Reformation and the University

The Ironies of the Attempt to Ban the Evangelical Union.

Recently there has been newspaper reports on the demands of the Sydney University Student Union that the university’s Evangelical Union student club change its constitution to enable all students, whatever they believe, to join. To require prospective members to sign a statement of Christian belief before being admitted to membership is considered to be an implicit violation of the rights of all students to free access to all student clubs.

see also:

This is indeed an important issue. The comments made on both sites provide worthwhile reading. Ours is a complex polity and careful consideration of views from all sides is required.

But there is a great need here for historical research and understanding of how the current life of universities across Australia are still in the thrall of reforms from 1986 on and in this case from the Federal legislation from 1999 under the title of “Voluntary Student Unionism”. That legislation was brought to, and defended before, the Parliament by at least two members of evangelical Christian persuasion in the Liberal Party (Messrs Costello and Abetz). It is valid to ask whether this was in fact a reform. More exactly it was a logical and ideological extension of the Dawkins reforms that presumed that university students were actually clients, consumers, members of an intellectual “factory”. A university student union was viewed by the framers of this legislation as a trade union which was then, and still is, a patent fabrication to enhance a liberal-humanistic individualist view of the academy. The reported recent actions of the Sydney University Student Union also suggest that they assume that student clubs can be managed according to a marketplace ethic that proscribes “restrictive trade practises”. For all their “progressive left inclusivism” the Student Union’s threat to outlaw the EU’s right to a constitution that defines its own membership criteria, is simply outworking of an ideology (for all its left-wing progressive banner raising) of what is essentially a neo-liberal view of university life. For them student clubs within the university come together in a market-place in which religious ideas like any other ideas have to be managed before they can be traded freely without any restrictive barriers. And so at the level of “management” – quite apart from the blatant unfairness to the Sydney University Evangelical Union – we see how such “left progressivism” presupposes the neo-liberal libertarianism as espoused in the 1999 VSU legislation. This is simply another sad chapter deriving from the Dawkins reforms. What is needed is reform of universities, and in student union terms that means reform of debate about what universities are and how student-to-student relationships therein can be given the respect and support that is their due as an integral part of training in science and scholarship. That would mean allowing clubs to define their own criteria for membership, but it would also have to mean a change in our understanding of the university itself.

We should also keep in mind that the VSU legislation followed on, as a (ideo-) logical corollary of the recommendations of the review of tertiary education funding conducted by yet another evangelical Christian, Mr Roderick West,

For those who are interested, here is the response I made to the Voluntary Student Unionism legislation of 1999 and published in Eureka Street.

As well, readers may like to consider whether the Association for Christian Higher Education in Australia (ACHEA), which no longer exists, was able at that time, to add a principled Christian democratic voice to debate about the VSU legislation. Two further statements can be accessed.

The ACHEA submission to Parliament on VSU legislation is here .

ACHEA’s response to the West review is also available here.

There is much to investigate if we are to get all universities and higher education as well as the public funding thereof on a basis that respects their distinctive integrity. There is a great temptation to philosophical and historical, if not religious, superficiality, and that temptation is not the private property of the office bearers of the Sydney University Student Union.




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