Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to be here tonight, addressing you on this most important occasion where we celebrate teaching and learning excellence as personified in those who have received awards and citations. Congratulations!

When I was invited to make this address, the brief I was given was to talk about the future of work, specifically in terms of its implications for education. There are lots of people talking about this topic these days, most commonly focussing on the skills required for the jobs of the future, as well as the need for a new type of lifelong learning that will ensure employability towards and ever more distant retirement age. These are important considerations. But what I want to talk to you about this evening is a dimension of the future of work that gets less airtime.

That is, the implications of that future for the role of University education in sustaining the way of life we call democracy. This is a way of life that, as John Dewey explained long ago, approaches human sociality and co-existence in the spirit of cooperation, egalitarianism, equality, participation, self-regulation and rule by consent.

For Dewey, democratic living was directly opposed to autocracy and authoritarianism, as well as to the oppression and coercion they entailed. Education is central here, not just for giving people job skills but for offering them the freedom that comes with life choices, such that one’s future is not determined by the wish or whim of the contemporary equivalent of a feudal lord.

As I was thinking about this, and preparing to talk to you today, I was reminded of my late Grandmother. Her name was Alice Rhodes. She was a kind yet stoical woman who I remember dearly from my childhood. At the age of 12 in the early 20th century she started a job spinning yarn in a cotton mill in the north of England. She was employed illegally and used to recount to us as kids how the other workers had to hide her when the inspectors came around. She stayed in that same job for 60 years, retiring when she was 72 years of age. Her husband died during war time, and it was the life of the community based factory worker that allowed her to bring up my father as a single mother.

All I remember her saying that she ever wanted for my father, as well as for my brother and myself afterwards, was to have choices and opportunities in life; the choices and opportunities that she did not have. For my father growing up in post-war Britain this was achieved through participation in the further education and technical college system that grew out of the 1944 Education Act. This act was responding to the need to provide skills training to young workers. But what it also did was to offer working class kids like my father a means through which to try to make a better and different life for themselves.

If democracy is about the promise of equality and freedom, then for many of my father’s generation it was education that was the means through which that promise could be kept. My own story echoes that of my father. My brother and I were the first in our family to go to University, a place our parents and grandparents would not even have considered as a possibility. The likelihood of becoming a Professor would have been as remote as flying to Mars.

If I look back on my own life, I have inherited nothing by way of wealth or property, but the thing of value that I received was an education; an education that opened a world of prospects that would have been otherwise closed to me. This is what my Grandmother wanted; for us not to have our lives limited by the circumstance of birth and class. Education is democratic in this sense because it expands people’s freedom.

But there is more to it than individual opportunity. The work we do in University’s should not, in my view, be conceived only as a form of professional training, although that is an important part of it. Today’s discussion about the future of work and its meaning for education is in some ways not so new; it repeats many of the same concerns that were being addressed when my father was a boy. This is of course important politically now as it was then in terms of the life choices students would not otherwise have. But there is a difference as to what these choices will be?

In one sense choice might be limited to individual survival in increasingly hostile labour market that has been digitally disrupted or robotically realigned. The ‘room at the top’ optimism of the post-war generation has been replaced today with a world of work characterised by further widening inequality, the erosion of working rights, falling employment security, and the removal of social safety nets in a system that promotes winner-take-all values.

Where do Universities fit into all of this? We should not forget that the very idea of the University, as it emerged in the wake of the European Dark Ages, rested in the value of free inquiry, open critique, public engagement, and justice. These were a set of ideals that, while never fully realised, and always hampered by the realities of social stratification across class, racial and gendered lines, have animated the educational imagination at least from the formation of the modern University in Germany in the 18th century.

The continued pursuit of democratic ways of life has special significance now; an era where the dominance of neoliberal economic rationality has created a milieu where values of shared economic prosperity, freedom from domination, active citizenship and equality of opportunity can easily be forgotten.

Not the least this can be seen when a University system is obsessed with the cold hearted and ephemeral victories that come at the mercy of league table elitism, journal ranking fetishism and inter-institutional rivalry. Notwithstanding the contemporary prevalence of such masculine market managerialism, it is the refusal of dogma and disquiet with the status-quo that need to be remembered as hallmarks of a University education.

For all of us who teach in Universities, the real contribution we make is to enable the nation, and increasingly the world, to build the capacity for a future that refuses to forget the promise of a fair and equal society, and insists stubbornly that vested political or corporate interests are no substitute for the demand for truth. What is required is an education that offers both the economic freedoms that can be attained through skills development, and the political freedoms that can be attained by the fostering of a democratic way of life.

In speaking at this particular event, it would appear that I am saying little new with the awards and citations given out this evening paying testament to the quality and sophistication of UTS’ educators.

Many things have been celebrated. Your ability to help students learn professional skills, your capacity to foster independent inquiry, your desire to inspire student learning and curiosity, your determination to prepare students for future careers, your dedication to cultivating creativity, and your commitment to empowering students to contribute to social justice. All of these are valuable in and of themselves, but perhaps more importantly, collectively they add up to a form of education that not only produces workers, but creates citizens. These are citizens who can leave UTS with a set of valuable life options, as well as with the ability question and change the world around them so that our future is not confined to the limits of today’s imagination.

It is this expression of freedom that is central the meaning of the very idea of the University, and one that today’s awards and citations remind us is an inheritance we should never squander.

Thank you.

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies, and Head of The Management Discipline Group at UTS Business School. Carl delivered this keynote on 6 June, 2018 at the UTS Learning and Teaching Showcase. Take a look at his recent article on the future of work over at ABC: The future of work is under threat, but it’s not robots we need to fear.

Feature image by Ryan Tang.

Join the discussion