When problems need to be solved, we should fear inertia, not change.

With the electors of Hobart voting strongly to oppose the move of UTAS to the city, the question is what should happen next. Some opponents of the move are declaring it game over, and saying UTAS should abandon its plans and sell the properties it has acquired in the city to enable the move.

I disagree. While I understand their disquiet, to allow the electors of Hobart to determine the future of UTAS would be undemocratic and elitist. And, besides, their judgement is most likely wrong. Wrong for Sandy Bay, wrong for Hobart, wrong for UTAS, and wrong for Tasmania.

I say ‘most likely’, because the issue is not simple: there are many questions, and the answers are not obvious. This is something we need to think through. But I suspect one problem with the whole UTAS moving to the city discussion is that it does look simple, and the answer seems so obvious that it should not require much thought.

One the one hand, we have UTAS at Sandy Bay, the only university most Hobartians are familiar with and in that way the very definition of what a university is. On the other hand, we have a collection of buildings in the city that have been purchased by UTAS, and some that have been purpose built for the uni and met with widespread criticism for their design. They are buildings which are separated by other elements of the city so that your eye cannot take in the whole of the city campus at one sweep, as the eye can with Sandy Bay. In short, Sandy Bay looks like a university, while the centre of Hobart does not.

The supposed conclusion there is: What else does anyone need to know to see that the whole idea of the move is ridiculous, so obviously bad it must have been foisted on the university by a departed (and now disgraced) VC, and perhaps even corrupted by dodgy land dealings?

Propositions that look so obvious as to not require scrutiny are the most dangerous kind. They disable our critical faculties. They become beliefs which groups share as articles of faith, such that holding a contrary view shows that you are ‘not one of us’. When ‘everyone I know has the same view about this’ it is easy to think this is because the proposition is obviously true, and we do not realize the shared belief has become a criterion of friendship-group membership. Within our shared belief circle, such ideas are then placed beyond criticism, incapable of refutation. To doubt would strain relations, to disagree would lose friends. And even without evidence to support them such beliefs can become widely held views which, when false, have very damaging consequences. The claim that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump is an example among Republicans. The fact that there is no evidence for the claim does not matter. The big steal doesn’t need evidence. To believers, its obviousness is proof of its truth.

We don’t want to be like those crazies, so let’s try and separate the claims at stake in the UTAS move, and see what evidence could be provided for them.

First, does the Hobart electors’ poll show that the people are solidly against the move and therefore it should not proceed? Obviously, no! Indeed, it would be undemocratic to take that view because not everyone with a legitimate interest in whether the move should take place was able to vote. No votes for the people of the Huon Valley, Kingborough, Glenorchy, Derwent Valley, Brighton, Southern Midlands, Clarence, Sorell and Tasman Peninsula, even though the southern campus of UTAS should better serve all of these communities, and indeed the whole of Tasmania.

To consider an analogy, what would we say about a poll of just the people of Canberra and Sydney as to whether the national capital should be moved from the ACT to NSW. Surely you, like me, would say that poll should not determine the matter as not everyone with a legitimate claim to be consulted was allowed to participate. So even if we agreed that the future location of the whole of UTAS’ southern teaching and research should be determined by a poll of local government electors, the poll that would be required has not yet been held.

Perhaps you disagree with this. If so, who do you think should have the determining say in the matter, and on what basis do you make this selection? What other controversy would you apply this rule to? The stadium at Macquarie Point? Logging in the forests of the Huon and Derwent Valley local government areas? The tailings dam at Rosebery?

I conclude that far from the Hobart elector’s poll showing the democratic will of the people, it was undemocratic, and moreover it would be elitist to abide by it without further justification, because it would allow the most privileged community in Tasmania to determine the development of an institution which is vital to the future of the whole of the state, and perhaps to improving Tasmania’s low and appallingly unequal level of university education.

Let’s get some data on this. First, the whole of Tasmania is being left behind the rest of Australia in gaining university qualifications. Universities Australia (see Fig. 71) provides data from the 2016 census on the percentage of 25-35 year-olds who have a Bachelor degree or higher, reported at statistical area level 4. Australia is broken into 89 of these areas, and Tasmania into four. Australia as a whole has 35% of 25-35 year-olds with a bachelor degree or higher. Hobart is 32%, below the Australian average, and 32nd out of 89 areas. Launceston and north-eastTasmania is 21%, and 56th/89, and the two remaining areas of Tasmania at 15% are 86 and 87th/89.

