An activist abroad

Introducing Mr Trenton Oldfield…

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

AFTER Trenton Oldfield bobbed up seal-like in a wetsuit and halted the 158-year-old annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Australian’s anti-elitist manifestos rose to the surface just behind him. Mr Oldfield, 35, a year 10 dropout from the prominent Sydney boys’ private school Shore, left a trail of rich-bashing blog posts and evidence of a 10-year career since his arrival in London as activist, project manager and student – all focused on poverty, social inequality and decay in inner cities. A graduate of the London School of Economics, he lists among his preoccupations ”the socio-political history of fences/railings – including when they shifted from keeping things in to keeping things out”.

According to the Telegraph in the United Kingdom:

Boasting a proud sporting tradition, Shore has an enviable reputation as one of Australia’s top rowing schools and Mr Oldfield was a leading crew member during his time there. But despite initially taking full advantage of his privileged start in life, the ardent political campaigner now claims it was his experiences at the much celebrated school that ignited his long held opposition to elitism in society.

Any action against (what the British refer to as) ‘toffery’ is welcome because statistics indicate a clear disparity between the rich and the poor in this country. Trenton’s own privileged background does qualify him to take up the challenge against sham elitism which potentially results in negative outcomes for society as a whole.

However, the choice of his targets is puzzling. Oxford & Cambridge are public universities in Great Britain. The tuition fees historically cost the same as any other public university. These institutions accept enrolments from all applicants based on academic merit including those coming from disadvantaged circumstances. A couple of boys and girls from school went to Oxford University to further their education. The irony is that those individuals were almost anarchistic in their political views. If one believed the tales of their social lives, they lived and breathed cannabis, although never during the exam period because of potential memory effects! They came from rich families which would have fuelled their aspirations against a the rise of a privileged class in society, just like it may have done for Trenton. Surely a private university which has been accused of financial elitism such as Bond on the Gold Coast (photographed below) is far more deserving of derision? The same applies to any institution where a prospective student pays their way to graduate as a lawyer (for example) without gaining course admission based on academic merit alone.

Bond Uni at Night. In HDR.

That aside, protest is important, whether one opposes the imposition of the carbon tax upon polluting industries, coal seam gas extraction or even globalization. As bloggers we are acutely aware of the value of freedom of speech, without the constraints of ‘lead-footed’ moderation or censorship. Many Australians use talk back radio to voice their protest! Doesn’t the fact that people in Western Europe and Australia are now talking about elitism mean that Trenton’s sporting vandalism was worthwhile? Protestors such as Trenton can be annoying, of course. But is there not a bigger danger in saying nothing and expecting the world to change?


Sham elitism: Graduates vent their disgust

Federal Coalition frontbencher Andrew Laming is another medical graduate expressing his disgust at the administrative processes in place at the University of Queensland. The state’s oldest (‘sandstone’) university has major campuses in St Lucia, Ipswich and Gatton in South East Queensland.


Dr Laming writes:

According to Chancellor John Story, the University of Queensland is committed to the highest levels of probity, and… [the instance where the Vice Chancellor’s family member was admitted into medicine without fulfilling the criteria] was an irregularity devoid of misconduct. The University Senate expressed regret but not sorrow. It evokes images of a typographical error.

But surely a vice-chancellerial conversation alone cannot possibly lead to an irregular enrolment? Where was the Dean of the School of Medicine in this process? How were irregular admissions funded? What were the second-order effects like diverted resources, additional unfunded places or reduced admissions elsewhere?

It is fair to wonder whether fiddling for family members of those in the right places is established practice. Only an inquiry would give answers.

Read Andrew’s full article in the Courier-Mail.

Uni Daze pt 1: Nepotism enrolment scandal

What is elitism? How might elites use power to repress freedom?

Elitism only works when there is integrity. Unfortunately, that probably means most of the time it doesn’t work. Everyone wants to be perceived as the best, so a strategy of pursuing elitism is a winning formula! What is it, Greg Nyquist?

