Saturday, March 15, 2008

Economic and demographic change, education, ethnicity and the maintenance of social cohesion in Australia 2 - Preamble

Note to readers: this is one of a series of linked posts. You will find the introductory post here.

This post is by way of a preamble to my response to the SMH's current campaign.

Last night (15 March) I went to the flag ceremony at Sydney University's International House. This is held at the start of each year to welcome new arrivals. After Australians, the largest group was Chinese, followed by Indians.

Earlier in February, I reported on the civic welcoming ceremony in Armidale held at the Armidale Town Hall for newly arrived international students. There were over 100 from 21 countries. In UNE's case, the largest group were again Chinese, followed by Japanese.

Two ceremonies, both in their small ways markers of both continuity and change.

Continuity, because the University of New England has been conducting welcoming ceremonies for international students since at least the early 1960s, while the flag ceremony has been carried out at International House since its establishment in 1967.

Change, because the institutions themselves have changed in a whole variety of ways, as have the students.

In the 1960s, international students were a very visible part of the Universities, especially at the smaller UNE where they were an integral part of the overall college system. At the bigger Sydney, International House was established in part to bring together local and overseas students.

Things change.

In 2006, the latest numbers I have, Sydney had 9,680 full fee paying overseas students, UTS 8,954 and UNSW 8,618.

These are big groups. Now at a cross-university level, there are issues and tensions about overseas students versus local students. At micro level, International House has had to address the question of its role in in a changing world where it now has perhaps 2% of Sydney's international students.

The rise in international student numbers at Sydney's various universities is due in significant part to Federal Government policies. Those same Governments imposed policies that almost destroyed the University of New England, leaving problems that continue.

I reported on the most recent manifestation of this in February in a post on the storm clouds gathering over UNE's troubled college system. The fact that UNE is still a true university is a tribute to the institution's continuing traditions and core strength in the face of both Federal policies and sometimes poor university administration.

At the International House function. the alumni award went to Alina Gambin who with husband Jeff runs Just Enough Faith, a non-religious charity.

Like me, Jeff is a smoker so, as smokers do, we spent some time outside chatting.

Students were expected to wear national dress at the function, so in sympathy I wore what my wife rudely calls my livestock and grain producer outfit - moleskins, double pocketed shirt, wool tie, in fact showing off the things that my daughters bought me for my birthday.

This outfit provided a starting point for the conversation between Jeff and myself.

When he first came to Australia, Jeff worked as an ag (agriculture) pilot for TV host Art Linkletter, then probably Australia's largest landowner. There he acquired a love for Australia's country people.

Like me, Jeff is concerned at the way that change has in some ways torn the heart out of country life. In this context, he and Alina had just been running activities in central NSW intended to reach out to country men. to bring them together.

The genesis lay in the concerns that country women had for their men. As I wrote in my earlier post on the history of the CWA (Country Women's Association), country women have always played a key role in the fight for better rural conditions.

Like many Australian men, country men are not good at expressing their feelings. Faced with enormous change, they try (to use an old Australian phase) to crack hardy, to sort things out. Sometimes that is not possible. The result can be depression and even suicide. Suicide has been a particular problem among young men. Women, wives and mothers, bear the brunt of all this.
Jeff and Alina have also been working with the homeless in Sydney.

Homelessness used to be an inner city problem, older men. Now homelessness has spread to include a wide range of social groups and to both broader Sydney and regional areas. Again, these problems have been exacerbated by previous Government policies.

As it happened, I had been too two road shows in the previous ten days.

The first dealt with the Housing NSW five year corporate plan. There one key issue was the best way to establish a more effective continuum across the housing spectrum from homelessness through transition housing to longer term housing, from social housing to affordable housing.

At the second, on affordable housing, I was one of the presenters in my role as project manager of a major project focused on ways of getting better leverage from new supply money.

So given all this, Jeff and I chatted about ways in which previous policies including the estates approach in the 1950s and 1960s had contributed to current problems; about the rise especially in Sydney but now increasingly elsewhere, of ghettos of under-privilege; about ways of overcoming this.

This has become a very long preamble.

My real point in all this is that many of the apparently different problems that I have been discussing in this preamble and elsewhere are in fact inter-connected and reflect the combination of various structural changes with failures in official policy at state and national level.

In my previous post on this blog, On obsession, achievement and public service, I referred to my somewhat obsessive approach. I find that my personal and professional experiences of the last two decades have radicalised me in a way that I could not have forecast, leaving me uncomfortably outside the Australian mainstream, searching for new approaches.

My charge against the Sydney Morning Herald campaigns is that they have in fact trivialised, emotionalised, key problems without providing solutions. My hope is that the paper's firepower might open up the possibility of new approaches. My fear is that this will not happen, that current mind-locks will force us back to failed solutions.

I now want to look at the Herald's campaign. I will follow this with an overview of key trends and issues as I see them.

Introductory post. Next post.

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