So compared to the rest of Australia – even, for two areas of Tasmania, compared to the outback of other states – Tasmanians are poorly educated at university level. We would expect, therefore, that UTAS would be enrolling a very high percentage of students from families who have not previously accessed higher education. But in fact UTAS is in the middle of the pack of Australia’s universities in this regard, with just 36% of undergraduates first in family in the latest Good Universities Guide.

So even though UTAS’ pool of possible students is heavily weighted to those that have no family history of university education, our university is not making substantial inroads into this community. I suspect the consequence of that is Tasmania falling further behind other states in the proportion of the population with a university level education.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into this. A handy statistic for that is the proportion of young people from all our different communities who enrol in university after finishing Year 12. Data provided in the Social Health Atlas at the local government level will show us the situation, allowing us to compare not just different local government areas within Tasmania, but also our municipalities with like communities elsewhere in Australia, specifically, local government areas with about the same Socio-economic Index for Areas (SEIFA).

After finishing Year 12 in 2020, 41.5% of all young people (represented by the number of 17 year-olds) in the Hobart local government area (SIEFA: 1043) enrolled in university for 2021. Kingborough (SIEFA: 1038) was the next highest, at 28.4%, with Clarence (SIEFA: 1002) at 27.7%, Huon Valley (962) 20.2%, Glenorchy (906) 20.1%, and Brighton (871) down at 14.2%, followed by Sorell (965) and Derwent Valley (893) just below 12%.

Compare Adelaide, the capital of the next poorest state. The average rate at which the same age group of the three inner urban councils enrolled at uni was 68% (SIEFAs 1014, 1046 and 1072), while the middle-class eastern suburbs were between 50 and 60%. The traditionally working-class western suburbs were between 40 and 50%, with Port Adelaide -Enfield (SEIFA 936 – between Huon Valley and Glenorchy) in the middle of the pack at 45.2% – just higher than Hobart. The more disadvantaged outer northern suburbs of Adelaide are in Salisbury (SEIFA 917) where 37.4% of young people head to uni, and Playford (SEIFA 855) where 26.5% do likewise.

These figures should alarm us. The most disadvantaged outer suburbs of Adelaide are seeing more of their young people go off to uni and get the knowledge and skills that our community needs in diverse industries including health care, social services and education, than every local government area in Tasmania with the exception of Hobart!

There is a problem here that needs to be solved. As university level knowledge becomes more and more the foundation of economic development and the key to solving social and environmental problems, Tasmania is being left behind by even the most disadvantaged outer suburban communities of the next poorest state.

If moving all of UTAS southern activities into Hobart would improve access to the university, then clearly that would be of great benefit to Tasmania, to Hobart and the surrounding communities, and indeed to UTAS which would then have opportunities for significant growth. But how could we discover whether this would be the case? We could start by simply asking community and school leaders in the educationally marginalised communities surrounding Hobart what they think. And we could look at whether courses already located in Hobart have a more equitable enrolment than those at Sandy Bay if we can find a relevant comparison. Or we could look at the enrolment patterns of other central city universities, say UTS, or RMIT. But I don’t see how a poll of the electors of Hobart, or any other similar vote, will shed much light on the issue.

Likewise the claim that UTAS relocating to the city will mean it can no longer be a true university. It is not hard to test this, since the top universities in the world are variously located on urban and suburban campuses as well as the centres of cities themselves. The location of a university does not seem to be a relevant variable in determining its quality.

Try this for yourself by googling the ranking of world universities, then use Google Earth to look at their location. Try the universities of London, for example, or Boston in the US. Or the Sorbonne in Paris. But when you do this, don’t just compare what these universities are now with what the UTAS buildings in Hobart are at the moment, but allow some sense of how Hobart might develop over the next decade or two with UTAS located there.

If you want to get some evidence on what that might look like compare your memories of the western end of Adelaide 20 years ago with what you will see here https://adelaidebiomedcity.com. And if you concluded from all this that universities in cities are all about STEM and not the humanities and critical thinking, did you miss the London School of Economics and Politics? And the Sorbonne?

