing the label of ‘university historian’ leads pretty directly to eyes glazing over at dinner parties and almost certain career death.

This seemed a worry too, for the presenters who gave papers at a workshop on British History in the ‘Antipodes’ in May 2015. Despite working with British sources, almost all of them seemed reluctant to adopt the label ‘British historian’.

In my contribution to the special journal issue of History Australia (13:1) that grows out of the workshop, I try to think about this disavowal in the context of recent developments in both transnational history (and its global, international and new imperial iterations) and the continuing robust life of more insular national approaches.

Australia and Britain were (and are) made both by cross-border processes (such as the tendrils of capital, the routes of imperial and transnational migration, the regimes of land, labour, trade and consumption), and also by local efforts to create, resist and direct these forces.

As scholars we too are made by and in these dual processes. We are conditioned and enabled by thick networks of connection, and by variously resourced and located institutions. We work in the midst of specific currencies of legitimacy and we are fashioned by distinct intellectual and economic geographies that, in the case of the ‘Antipodes’, still reflect our particular connected history as part of the English-speaking former British empire that now buys us good access to the international universities, overseas students, archives, journals and funding opportunities that are so crucial to the contemporary (neo)liberal intellectual order.

In the article I suggest that our task as historians might be, not to disavow, but instead to claim these multiple labels (though I would say that wouldn’t I?)

It might be to situate our histories within the supply chains (of commerce, governance, labour, belief etc) that stretched across the globe, and also within the particular polities that sought to locate and contain these in various contexts.

These multiple geographies not only shaped the lives of our historical subjects, they also (if in a somewhat different guise) continue to shape our own.

***

Here is the free-to-download full text pre-print version of the article.  For the subscription version visit ‘Afterword: What was Britain? Where is its history?’ History Australia 13:1 (2016), 153–159.

The full issue is here. It includes pieces by James Vernon, Leigh Boucher, David Blaazer, Kate Fullager, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrew J. May, Tanya Evans, Charlotte Greenhalgh, and Shurlee Swain with a brilliant bonus meditation of a life in history by Wilf Prest.

 

University-aged students in Australia are missing from the electoral roll in large numbers.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has recently released data that suggests that 18% of 18-24 year olds are not registered to vote. The largest non-enrolled group is the youngest, with a staggering 48% of 18 year olds and nearly 24% of 19 year olds not enrolled.

This data on enrolment rates needs to be set alongside population data.

Young people are under-represented

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), in 2015 there were 140,000 more people aged over 70 than there were aged 24 and under. But AEC statistics from March 2016 reveal there are 725,340 more grey-haired voters over 70 than there are youthful voters under 24.

What these statistics show is that young people in Australia are disproportionally under-represented on the electoral roll. They are not engaging in the most fundamental of all democratic rights: voting. In doing so they are reducing their electoral leverage at a time when generational issues should be high on the political agenda.

Why this matters

This matters for two reasons.

First, young people have a lot at stake when it comes to current political decisions.

In her recent book, Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young, Jennifer Rayner points out that today’s young Australians are the first generation since the Great Depression to be worse off than their parents.

When it comes to work, young people find it harder to get a foot in the door and harder to advance when they do. Rayner quotes ABS figures which reveal that the number of young people working in casualised employment has risen from 34% in 1992 to 50% in 2013. Over the same period wage growth for young people has dropped well behind that of older workers.

As Rayner shows, average incomes for people in their 20s have grown at less than half the rate of those people in their mid-50s. And with these older workers staying on in their jobs longer, the prospects of advancement are significantly curtailed as well. While this can mean flexibility for some, it more often means vulnerability, exploitation, and uncertainty.

Poorer work prospects make it doubly hard for young people to enter an increasingly unaffordable housing market. Especially given they are carrying another kind of debt, from which previous generations were exempt, and that is higher education loans.

Waiting longer to buy a first home, or not being able to afford one at all, has life long consequences. It makes harder the kind of risk taking necessary for entrepreneurship or starting a small business. And it either means being saddled with debt well into your 60s, or entering them without the financial investment that for many people home ownership represents.

This magnifies the problem fashioned by insecure work, of the generational disparity in the relative size of superannuation savings.

And then there is environmental policy – an issue in which young people have a real and long-term stake.

“Lopsided” society

Jessica Rayner talks about the emergence of a “lopsided Australia where young and old live differently”.

In part this generational inequality is a consequence of global demographic, technological and economic forces that have come together at the start of the 21st century.

But these are forces that too often are exacerbated rather than mitigated by policy measures. If young people are going to build a fairer future for themselves and coming generations, argues Rayner, they are going to have to get involved.

And this leads to the second reason that the under-representation of young people on the electoral roll is a problem.

If we want a strong and representative democracy we need young people to participate in it. We need them to believe their voice matters in the future of this country and we need that voice to be heard.

Our political institutions work better when we all care about them: their health is in the hands of those who will inherit them.

Crucial role of universities

Universities have a crucial role in building a participatory democracy. One of the ways they do this is by teaching students to engage in robust and thoughtful discussion.

Every day in the classroom, be it mathematics or anthropology, university lecturers foster respectful cultures of disagreement and impart tools of argument and evidence, that teach students to be informed participants in public debate.

Beyond the classroom, students put these skills into action. On the sports field, in the university bar, and in the myriad array of clubs and societies on campus, universities provide opportunities for student participation and leadership that they will carry throughout their lives.

