From 2-5 July 2018 the HERSDA (Higher Education Research and Development Society) conference took place in Adelaide. This year’s theme was (Re) Valuing Higher Education.

Of course with all conferences there are a lot of papers and discussions and meetings and posters and presentations, but I’d like to share with you the most inspiring one, the keynote of Day 2, “A thousand tiny Universities” by Barbara Grant, Associate Professor of Higher Education, School of Critical Studies in Education, Te Kura o te Kōtuinga Akoranga Mātauranga,The University of Auckland.

Barbara talked about her perspective on notions such as the moral purpose and value of Higher Education and the impact of HE on its academic subjects – teachers, researchers and students.

For me personally, this subject has resonated a lot, with what is going on right now around us, where change becomes the norm and everyone of us is asked to stay calm in the eye of the storm.

For me also this concept of a thousand tiny Universities provides a comforting thought that we are all together in the wave of movement and that we are all still able to stand up for ourselves, hold against all too disturbing actions and secure our own safe space at work and in our minds.

Barbara derives the concept of thousand tiny Universities from two sources, one Chinese and one Aboriginal.

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ was a form of torture and capital punishment in Imperial China from the tenth century until its abolition in 1905, and used lingchi, which involved repeatedly slicing the convict’s flesh beyond the point of death.

Whilst this seems to be a pretty grim concept, for Barbara the current funding cuts and the ongoing de-cruiting of people, the constant increase on the student:staff ration and the ever closer association between HE and economy are all leading to fogginess in the Universities’ mission.

Michael J Connolly, Munda-gutta Kulliwari,

As a second source,

Barbara cited an Aboriginal Dreamtime story,

adapted here by Professor Irene Watson:

Tiddalick the Frog 

What we can do, on the ground level, about these forces mostly out of our control, is take the perspective from within our smaller, “tiny” worlds and effect change where ever we can.

She invites all of us, staff and students, to become all our own tiny University, each one by ourselves, as a place of knowledge sharing and caring for each other, so that we can become powerful and influential, even when small.

Barbara’s talk about the University’s current standing, with all its implications, still ended on a notion of hope. With a twinkle in her eye, she cited the Russian band Pussy Riot with:

At the end of her talk, Barbara asked all of us to share an image of hope with each other, an image of the tiny university, which grows inside ourselves. I would like to extend to all of you her invitation to become a tiny University to piece together the bigger ones in the future.

And if you would like to send me a picture of hope as a reply to this blog post, I will create a collage out of these pictures and forward this image to Barbara.

Read Agnes Bosanquet’s blog on the same keynote >

Posted by Bettina Pfaendner

Bettina is a creative mind, lecturer for film and television, media and communication, and a Learning Designer by heart. What is more fulfilling than helping others to learn!

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