No one asked Australia’s First People what they thought a university should look like. They did not ask in the 1850s when social and political leaders in Sydney and Melbourne began to build a dream for Australian higher education; they did not ask in the 1950s when the Commonwealth government forged a ‘national’ system; they did not ask Aboriginal people for their views in the 1960s when they added Colleges of Advanced Education, nor in the 1970s when Gough Whitlam made education free. In the 1960s and 1970s when radicals set up teach-ins and agonised over alternative visions for tertiary education, Indigenous knowledge had little place; even when the first Aboriginal education units were emerging in universities in the 1980s, the long history of Aboriginal learning and dreaming was peripheral to the idea of the university that was, to the (mostly) white privileged men who planned and managed higher education, among Australia’s most sophisticated dreams.
Aboriginal Australians were not alone in their exclusion from such visions. Among those who colonised the Aboriginal nations, no one thought to ask any of the thousands of Chinese colonists what they thought either. It was not their long and esteemed scholarly traditions that were imagined for Australia. There are others I could continue to list but there is no need: we know who they are. It seems a little strange to do so anyway perhaps, but thinking about who did not have a say helps show whose dreaming universities fulfil. Australian tertiary traditions, despite the meritocratic rhetoric attached to them, were built on the structures of white supremacy that characterised British settler colonialism.
We know this, of course. And yet – certainly for those who choose scholarly vocations – many people harbour a profound love for the university, at least as an idea, despite its considerable flaws. This may also be why scholars are so prone to bitter disappointment as they live the bizarre reality of contemporary higher education, compelled to play the stupid games its structures coerce. This paper considers the dreams that academics often believe they have lost. I do not keep focus there, however. These losses are real and important but scholarly dreams are not the only purpose for the university. When we think instead about who else the dream is for, and what universities might achieve in the world, we may finally start to hammer out a pathway to bigger dreams than our institutions currently offer or represent.