Perhaps your concern is that UTAS located in the city will mean students from different faculties do not gather and mingle in a central place like the uni refectory or bar, but will spread out to city coffee shops and bars in discipline groups, making it less likely that their peer-to-peer contacts will broaden their education? But don’t people mingle with others they know, rather than those they happen to sit next to in the uni café – even if neither is on their mobile phone?

And students get to know other students by sharing classes. What will encourage inter-faculty mingling is not a university which is a self-contained community providing facilities which all students are more or less forced to share, but degree programs which require students to take courses which contrast with their majors. To study some science in a BA, for example, or the reverse. UTAS degree structures appear to allow this, but do the staff encourage it? How typical is such a study program? Would moving to the city make it more or less likely that students would study such mixed field degrees? That is what we need to know on that score to ensure our opinion is based on evidence rather than ‘false obviousness’.

What about students’ modes of study? Would the move to the city require UTAS to go online? Without knowing exactly how UTAS has previously or proposes in the future to do the design of learning spaces in its buildings – from lecture theatres through seminar rooms, laboratories, tutorial rooms and multi-media facilities, from my experience what facilities are provided for teaching, learning and research are determined by budget, the specifications of the relevant academic and technical staff, and student demand for different modes of learning. I don’t see why that could not be the case for new or refurbished UTAS buildings in the city, and similarly at Sandy Bay or any other campus.

While I am not an expert in the field of instructional design, my experience as an academic and later senior academic manager is that students want and learn well in small group face to face interactions, where their understanding of the subject matter can be tested and they practice the skills of applying their knowledge and receiving immediate feedback both from peers and teachers. I very much doubt that UTAS would plan (or have any need) to move this kind of learning – seminars and tutorials – online where it is possible to have students meet face to face. But for ‘content delivery’, the bit of teaching that was previously done in lectures and, also, and often more effectively, by reading textbooks, it is different. Online content learning is well accepted by students and staff. But perhaps not at UTAS? Happily, just how central lectures are to UTAS students’ learning is something that can be easily tested. Are lectures typically compulsory in UTAS courses? Where they are not, what percentage of a class typically attends lectures? Where lectures are filmed and put online, do students prefer to access them this way, or face to face?

From my experience of commissioning a new university campus, I expect there are staff who continue to use face to face lectures as the primary form of content delivery, and they are concerned that new UTAS buildings will not provide for this. And that may well be the case given the relatively high cost of lecture theatres compared to their value as a means of learning for students. But there is a very fair and effective way of dealing with this tension between academics’ desires for certain kinds of teaching (and other) facilities, and the realities of tight budgets. Ensure that the academic staff are closely involved in the design of the teaching spaces they will use, but also ensure that the university’s budget model allocates the costs of facilities to the staff groups (courses, departments, schools or whatever) that use them. Indeed a budget model that allocates the total income of every ‘activity group’ to the budget holder for that group and then charges their budget for the facilities and services they require from the university has many advantages, most importantly that it places responsibility on academic staff groups to make wise decisions about how what remains of the income they generate should be spent, once general university overheads are met.

The above is a brief survey of the issues from my reading of the press on the UTAS move. These issues apparently have motivated people to oppose the proposal, along with some suggestions as to what evidence might be brought to bear on them if they are to be subject to rational scrutiny. But very little of that evidence was brought forward in the press discussion, and that suggests rational scrutiny of the proposition by the Hobart electors is not what determined their vote.

Which, while disappointing, should not lead us to dismiss the poll out of hand. In a democracy such expressions of community sentiment must be taken very seriously. Even if elector polls, like referenda, are not good ways to judge the merits of a proposition, being notoriously susceptible to scare campaigns suggesting that all kinds of dangers lurk behind sensible change, making the devil we know look like the safe option – and thus leaving problems unsolved.

Following the successful referendum of 1967 to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the population of the Commonwealth and states, there have been 18 referenda in Australia. Six have been put forward by Liberal and National party governments, and 12 by Labor. Only three have passed. The last changes to the Constitution carried by referenda were in 1977, which introduced rules for filing casual senate vacancies, gave electors residing in the territories the right to vote in referenda, and set a retiring age for judges of federal courts. Since that time the Australian people have voted no in eight referendums covering questions such as to allow the Commonwealth and the states to agree to exchange responsibilities; provide for maximum four year terms for both houses of the Australian parliament; provide for fair and democratic parliamentary elections throughout Australia; enshrine the right to trial by jury in the constitution, along with freedom of religion, and ensuring fair terms for people whose property is acquired by government; to make Australia a republic; and lastly to include a preamble in the constitution which would among other things recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of this land.

