USYD’s war on peace in education

Apr 7, 2021

The University of Sydney looks set to close its Department of Peace and Conflict Studies. What is the broader significance of this? Does it matter?

The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) was established at the University of Sydney in May 1988, initiated by Professor Stuart Rees, together with his colleagues Dr Mary Lane and the late Professor Peter King. Its development was inspired by students and academics who wanted the opportunity to study the causes and manifestations of violent conflict and the means to achieving peace with justice.

CPACS had a distinctive identity, a strong and active volunteer base, and wide-ranging outreach and networks, nationally and internationally. Its advisory council included diverse peace activists in the broader community. Its purpose was to promote peace with justice through the study and practice of non-violence, peaceful conflict resolution and respect for universal human rights. It pursued these goals vigorously for 28 years.

Then, in 2016, the University of Sydney management decided to close CPACS and transfer its functions to a newly-created Department of Peace and Conflict Studies (DPACS). This was represented by the University management as normalising the position of peace and conflict studies within the university’s standard departmental arrangements. However, pessimists warned that it would likely presage more draconian measures to come.

They were right, as a second blow – indeed, a king hit – has followed. Late last year, during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University management decided that DPACS should cease to be a department. Apparently, its staff and academic programs are to be amalgamated into other departments and courses within the School of Social and Political Sciences.

These changes are of deep concern, although not yet widely known within the broader community.

First and foremost, peace and conflict studies matter. We live in a violent world, with problems manifest at many levels, ranging from the ongoing threat of nuclear wars, terrorism, and violence against nature, right through to domestic violence, bullying in the workplace and in the schoolyard. Now more than ever, research and teaching on these issues are essential. That was always the intention of the program’s founders, aiming to be far more comprehensive and educationally imaginative than just crafting courses to generate income, which seems to have become universities’ driving goal.

CPACS developed different layers of activity over the years of its existence. Research was fundamental, manifest in reports, articles and books in which university staff cooperated across disciplines (as an ideal conception of the ‘university’ says they should). Books were written on themes such as Nuclear Disarmament, The Human Costs of Managerialism, Human Rights and Corporate Responsibility.

CPACS also fostered human rights advocacy projects, such as The West Papua Project, Defend and Extend Medicare, Support for Sri Lankan Tamils, the BDS campaign for Palestinian self-determination, Indigenous Reconciliation and even support for the Polisario in Western Sahara. These activities showed students that, to contribute to peace, you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Alliances with numerous NGO’s and non-university personnel became part of the educational tradition, now discarded as apparently having no place in the modern university.

To complement its advocacy work, CPACS also created a space in which staff, students and outsiders from across the city could establish community and thereby facilitate friendships, understanding and wellbeing. The Posters for Peace gallery in the Mackie Building in Forest Lodge was that principal space – a place to feel welcomed, often to feel inspired by, and to feel safe. CPACS also had an excellent library/resource centre, the contents of which have had to be dispersed beyond the university.

The students’ curriculum started with ‘Peace & Conflict’ core classes and led on to options such as ‘Resolving Conflict in Organizations’ (a somewhat ironic theme in the light of how the university has subsequently acted). Students’ work also resulted in many successful MA and PhD dissertations. Many of the postgraduate students have gone on to employment in areas where their conflict resolution and peacemaking skills have been of significant practical value.

The creation of the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize and the Sydney Peace Foundation also arose from CPACS building networks with NGOs and with the corporate, political and legal worlds. The Sydney Peace Prize has brought many significant world figures to these shores, as well as honouring Australians making great contributions to peace and social justice.

To round it all off, CPACS also engaged the academic community and civil society in joint projects via conferences, seminars, training workshops, mediation work and publications.

Should this legacy be erased?

What seems to be taking place is the silencing of an important voice and practice. The distinguished record of bringing the perspectives of ‘peace with justice’ to bear on the University’s research, teaching and community outreach seems to be accorded no enduring value. Who will continue to honour the tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ on vital issues, while the mainstream of Australian politics and media carries on looking the other way?

The need for such voices has never been more obvious. Australia is in the throes of a global crisis while carrying out pre-emptive overseas military operations and threats to war against other countries. Ecological degradation and world disorder continue to undermine democracy and strengthen authoritarian politics. War, racism and violence are on the ascendancy in today’s political climate and media culture.

Urgent consideration by the University of Sydney is needed to reconstitute and strengthen the Peace and Conflict Studies program and the continuation of existing research, advocacy and praxis projects, not to amalgamate it into eventual oblivion.

Many of the important initiatives of the earlier CPACS are already gone or dwindling prior to the current move to downgrade the program. Yet, there are many former students and community activists who might consider making their voices heard. Or should we all just leave these decisions about education on crucial social issues to university administrators mainly concerned with profits, their ‘key performance indicators’ and tidy organisational charts?

The authors of this article were formerly President and Vice-President of the CPACS Advisory Council.

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