In every institution I have entered, my year level has been the guinea pig for a new facility. In primary school, we were the first to stain the carpets of ‘Building A’ with our Texta nibs and sandwich crumbs. In high school, we were the first into the ‘Lyceum’, a split-story building that seated fifty-two in a classroom – their poster child for a new model of ‘integrated learning’. The best part was the German-engineered sliding doors. They were full of holes, designed to absorb the sound of classrooms on either side. The holes didn’t work.
Now, when I walk onto the Parkville campus at the University of Melbourne, a fleet of cranes is a familiar sight on the horizon. From my tutorial on the tenth floor of Redmond Barry, I can hear the crunch of metal against earth as important green space is swallowed up under concrete.
And beyond these institutions of learning, Melbourne’s growing population crowds into ever-smaller spaces, as urban planners and strategists argue over the best model for future development. For years, the city’s public transport system has neither been equipped nor funded to receive this influx of users. Any commuter along the tram corridor down Swanston St would be familiar with the five o’clock crush of bodies racing for a train at Melbourne Central. They’d know the relief when the doors open opposite the State Library and the aroma of sweat, ink and positive ions disperses onto the street.
Last month, I attended a lecture in the Spot, with its soaring ceilings and marble lobby. While John Medley, where the many Arts subjects are housed, is a maze of windowless corridors and drab carpets, here the light was generous. Having a view of the trees outside allowed me to breathe. Fittingly, we were learning about Foucault’s theory of power relations, including his theory that thought is corralled by the physical space we are able to move in. This is illustrated on our own campus. While the School of Economics and Commerce find their airy quarters on Pelham Street, the majority of the Arts faculty is divided between the John Medley towers. This can only be symptomatic of wider priorities, as universities adjust their strategies to appeal to the modern consumer of education.
As students, we recognise that universities have been going through structural and economic changes since before we were born. The great controversies surrounding these changes are often connected to confusing priorities in a chronically tight funding scheme. Our daily negotiation of smaller spaces on campus is representative of this larger phenomenon in shifting educational values.
At Ormond, we are often reminded of how lucky we are to have access to spaces some can only dream of. I do not wish to add to this overused reproach. Even if we recognise this privilege, we need to take the next step, and ask how we can use this environment as a springboard for independent thought and reason. The beautiful thing about these spaces is that they cannot be bought by developers, nor used as bargaining chips to secure funding from sponsors: they were built for the purpose of learning.
But I’m late to a lecture again… A Bobcat, clearing rubble, blocks my path to the Elisabeth Murdoch Theatre, a building whose internal proportions speak of a more generous age.