DISCLAIMER: All persons and events depicted herein are fictional. Any resemblance to real people or places is entirely coincidental. There really is a person called Fred Hilmer who is the chairman of Westfield, and a person called David Gonski who chaired the Gonski Report, and an incredibly wealthy person (the wealthiest, in fact) called Frank Lowy who founded Westfield, funded the Lowy Cancer Research Institute at UNSW, which also happens to be a real place too. But this isn’t about them. This is about superheroes and supervillains. Thankyou.
It was March 2009 when I first lay my head on the sweet smelling grass of the library lawn at UNSW’s Kensington Campus. This was the perfect setting for the infamous knife fight between Chancellor David Gonski AC and Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer AO four years later.
Two intimidating men of gargantuan influence, they stepped into the ring; Gonski from stage left, kicking over the flowers people had left under the statue of Nelson Mandela from his path; Hilmer from stage right, smiling at the statue of his likeness, which is actually meant to be of Ghandi. Gonski digs his heels into the ground while Hilmer shines his brass knuckles on his immaculately tailored trousers.
Gonski takes two steps forward, pulling out from his back pocket a three hundred page, hand bound version of the Gonski Report. Hilmer cackles and cracks his knuckles. Gonski yelling his battle cries: ‘THE GAP BETWEEN WELL AND POORLY PERFORMING STUDENTS IS GROWING EVERY YEAR’ and ‘DISADVANTAGED AREAS SHOULD BE FUNDED PROPORTIONATE TO NEED’ and ‘I GIVE A GONSKI’. Hilmer still cackling wildly, his bald head glimmering in the perfect Sydney sun.
Gonski hurls the report at Hilmer and it makes a thwack as it collides with his deep cheek wrinkles, before flopping over on itself and falling into the grass below. Hilmer remains unperturbed. He tilts his head slyly and whispers ‘The student and staff body has spoken, and we will be opening a range of new retail options on campus in the very near future.’ He lets his brass knuckles reflect sheer light into Gonski’s eyes and he flinches as Hilmer takes three heavy strides forward. ‘I have been Chairman of Coca Cola, Macquarie Bank and CEO of Fairfax, motherfucker, don’t you fuck with me. Have you even exchanged emails with Max Brenner?’
A steady stream of onlookers trickle in, most of them sipping Boost Juice. A solitary ibis – pied with pollution – circles overhead. ‘You son of a gun,’ replies Gonski, his bulbous nose dripping the sweat of panic. ‘So what they’re saying is true. You are changing this place into a Westfield, aren’t you?’
‘You better believe it, Gonski, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We’re halfway there, now all we need to do is increase revenue just that little bit more, then we can begin on Phase Three.’ Hilmer rolls up his thousand dollar sleeves and grins a sardonic grin. ‘You think you need ten million dollars to build a cancer research building? Get a grip; this has been Lowy’s plan all along. All the chairmen have been on board since the beginning. You’re done, Gonski. You and all your idealists. These people don’t need a student debt or an education; they need hot chocolate and nine dollar kebabs!’
Gonski pushes his glasses up his sweaty, orbed nose, his eyes cold and furious. ‘You’ll never get away with this, Hilmer. The people know better. The university knows better. The students will see this coming. There will never be a Phase Three!’ and he runs into the field to meet Hilmer, brandishing a small but finely crafted knife, and plunging it into his opponent’s stomach. Hilmer’s head falls into Gonski’s shoulder for a moment, and they heave in unison like exhausted lovers, but then Hilmer is reaching into his pocket, and pulls out an Industrie brand taser, and holds it on Gonski’s neck. Laughing maniacally as the rotund businessman convulses, Hilmer screams ‘but Phase Three is already underway, my dear friend. Don’t you know why we increased the entry ATAR to 80?’ He holds the taser even closer to his neck, now. ‘So we could offer more places to full fee paying and international students, you fool! You know better than anyone that ATAR scores do not correlate with university performance, so why is anyone using the ATAR at all anyway?’ Gonski’s loose skin fluttering with electricity. ‘We’re using ATAR so we can arbitrarily exclude people. But not full fee paying people!’
As Hilmer switches the taser off, Gonski falls to the grass, defeated. The Boost sipping onlookers try to decide whether to intervene, but remain paralysed with indecision. Gonski can hear them talking; some of them are professors, exchanging whispers such as “isn’t it true that the only thing the [ATAR] predicts well now is socioeconomic status?” and “if ATAR means nothing, and the performance gap is growing, what is university but a three year long Oktoberfest for the deeply privileged?”
Gonski’s ears absorb the words like they were fuel and gathers all his strength to pull his face out of the dirt. Hilmer has torn off his shirt now, and is running victory loops of the lawn, his Cheshire cat grin bigger than the moon. If the people still believe, Gonski thinks, then I still believe. Hilmer kissing the statues of Mandela and Ghandi now as he dances. I must fight. I must fight for educational equity. I might fight for justice. I must fight against universities as corporations. I must! and he jumps to his feet and hurls himself at the topless Hilmer. They dart side to side, stabbing the air with their respective knives, screaming statistics at each other. Gonski pulls a cord from the side of his pants, deploying the trademark rockets he wears in his shoes, and shoots up the side of the ten storeys of the library. Hilmer hangs his head, prays to Bill Gates (blessed be his name) and is propelled upward by the pure truth of fiscal diversity and vertical integration. They fight atop the library now, and the onlookers gasp as the men disappear from view.
In a number of hours the crowd had dissipated, though rumour still has it that if you Stand Still for long enough, with just a little bit of patience, you can still see Hilmer and Gonski, somewhere on campus, in the shadows, fighting like rabid dogs.