That last referendum was in 1999. No-one has been prepared to have a go at persuading the Australian people to change the constitution in the 23 years since. There is currently a great deal of trepidation that a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament will fail, despite its strong justification in the need to deal fairly with the first peoples of our land.

Clearly when it comes to a popular vote, making out the case for change is hard regardless of the merits of the proposition, but not impossible. Let’s take the case of what would happen to the UTAS campus at Sandy Bay if it no longer the site of the university. It is not hard to make urban infill development on the site sound awful. Increased housing density, multi-story buildings, increased traffic (though the UTAS traffic and parking needs to be deducted from the expected increase first) and – perhaps – a new demographic for those leafy surrounds in the occupants of social housing, or no social housing and an increase in expensive homes that will do nothing to ease Hobart’s housing crisis (both are offered as reasons to keep UTAS at Sandy Bay).

But what if the development proceeded as a laboratory for future living, designed by world leading environmental master planners and architects? Low environmental impact construction, passive heating requiring no external energy input for occupant comfort, solar power and hot water, charging facilities for electric vehicles, communal vegetable gardens, zero waste systems, biodiversity remediation, bushfire safe neighbourhoods and pedestrianised precincts allowing but not requiring private motor vehicles for residents to move around the development and access the CBD. Social engineering gone mad? Just what the world needs!

What would it do for Hobart if we can do the research to show how it can be done in other cities? That is, how the world can live in desirable neighbourhoods while protecting the planet. Would UTAS, already the world’s number 1 university for climate, ever have done more important research? Imagine the research partnerships with world leading universities which have the desire and expertise to do such things, but not the rare and precious opportunity to do it that reimagining Sandy Bay would provide. Remember the campus maps of Harvard, MIT, University College London, Imperial College and the London School of Economics?

So the move could be good for Sandy Bay, and from there to the world, depending on the strength of the research base and the level of ‘design ambition’ of the project. But what about Hobart? Could the move be good for the CBD? On the face of it, it is hard to see how it could not be. Cities thrive on people, so moving thousands of staff and students into the city would be expected to be good for business and civic life. Contrast some city business’ opposition to the move with Kingston business’ insistence that the Antarctic Centre should remain in their town as its workforce is vital to their viability.

Perhaps there is concern that UTAS being located in the city will change Hobart’s character, but I cannot see why this would not be welcomed as making the city more creative, vibrant and connected to the world. As I understand it, that is why cities are welcoming of university developments, as discussed here in relation to the UK.

And as for traffic, if we look at the matter from a whole of Hobart perspective, I cannot see how moving UTAS from a suburban location, where many staff and students find it necessary to drive to campus, to the centre of the city, could make the problem worse. The city is much more easily accessible by public transport than any of the suburbs. Surely the move will reduce, rather than add to, commuter traffic. But such matters are routinely modelled by people expert in this work. What has been their analysis of this?

And what has been your analysis of the above? I hope at least to have persuaded you that UTAS’ plans need to be carefully considered and cannot be dismissed as obvious folly – even if that is what all your friends think. In any case, the question is, given that to be successful UTAS does need community support for its future plans, whatever they might be, how is the wider public to be engaged in a deeper discussion of the issue?

What we need is for the University, the Hobart City Council, and the community activists to set out what they suppose to be the benefits and costs of the move, clarify what evidence is required to support the claims for and against, and engage in a process to rationally evaluate the evidence in an unbiassed, research based manner. Perhaps this could be undertaken in a series of seminars hosted jointly by the University and the Council. Then, hopefully, those in the University, in the Hobart City Council and in the state government who will be required to come to decisions on the various elements of UTAS’ future plans, will have the evidence base they need to make a decision which will be best for the whole of Tasmania for many years to come.

That would be a good process, and good processes lead to good outcomes. Just as bad processes, and particularly uncritical group thinks, lead to bad ones.

Michael Rowan is an Emeritus Professor of the University of South Australia.