Fisher Library on the Campus of Sydney University.

Fisher Library on the Campus of Sydney University. Photo: James Alcock JLA

It’s a constant refrain of parents, teachers, and self-appointed guardians of Kultur everywhere – society is getting dumber.

This is a perfectly acceptable accusation, so long as those pointing fingers are willing to stomach that it’s academic institutions, not students, who are responsible for declining standards.

Last week I saw for the first time photos of what has recently been happening at my alma mater. The University of Sydney’s Fisher Library is having its stacks uprooted, and roughly half the collection will end up in storage, never to return.

Fisher Library at the Univeristy of Sydney renovation begins post removal of books.

Fisher Library at the Univeristy of Sydney renovation begins post removal of books. Photo: Ampersand magazine.

In its place, apparently, will be hot desking chill zones and break out areas, similar to the abomination that is the SciTech library, the noisy modern reading room/internet café on City Road where C students check their facebook and talk and eat and sleep (the former Sydney University librarian John Shipp once described SciTech as ‘a kind of zoo’).

When institutions start self-sabotaging like this, it makes you ponder whether they’re really as essential as they seem. It reveals how fragile they are.

We currently live in an age when complacent businesses, especially complacentinformation businesses, are treated ruthlessly by the market – see newspapers, telephone directories, the music industry, and quieter wipeouts for traditional business models in financial data, periodicals, and yes, education.

The vision for the Fisher Library of the future.

The vision for the Fisher Library of the future. Photo: Sydney University

So what is a university?

Firstly, it is (usually) a very expensive piece of land, with very expensive heritage buildings and very expensive gardens. It probably has its own police force, very expensive sporting facilities, loss making taverns and restaurants, and may also own student accommodation and performance spaces.

A university is first and foremost a messy, diversified property portfolio that is expensive to administer and is often more about presentation than purpose – sandstone quadrangles, cricket pitches groomed to chequerboard perfection by teams of silent men on roller mowers, carillons and formal gardens.

Secondly, a university is its staff. Some of these are tenured, others, usually the youngest, are on casual contracts. 40 per cent of university staff in this country are now casuals. University lecturers are, perversely, incentivised not to teach. The pressure on academics to ‘publish or perish’ competes with the necessity to service their clients, the students, with courses and tutorials.

Finally, a university is about students. But increasingly, the students aren’t there. I’ll never forget the time I was listening to one of my undergrad lectures on a podcast, and heard the Professor ask the class – ‘Is Daniel Stacey still enrolled? Does anyone know?’

Yes I was, and I scored an HD for the class. More and more students are realising that commuting to and from university is a waste of time – time to study, and time to work so you can earn enough money to service the crippling cost of attending university these days.

The only course I ever studied where I was actually required to show up to lectures was at Berkeley under the philosopher John Searle – he took a register of attendance and failed students who missed two classes in a term. I respected him for his severity, until I realized that the lectures were dominated by a dippy northern Californian who asked the same questions every time, mixed in with Searle’s anecdotes about having dinner with famous film directors – the lectures were a place for performance rather than learning.

The fact is – you read for your degree. You don’t need to sit or listen – you just need to read, and occasionally join in tutorials to purloin ideas from other students.

This used to play to the main strength of a university – its expensive, glorious library – but now no more.

The Fisher Library is being ‘optimised’, as UTS academic Adam Jasper wrote so chillingly in Ampersand Magazine a few years ago (before it had all started). The stacks dismantled, the books trucked off to a warehouse, likely thereafter to be buried in a pit. In place of these books will be more OHS compliant shelves and funky meeting places for ‘kinetic learning’, servicing the tiresome, dated dream of a ‘multi-media entertainment palace’.

The books that remain will be the ones that get borrowed a lot – foundational technical manuals for practical degrees. Gone are the obscure and the arcane – one of the sections eviscerated last month, according to PhD candidate Huon Curtis, was the 390s Dewey Decimal class, dedicated to customs, etiquette and folklore.

Turning an irreplaceable library into a daggy wifi hub is symptomatic of where universities are at generally. Universities are in all kinds of trouble. Many have been trading on their brands while neglecting their product.

For the University of New South Wales, the recognition that their brand is tradable has seen them try and fail to set up a campus in Singapore.

UNSW and a number of other Group of Eight members including the University of Western Australia and the University of Melbourne have also started partnering with US company Coursera to offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), as they struggle to work out what the university of the future will look like and how they will fit in.

Smart Sparrow – an Australian startup founded by UNSW staff – is already being used to teach hundreds of students at UNSW online courses in subjects like histology and histopathology.

OpenLearning, another Australian startup out of UNSW, offers online university courses on a platform that shares features with Facebook and Youtube, and gives automated feedback on assignments.

These flirtations with the future are admirable, but a traditional university in an online space is also a very vulnerable institution. Its maintenance and staff costs put it at a competitive disadvantage, while the often poor treatment of junior lecturers see it exposed to the head hunting of key academics.

But ultimately though, over time no one cares how a university makes its courses, they just care about cost and quality.

Of course, complacency and institutional nihilism in universities are nothing new. Anyone who has read Lucky Jim knows that. 

It’s just that now, more than ever, there are going to be severe consequences for this complacency.

Only a fool would try and predict exactly what the university of the future is going to look like, but it’ll probably be one where major brands – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale – continue to act as finishing schools for the children of wealthy families while much more agile and smarter startups knock out everyone else.

But while the future of the university is unclear, its present is obvious. Places like the University of Sydney don’t seem to know whether they’re a temple of learning or a glamorous hot-desking shed; a place to commune and study with other bookworms or a practical college living in the heritage shell of a completely different (and long dead) institution.

Sooner or later, an alternative institution that's cheaper, more supportive, and less ‘kinetic’ to learn in, will set up shop, and draw away the best academics. Students will follow. 

Then ultimately, the university will be finished.