In 1853, one of the more flamboyant Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Benjamin Disraeli, described the ideal university as a place of “light, liberty and learning.” Commenting on the legacy of this quote more than one hundred years later, Disraeli’s biographer remarked that “it has not become such a truism that we can afford to forget it a century later.” Looking at the state of tertiary education in Australia today, I would say we forgot those words a very long time ago. Today, tertiary education resembles little more than any of the other flashy little shops which decorate Northbourne Avenue. We are programmed rather than taught, manufactured rather than inspired and pushed into a competitive and toxic world with little more than a participation ribbon. Many of us are saddled with debt which we will carry with us well into adulthood. Some of us are even bankrupted.
And for what? A degree is no longer the ticket to employment it once was for our parents. It does not even guarantee an interview. The ugly reality of our time is that it is now what the student is born into rather than what they create which determines their future. Our universities make the mistake of assuming that every student has access to the same resources and that they will succeed or fail on the basis of their academic performance. But even if academic performance is the great equaliser, how are these abilities tested? Through useless lectures and unimaginative tutorials? By writing dull essay after dull essay about a topic nobody cares about? By learning how to perfect the mediocre arts of copying, memorising and reciting the same thing over and over and over again? Our universities are no longer just insufficient or unsuitable, they are punishing and reductive. They turn enthusiasm into boredom and discriminate against imagination in favour of mediocrity. All in the name of “efficiency,” “productivity” and “learning.”
I did not always believe this. I, like many of you I guess, came to university full of hope and excitement. Finally, I thought, I can learn about stuff I really care about and I can study the things which I’m actually interested in. Due to my interest in government, I thought a Law/Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree would be perfect. What could be better than a degree which combines law with politics, philosophy and economics? How wonderful! … I thought. Almost four years on, after I realised what PPE really is, after I realised how much of the law is really broken, and after I realised that HIRAC (Heading, Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) and not imagination was the key to HDs, my enthusiasm was no more.
I can only speak from my own experience. But I hope by sharing some of it, you might see where my disillusion began and why this system needs to change. I thought that my degree would give me the freedom and the passion to make a contribution to my community. I’ve always tried to be conscious of my privilege and rather than just doing what I thought the world expected me to do, I thought that a degree would give me the tools to help others. Naïve I know. Fanciful even. Maybe just stupid. I probably should have known that I was entering an institution which had more in common with Waystar/Royco from Succession than the library of Alexandria. There were two moments when I seriously considered changing my degree and doing something else. One pre-pandemic and one during the second ACT lockdown. I told myself that I stuck with it in the hope it would get better. But if I’m honest with myself it was probably because I didn’t know what the ‘something else’ was. Should I change degrees? Should I change courses? Should I drop out? I had no idea.
My first flirtation with disillusion was in one of the early PPE integration courses. It was so worthless I genuinely cannot remember anything else we learnt except one particular topic. The course (I think?) focused on the politics side of the degree. One day we were presented with the ‘voting equation’ a mathematical formula which was supposedly designed to determine if and how someone would vote. I was paralysed by a mix of shock and incredulity. I thought to myself, what the fuck? Does any voter anywhere in the world sit down at the voting booths and work this shit out? Is this what Antony Green programs into his computer every election night? For fuck’s sake! At this point, I realised that PPE was not a convenient and elegant combination of three crucial disciplines into one, but was instead its own ideology, and not one I found interesting, useful or factual.
But, I told myself, there is still hope for the law. Even if PPE is just a solution in search of a problem, or an extended TEDtalk in search of an audience, all change starts and ends with the law. Surely, I told myself, studying the law must also include evaluating the law, learning if and how it works, by what principles and importantly, for whom. Of course, I was wrong.
Throughout my entire law degree, I have done two subjects which fit that description. Every other course has been either interesting content taught by dull people, dull content taught by dull people, or amoral content taught by interesting people. There was one course where I had another what the fuck moment. Generally I thought Equity and Trusts was taught well, but the law itself made me sick. There was one case I will always remember – Re Diplock. The children of a deceased man sued a hospital for refurbishing its children’s ward with their father’s trust money. A children’s ward. I thought to myself, is this what I’ll be doing in 10 years’ time? Helping dickheads sue a children’s hospital? And yet, during the entire course, no one ever asked if the law was just. Not once.
Originally published in Woroni Vol.72 Issue 1 ‘Evolution’