Paris: How do we react to this madness?

Solidarity for ParisThe events in Paris have left us all feeling bewildered. I, along with the rest of the world, watched in horror as everything unfolded.


Though I love Paris – it is a place close to my heart as I have visited a number times, worked there, briefly lived there, certainly enjoyed wine, cheese and food there – it was not the point. The point was the extent of the human tragedy. Paris followed Beirut, and was quickly followed by the attack in Bamako, Mali.


As an academic who walks students through their first year of sociology and cultural studies discussing race, violence and colonialism, and at the same time promoting tolerance, diversity and peace, my inbox was swamped with students asking me: How do we understand these events? How should we react? What can I do? What is the way forward or are we doomed to violence and a clash of civilisations.


I have been pondering these same questions and here are some thoughts.


Firstly, these are not the acts of madmen.


These are deliberate acts to undermine the very basis of contemporary society: trust. As I have written before, the famous sociologist Anthony Giddens, writes that modern societies are based on trust: we trust the mechanic to fix our car, the engineer to build a bridge that will not collapse, the pilot to fly us safely home and, most relevant here, we trust the stranger to act like a stranger. The stranger sits quietly on the train or walks past us, and we mutually agree to ignore each other.

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Should a University re-brand?

urlAs many people know, Western Sydney University recently rebranded (we ‘killed the bird’ logo replacing it with a shield and changed our name from University of Western Sydney).


This caused outrage in some quarters, mirth in others and a great deal of excitement elsewhere. After watching the debates go round for a few weeks, I noted on my Facebook page that I supported the re-brand: the many reactions reflected this broad range of feelings.


Criticisms levelled at the University fell into two broad areas:


  1. The amount of money spent on the re-branding; and
  2. Why should a university worry about branding?


I will not comment on the first because I know nothing about marketing budgets – but I am told that Western Sydney University historically spends less as a proportion of its budget than other comparable universities. Further, to look at a raw number without comparing it to a) what the university spent on marketing previously, and b) to look at money from a sector average – both give a false impression.


So should a university spend money on re-branding?


In an ideal world, the answer is obviously ‘no’.


But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world that is shaped by rankings, perceptions and structures that favour established universities (particularly Australia’s Group of Eight (or Go8): Melbourne, Monash, UQ, UNSW, ANU, UWA, Adelaide and Sydney University). These ranking create hierarchies that are reflective of the class and power relations across society. This is evidences in research funding – which they Go8 has argued should be further concentrated towards them (click here).


More than that, Greater Western Sydney has always had to deal with being considered as Sydney’s ‘other’ – and this has been reflected in attitudes regarding Western Sydney University. This is not unique to Western Sydney University: if reflects attitudes towards suburban and regional universities across Australia.


Having spent time at many universities across Australia over the last three years I see these hierarchies reflected across staff, students and the general public.


Dealing with universities from other parts of Australia, the commentary on universities not in the centre of town is frequently derogatory. In Sydney, if you suggest to colleagues from inner city campuses that they should attend a seminar at Western Sydney, the response is telling: they argue that they could not possibly ask their students to travel ‘out there’ – nor do they have time themselves. This is not unique to Sydney: I have seen similar attitudes expressed across Australia.


But it is the internal dialogue that emerges in many regional and suburban universities that has often shocked me: academic staff openly wondering what it would be like to work for a ‘real university’. They speak of their own university as being second class. Much of this language reflects the language of class and power structures of mainstream media that these same academics would criticise in their research.


And who suffers? The answer, of course, is our students.


With both external and internal derision, it does not take much knowledge of Foucault’s representation of power to understand why students often begin to mirror this themselves. Despite meeting some of the best students I have ever worked with at Western Sydney University, they are often full of self-doubt – and it is the attitude that they are surrounded with that sees this emerge.


Again, this is not unique to Western U students – I have met amazing students from regional universities who doubt their own talent.


