I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
– Judith Wright, ‘South of my days’
Some months ago, news of the federal freeze on base funding to universities sent waves of worry and discontent across regional campuses around Australia. As the ABC reported, regional universities would be hit harder than the happy sandstone few – a sobering realisation that sparked an immediate response by the Regional University Network (RUN), whose motto is ‘Regional Strength. National Success’. In the press release, Professor Greg Hill, who chairs the Network, explained that the freeze ‘disproportionately affected regional universities as the institutions are more dependent on government funding than larger, metropolitan universities.’
Here, I want to discuss some of my fears regarding the social and cultural risks that policies such as this might entail. In doing so, I would also like to advocate for the crucial cultural, social, and political importance of locality, if we want to reach genuine multiculturalism, respect for diversity and social inclusion.
Before I start, indulge me in a literary digression. Although in this piece I am sharing my personal views, I should declare that for the last two years, I have been employed by a regional university and that my research is all about shedding light on the cultural value of locality, via the study of regional poetry in nineteenth-century France and Italy.
I am originally from a small provincial town in northern Italy, and one my generation’s last native speakers of a fast-disappearing language, Bresciano, a non-standard variety of Italo-Romance. I am a fierce defender of minority languages and of state-funded schooling, for which I am forever grateful. (Note, I also enjoy spending time in big cities, live between Sydney and Armidale, have lived in Paris, write and talk in one of the current dominant global languages most of the time, and been lucky enough to study and work at well-known European universities.)
Even we defenders of locality, Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, ‘are no longer innocent … no longer just parishioners of the local. We go to Paris at Easter instead of rolling eggs on the hill at the gable … yet those primary laws of our nature are still operative. We are dwellers, we are namers, we are lovers, we make homes and search for our histories.’
In other words, no matter how cosmopolitan, well-travelled, or multilingual, our histories are always, in one way or another, rooted in the local.
English novelist Graham Swift observed that, ‘Writers are always trying to touch, to grasp the universal.’
And the way not to do this, it seems to me, is to write the avowedly universal, global, cosmopolitan book – the sort of book that ought to be written in Esperanto. The key to the universal is always the local, if only because it’s a universal truth that all experience is and must be local, all experience is placed.
Because of its disproportionately negative impact on regional universities, the funding freeze is a threat to the wellbeing of locality; indeed, such policies might have unforeseeable side effects beyond the cultural sphere, which spill out onto the social fabric of a country.
Let me name just a few risks, in no particular order. This move might fuel resentment in local communities, which might perceive that the government is endorsing the creation of poles of privilege in metropolitan areas. Widening the urban-regional gulf, this ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy might have social and political effects that have the potential to influence election results for decades to come. The unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the divisive Brexit referendum results in the UK should have taught us some lessons, showing the perils of the detachment of the so-called ‘elite’ (urban, educated, wealthier citizens) from the disenfranchised ‘real’ people in regional and rural areas.
Moves such as this might also end up in a detrimental form of cultural centralisation, with its annexed flattening homogenisation. Silencing locality – the diversity within – is also a threat to genuine multiculturalism and pluralism.
It is thus time we really started to understand the valuable contribution of regional universities. In this case, being equitable means understanding the particular needs, challenges and contexts that each regional educational institution faces. It’s enough to think that, in some regional areas, the livelihood of towns rely on the livelihood of their university. Underfunding the university thus ends up in a chain reaction of negative consequences on the local community, much more so than in large metropolitan areas, which have a more diversified income. A funding freeze of this kind might end up in a decline in student numbers, a rental and property market stall and bankruptcy of local businesses.
But such economic consequences are not even the real problem.
For someone who has never experienced the life of a regional university, it is perhaps difficult to grasp the cultural and social role that these institutions play in their surrounding community. Disadvantaged by the politics of world university rankings, these regional institutions are often highly international, diverse, inclusive and innovative thinking hubs, cultivating and promoting a dynamic critical mass of adaptable, outward-looking, global thinkers, many of whom decide to start businesses, teach, live and otherwise contribute to regional life. As Professor Greg Hill notes in his press release, ‘Seven out of 10 graduates from RUN universities work in the regions, compared to 2 out of 10 nationally.’
But my main point is rooted much deeper, beyond the strategic, beyond the need to encourage regional growth in order to boost the national economy, beyond the need to assure social and political cohesion. It is rooted in the very fabric of this country’s cultural identity. It is time we really started to understand and value the contributions of regional universities in promoting an empowering idea of locality. The government – any government – must avoid fuelling a pernicious and, quite frankly, dated divide between central and peripheral cultures (even if unwitting). We should all move beyond this false dichotomy and start to advocate for a more nuanced understanding of ‘provincialism’, one stripped of negative undertones.
‘How to define “provincialism?”’, Milan Kundera once asked. ‘As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.’
But the word provincial is not always negative. It actually depends on the lens through which we approach it. Take, for instance, the poetry in the lesser spoken provincial languages of Italy. As colleague Paul Howard and I argue in a forthcoming article:
For the dialect poets of Italy, writing in their own local language is often a way of establishing a wider transregional dialogue with other regions. In a sense, their very linguistic locality and rootedness (or performance thereof) allows them their own space to situate themselves within the ‘large context’, even beyond the borders of the nation state, as can be seen in their exchange and translation of poetry from other lesser-spoken languages of Europe.
Quite the opposite of Kundera’s idea of provincialism.
Take a more topical example: the Anaiwan Language Revival Program, involving research students at the University of New England and members of the local Anaiwan community who are in the process of rediscovering, decolonising, reviving, speaking, and teaching their own original native language, thus ‘relating with kin and country in a healthy and proper way’. Once again, these local efforts are precisely the opposite of the ‘inability to see one’s own culture in the large context’. Indeed, they are an integral part of this large context. This program offers an empowering example, which is likely to spark networks of solidarity and thinking, encouraging others to rediscover, revive, reclaim.
In short, we should be wary of policies that concentrate on strengthening a centre-periphery model. Instead, we should advocate for a ‘pluriversal’ perspective, one encouraging the diversity within in its own rooted, yet universal, uniqueness.
It is precisely for this reason that we should support and value regional universities: as catalysts for diversity, equality and social inclusion.
Eggan, Taylor A. (2016), ‘Regionalizing the Planet: Horizons of the Introverted Novel at World Literature’s End’, PMLA, vol. 131.5, 1299–1315.
Gosetti, Valentina and Paul Howard (2018), ‘Poetry and Literary Language Barriers in Nineteenth-Century Italy: The Case of Three ‘Dialect Poets’’, Multilingualism in Nineteenth-Century European Literature, ed. by Olga Anokhina, Till Dembeck, and Dirk Weissmann, Berlin-Münster-Wien-Zürich-London, Lit-Verlang. (Forthcoming)
Heaney, Seamus (1980), ‘The sense of place’, Preoccupations. Selected Prose 1968–1978, London, Boston, Faber & Faber, 131–149.
Kundera, Milan (2006), ‘The Provincialism of Small Nations’, in The Curtain. An Essay in Seven Parts, trans. Linda Asher, New York, Harper Collins Publishers.
Tomaney, John (2012), ‘Parochialism – a defence’, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 37.5, 658–672.