OPINION: Uni has hypocrisy in its DNA

A vigil in Hamilton to support refugees. Picture: Ryan Osland
A vigil in Hamilton to support refugees. Picture: Ryan Osland

THE world is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with unprecedented numbers of people seeking refuge in countries other than their own. 

The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned at sea and washed up on a Turkish beach, has galvanised the world to action and our own government has committed to taking 12,000 Syrian refugees as the result of this groundswell desire to show our sense of futility, our humanity, and offer safe haven. 

However, the University of Newcastle stands divided on this issue this week: on the one hand, we have the funding and support of two research projects exploring the impact of education on students from refugee backgrounds, one of which recently secured a federal grant; on the other, we have the recent deal enacted to employ the infrastructural management services of Transfield, the company responsible for welfare in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

The outpouring of feeling that emerged after the release of the photo of Aylan’s lifeless body has been succinctly harnessed by the Greens’ ‘‘strong enough’’ campaign and the Light the Dark protests  which  have taken place across the country this week. And yet, while this wave of humanity crests, we are still awaiting the results of the Senate inquiry into child abuse and violence as a daily reality for the people detained on Nauru and Manus Island.

The inhumane policy of stranding ‘‘illegal’’ refugees and asylum seekers on impoverished island nations is one thing; the result of two political parties wringing their hands and playing into the conservative discussions around borders and protecting our own. However, the reports of abuse (including sexual abuse of children) and the alleged cover-ups and media shutdown of what can at best be described as ‘‘poor treatment’’ in which Transfield is complicit is not something that an institution such as the University of Newcastle should be aligned with. 

The university claims to have ‘‘equity in its DNA’’. How then does giving a company such as Transfield an $88million, five-year contract correspond to these values? Could it be the case that the university has so blindly pursued the bottom line  that it has forgotten about the commitments it has publicly made to social justice, widening participation and equity? 

It surely is one thing to have existing relationships with companies who now have controversial portfolios; it is another yet to initiate business partnerships with this knowledge and in this current climate.  

More than that, this deal provokes the question of what does the University of Newcastle stand for in the wider community? When so many came out to light their candles on Monday night, when so many added their voices to online petitions to lobby the government to take in more refugees in response to the current Syria crisis, it is a kind of betrayal that the university, an institution at the core of the Newcastle identity and one of the largest employers in the region, has pursued a contract with the company that is a cause of concern. Newcastle is changing to meet the concerns of residents whose principles align with social justice and concern for future generations. How can it be that Newcastle City Council takes a stance on divesting from fossil fuels, risking the accusation that it is biting the hand that feeds it, when the University of Newcastle is continuing its association with an organisation such as Transfield.

A group of angry academics, teachers and professional staff have joined forces in a counter-commitment to divesting from partnerships with companies such as Transfield Services. The recent news that the superannuation fund HESTA has divested from Transfield Services Pty Ltd offers hope that other conscientious organisations will take their lead.

The University of Newcastle has publicly stated it ‘‘note[s] with concern the developments connected to Transfield Services operations at offshore detention centres’’ and that it intends to ‘‘monitor these developments’’. But surely the course of action to take here is to rip up the contract and search the corporate soul of the university. 

The authors are staff of the University of Newcastle University who asked to be anonymous