As the Head of the Academy, I was often given feedback from employers and potential employers that our graduates are fantastic but lack confidence. More than that, some large employers have commented on the minimal numbers of applicants from the University – they compliment the one’s they receive, but are often all too few. When we asked the students why they did not apply for certain prestigious positions, the students stated that these positions where for students from the more prestigious (inner city) universities.


Will the re-branding address this?


On its own, no – but as part of broad suite of changes, it has.


Despite the criticisms from one of my favourite news sources – New Matilda – there has been a perceptible change both internally and externally in the attitude to the Western Sydney University following the re-branding.


The rebrand combined along with new initiatives such as The Academy, the new Graduate Research School (which I am now the Dean of), investment in new research infrastructure and a continued focus on teaching excellence (such as the Distinguished Teaching Fellows program) has given the students a new-found confidence.


Over my time here I have been impressed with the commitment to both scholarship and community engagement of our students. But this has been accompanied by a cultural cringe of being ‘out west’. (Again, something we see reflected in other universities whose geography is not ‘inner-city’). This has changed – and even in a few short months, the re-brand has played a small but important part.


This is because the campaign is focuses around student achievement. This is an achievement focussed on both excellence and overcoming adversity – including the inspiring story of Dang Thiak.


The critics that have mocked the re-brand barely noticed when UNSW or UWA rebranded.


But maybe it is because they too think that a university based in Western Sydney is not a real university – and maybe they think that such a university should not get too uppity in the way they see themselves.


In this way, some of the critics are merely perpetuating the myths of western Sydney – and contributing to snobbery that sees the West ignored on all sorts of issues: from the arts to recreation, transport, health and, of course, education.

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Talking Students, Transitions, Achievement, Retention, Success…

Why do students drop out of university? How do theIMG_3712y handle the transition into university (be it from secondary school or as mature aged students)? What does student success mean? How can we influence students to achieve? And just as important, what does success actually mean?


These are all questions that I have tried to confront from the moment I started teaching at universities…


One of my passions has always been the experience and success of first year students. It is an area that I have researched and studied – not just from a theoretical point of view but also from a practical perspective.


Early in my career, I was asked to coordinate a first year subject that had a fail/drop out rate of 23 percent! Think of that: almost 1 in 4 students would drop out!


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Why Ernst & Young should remove degree classification from entry criteria… and why universities must continue innovate

IMG_4336One of the things I have been discussing with friends and colleagues over the last few years is the ‘future of universities’. My argument is quite simple, universities are where newspapers and record labels used to be a decade or so ago: that is, our value proposition is related to the fact that we own content and secondly, that we issue credentials (especially degrees).


Like record labels and newspapers, we can no longer rely on content as MOOCs and other online providers continue to offer alternative knowledge pathways. Regarding credentials, I believe that in the next decade we will be confronted with something like an ‘AppleU’ of ‘GoogleU’ – a fully online credentialed vehicle by one of the tech giants. In fact, the signs are already here…


This will continue to put pressure on universities to show how they add value.


Just how quickly things are changing was highlighted by Ernst and Young‘s announcement that “The accountancy firm is scrapping its policy of requiring a 2:1 and the Continue reading

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Finding the middle ground: two academics respectfully agree to differ on the academic boycott of Israel

IMG_5994Last weekend I was lucky enough to meet Peter Greste and Waleed Aly at two separate events. Peter was in the Green Room at ABC studio just before I had my segment and Waleed was a guest at my university – Western Sydney University.


In the separate conversations I had with each of them, we reflected on the fact that our political debates had become polarised: from same sex marriage, to climate change and tax reform, we seem to be increasingly screaming at each other rather than hearing where we stand.


I know where I stand on these issues, but rather than dismissing different perspectives, I have learnt that listening and finding a middle ground provides me with insights I have not thought of, even if I disagree. This was a lesson I learnt years ago when debating the amazing Associate Professor John Rees about religion.

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The Greek crisis… see you again in a year or two

IMG_9267In my time studying economics and and working as an economist, what always seemed quite strange to me, was the way the economy was always disconnected from ‘society’. Not only was it disconnected, but always prioritised.