This civic role is one of the reasons universities have long been valued as public institutions that encourage students to be active and engaged citizens.

There are, of course, a wide variety of ways that students enact this citizenship, and many views they express in the process. But one of the ways they participate needs to be via the most fundamental of democratic processes and that is our voting system.

We need our young people to have a voice in our formal democratic processes. Not only will current political decisions have long-term consequences for their lives, but our political institutions and our society will be stronger for their participation in it.

Must enrol by 23 May

Australians have until 23 May 2016 to enrol to vote in the 2016 election.

The AEC has made this process really easy with a simple online enrolment form. All that is needed is evidence of identity, such as a driver’s licence or Australian passport number, and a residential address.

University lecturers can help to ensure this happens.

Attending university is one of the factors causing young people drop off the electoral roll. When they move out of the family home for study or work, the AEC loses track of them, and without a shared culture of participation, it can be hard to get them back.

Appeal to lecturers

Ask your students if they are enrolled to vote. Tell them about the statistics at the start of this article, and get them to check their enrolment in class. Download the infographic to show at the start of your lectures.

In doing so you will be acting in the long tradition of the academic as public intellectual: a scholar who not only contributes their expertise to public debate, but also a scholar who fosters that debate through a commitment to encouraging active participation in its processes and institutions.

This article was published in The Conversation, 13 May, 2016

lgbt-rainbow-flag-hanging-outside-university-building

Earlier this year, Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity, published its latest list of the UK’s 100 most inclusive employers. The list included a record 12 universities. And a recent study revealed that academics are more likely to be LGBT than people in almost all other jobs. But are things really as rosy as all that? The Times Higher Education Magazine this week had a feature on the subject, and I was one of six academics who contributed. I have many great (as well as not so great) stories to tell about my experience of being a lesbian on campus. In my piece (below) I wanted to step away from a progress narrative, and to think about what universities can do to celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity as part of their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.  You can read the full THE article here.

Much more can be done by universities for LGBT staff and students

During my undergraduate days at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, I was vaguely aware of a Lesbian and Gay student society on campus. However, I was much more conscious of the fact that, according to whispered hearsay, the “university footbridge”, across which I walked every day, was the site of the 1972 murder of a university lecturer for homosexual activity by a group believed to be police officers.

The sense of the danger and illicitness that characterised my early experience is a far cry from the friendly environments, complete with supportive networks and formally implemented anti-discrimination practices, that greet many LGBT students on campus today. Yet Sheffield Hallam University’s #FreshersToFinals study, published last year, suggests that, although LGBT issues are increasingly visible in institutions’ policies, these often focus on bullying and discrimination – which is only one aspect of the needs of students and staff. And in preparing Australia’s first LGBTI University Guide in 2015, the country’s Human Rights Commission found that many universities were not meeting their anti-discrimination commitments or providing adequate health and welfare support or training.

Student and staff communities continue to be places where LGBT people experience harassment. While anti-discrimination policies are important in providing a procedural framework for protection and redress, they are still in no way sufficient. Policies on transitioning staff and students are underdeveloped in many institutions, with action needed on the provision of both single-sex and gender-neutral bathrooms and sports facilities, as well as administrative processes around name and status designation and documentation, such as the reissuing of degree certificates. The Equality Challenge Unit provides a good guide for the higher education sector, and universities need to recognise that practices designed to support those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are not necessarily going to meet the needs of trans and intersex people.

Policies around parental leave also frequently need revising, particularly as they apply to gay men who can all too easily fall through the net of state and employer provision. The unseen work that openly LGBT lecturers and staff do as role models for students needs to be much better rewarded, with institutions recognising its importance to the university community and the time and cost – both personal and financial – that it entails.

Diversity training, health and welfare services and curriculum change are crucial in shifting campus cultures. According to the Australian LGBTI University Guide, many institutions continue to do poorly in the provision of welfare and health amenities and careers advice. Alerting students to Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list, or to organisations they can join to meet LGBT people in their chosen employment sector, would be one place to start. Students come to university from a variety of backgrounds, and some families are more accepting than others. Policies need to allow flexibility around finance for those in difficulty, with universities actively supporting student groups in creating social spaces and resources for LGBT people.

Much also needs to be done in the area of content and curriculum. Textbooks need to be systematically re-evaluated to make sure that they do not omit or disparage LGBT perspectives. More broadly, teaching and research from across faculties might be integrated and showcased. University College London’s qUCL site is a great example of how LGBT events, people, courses and research projects can be profiled in a way that provides a focal point for future initiatives and an access point for staff, students and the public.

This latter point is crucial. As public institutions and major employers, universities have a role that extends beyond their walls. They need to engage with wider LGBT organisations in a range of areas that include sexual and mental health, civic space, law reform, diversity, community events and history. As educational institutions, they should work to ensure that campuses are not only places of safety and acceptance for LGBT people, but also communities that celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity. They should see this as central to their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.

The biggest positive influence for me has been the support offered and the positive example set by the openly LGBT lecturers, administrators and fellow students I met during my graduate studies at the University of Oxford (you know who you are!) In my own career, I have sought to be similarly visible to both my students and my colleagues. My discovery a few years ago that my first-year lectures at Brunel University London were being attended by several students who were not actually enrolled in my course brought home to me that for many students such examples are still in short supply.

Tamson Pietsch is a research fellow in history at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850‑1939(2013).

This article was published in ‘How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?’ 5 May 2016 in The Times Higher Education Magazine.

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