Elitism… is an inherent part of human condition. In many areas of professional human endeavor the competition is fierce, and only so many people can carve out successful careers for themselves. Not everyone who wishes to be a congressman can be one; nor can everyone who wishes to be a professional composer satisfy his ambition.

The only question in so far as the problem of elitism is concerned is whether or not those who succeed and take up positions as the leading elites in their respective professions deserve their eminent positions. If they do in fact deserve to be elites, if they are, in effect, “genuine” elites, then we have on our hands an instance of “good” elitism, and there is absolutely no reason to get all indignant about it. If, on the other hand, those who occupy the most eminent and powerful positions in their professions do not deserve to be where they are, if they have unfairly supplanted those who do and, consequently, make up, not a genuine elite, but a sham one, then this is an instance of bad elitism.

Freedom against repression

Can a lack of transparency result in ‘sham elitism’?

Alumni and current students of the University of Queensland seem disgusted by the way an enrolment scandal has afflicted their institution. Corporatization of Australian tertiary education has meant this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Whilst university structures such as Bond and the University of ‘Melbourne Model‘ may run closed shops to support what many criticize as a purely capitalist system, you come to expect a certain level of transparency with public institutions. (Reports suggest another public institution, the University of Western Australia aims to join Melbourne along the greedy path of the wannabe American university model based on full fees).

The University of Queensland nepotism scandal broke last year with the Courier Mail reporting an inconsistency with an acceptance of a student into medicine without fulfilling the necessary criteria. The omission was slight if the facts supplied are to be believed. Now, the story is just beginning with the Crime and Misconduct Commission of Queensland announcing a criminal investigation into the institution.

Along the way, the Vice Chancellor (who presided over the administrative flaws) resigned his role at the university and as head of the Group of Eight research funding lobby group. Let’s be frank, he could not carry out his role properly as he was an object of disgust for staff and students.

St Lucia UQ

In the Courier Mail, James Thomas, a retired Supreme Court judge who lectured and published a text at the university, said this of the Vice Chancellor:

…It is strongly arguable that his ethical duty as leader of a great public institution demands more from him than sitting on his legal rights.

A vice-chancellor is in a different position to a lowly student. The university is a great institution, bigger than some government departments. Thousands of citizens aspire to enter it.

They need to know that its entry requirements are publicly stated and rigidly applied, and that entrance will always be on merit, not favour.

Concerns of this kind are currently held by many, and they tend to affect the reputation of the university. His is the public face of the institution.

The author commenced a double degree at this institution in 1995. He returned for cross institutional enrolment commencing in 2004. Someone close to him worked at the university in several roles with student support services. Whilst that doesn’t qualify one to pass judgement whatsoever, it’s clear quite a lot happened in 10 years. Consider the lack of government funding pursued by the Howard government, unprecedented expenditure on advertising from public universities and changes to the intake of international students.

What failed in this instance was a lack of transparency in an institution that, like all others do, purportedly pursues an equitable and elite standard of education. Ironically, Vice Chancellor Greenfield achieved a lot, including winning the institution ‘more discovery grants than any other member of the Group of Eight’ according to the Melbourne Age column the Third Degree.

The original nepotism scandal has encouraged further claims of ‘enrolment inconsistencies’ to be made public knowledge. Fortunately, the university is implementing systematic changes.

Bad Taste University

Universities are the foundation of learning. Profit is critical, but universities were not historically designed to be income-producing entities. Ethics and principles are fundamentally important, arming students for life. If we find elitism to be a sham in institutions established by statute to be accountable to (and owned by) the public, what hope is there for ‘genuine elitism’ within corporations where a balance between greed and integrity is even more difficult to establish?

Coming up next time…

The blogger examines transparency a bit further with a broader matter that affects every university in the country.

Are international students given special privileges because they are full fee paying? What are the benefits in allowing international students to ‘cross-subsidise domestic students’? Should we examine the ‘morality of taking fees from foreign students from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region to prop up Australian universities’?

In the meantime, check out Turning off the Tap. Berlin photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. UQ photo by Amy Glen.

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The original text of Uni Daze pt 1: Nepotism enrolment scandal written by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License.