The ludicrousness of this has always been the notion of ‘trickle down economics’: which relies on the idea that by making the wealthy wealthier, they will spend more and eventually wealth will trickle down to those who need it the most. The failure of this has economic policy been has been confirmed repeatedly by countless impressive economists including Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitiz (see a recent article from Salon here…)


I am not saying that ‘the economy’ is not important or that stimulating economic activity should not be a goal of policy, but that it is only a part of society: an integral part yes, but still, only a section.


This prioritising of the economy and seeing its management as an end its own right, rather than being there to serve the people within the community, is at the very core of neoliberalism.

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How do we teach creativity?

IMG_3493This semester at my university, the University of Western Sydney, I have been responsible for the introduction of three new subjects: Creativity, Innovation and Design, Introduction to Critical Thinking; and Research Stories.


Along with a fourth subject, Leadership in a Complex World, they form the suite of subjects for a new Bachelor’s Degree we have launched as part of The Academy program.


This has been an interesting (and somewhat successful) experiment that seeks to both challenge and compliment the approach to contemporary education.


Let me explain. Historically, universities, like newspapers and record labels, owned content. Today, we are just one of many content providers. Not only that, much of the content that universities once ‘owned’ is now offered free on the Internet.


Content is still important: we want an accountant to be able to do the math; we need engineers to build a bridges that do not collapse; and we want our teachers to have the pedagogical expertise to guide our young people through their schooling.


But this is not enough!

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Online citizenship: The role of the contemporary ‘netizen’

In a recentIMG_0777 interview, the current Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, dismissed online engagements as ‘electronic graffiti‘. This statement by the Prime Minister highlighted a clear misunderstanding of a contemporary dimension of citizenship – the ‘netizen‘ The netizen is not a fad but a dimension of our contemporary world that is now embedded in the way we communicate and politically engage.


Recently, I wrote an article for ABC Drum explaining that despite the internet being part of our everyday life, it is still in its infancy. It will continue to evolve and so will our interactions within it. The article is available here…


My argument is that the internet as a space of democratic interaction that we must consider incredibly valuable. It should be fostered, and should be part of any civics education program, for its speed, its links to such a vast array of information, its uptake among young people and its capacity to break down social barriers and equalise interactions.

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Never be defined by a number: What does the ATAR really tell us?

I really lIMG_2461ove teaching… it is an amazing profession. I am not sure what I like the most about it: possibly introducing students to new concepts, seeing that moment when they grasp a new idea or the ability shine a light onto something that has not been part of their consciousness before! Or maybe it is is when the students teach me something new.


I have just returned from a lecture tour of China and Taiwan which included, amongst other things, running innovative teaching workshops (see photo). In these workshops I asked people what they enjoyed most about teaching: they invariably say it is the student interactions… an answer that is the same in each and every country I have asked that question!


And what do they hate the most? The answer is always when students focus on the results and not the learning!


This is a by-product of our education system that is focussed on outcomes. This outcome has been the focus in Australia over the last few days as students receive their Higher School Certificate results. It is a single number – a percentage – and it often comes to define how people see themselves!

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Re-defining literacy: Internationalisation as a form of literacy…



One focus of my research areas has been to consider the skills that, as educators, we should be teaching our students. It is a project which includes a collaboration with Dr David Hornsby (from Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa) – who has co-edited an excellent book discussing large class teaching.


In my previous post, I discussed some of the skills that students need in preparing for the ‘jobs of tomorrow’.  One of the skills I mentioned was ‘literacy’ – and asked ‘what does literacy mean today?’ We have rapidly moved from a time of information scarcity to information abundance – and as IBM recently noted, 90 percent of data is been created in the last two years.  In this way, we have moved from looking for the perfect book or report in the library to having to decipher 1.7 million hits on Google!


As such, literacy today must include the ability to quickly assess what information is relevant, what is needed, combine it and present it in a way that is accessible.


Another dimension of contemporary literacy must include ‘internationalisation’: that is, the ability to work in a cross cultural environment.

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