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UTAS relocation - Absent evidence, improper relationships, flawed concept



I signed an open letter to the Premier calling for a comprehensive and public review of UTAS’ relocation for several reasons.


ABSENT EVIDENCE


Firstly, as a lifelong Hobartian, I have deep love for our city and I need to be confident that a move as dramatic as what is being proposed is in the best interests of education, our communities, and our CBD.


To be confident, especially given the scale of what’s being forced upon us, I need evidence. A $600 million project is not something to be advanced on a hunch, hope or a scattering of biased surveys.


Back in 2017, the Council resolved to advance joint research initiatives with UTAS about their relocation, which included investigating the socio-economic impacts of the move and its impact on the movement of people. In 2016, the Council acknowledged that the move would have both positive and negative impacts. Yet despite these statements, and despite multiple requests I’ve made to Hobart City Council and UTAS over several months, no evidence has been forthcoming. It appears that this critical work has not happened.


IMPROPER RELATIONSHIP AND PROCESS


Another driver of my doubt about the merit of UTAS’ relocation is what I see as an improper process and relationship between UTAS and Hobart City Council.


Over several years, UTAS has romanced the Council with invites for Council to accompany them on international study tours, but left the ratepayers to pick up the tab. It appears hotels have replaced hypothesises, methods switched to meals, and findings to flights.


The Council has also allowed and encouraged UTAS to set the strategic direction for our City. In 2019, UTAS charmed the Council to forgo the development of separate visions and develop a single vision for our City and UTAS. This rings major alarm bells for me as no organisation, even one with UTAS’ scale, should be given the ultimate privilege of shaping our city. Yet, this is what appears to have occurred.


From 2014 and up until only a few months ago (in the Council’s Discussion Paper for the Central Hobart Precincts Plan), there have been multiple references to the Council and UTAS ‘understanding each other’s vision and plans’ and Council ‘supporting and facilitating’ UTAS relocation. The Miriam Webster dictionary defines ‘support’ in several ways, including ‘to argue or vote for’, ‘to promote the cause’ and ‘to keep something going’. And it defines ‘facilitate’ as ‘to make easier; to help bring about’.


As far as expectation management goes, this is appalling. How can elected members impartially consider what comes before them when the contract has essentially been signed and the Council’s sign off already predetermined. Let’s consider, would another party be able to access this level of support from the Hobart City Council? What if a large tourism, hospitality or retail operator wanted public statements made by the Council that it will “support and facilitate” their intentions?


The amount of influence UTAS has had on our Council, and therefore our City, has been inappropriate, unhealthy and compromised impartiality.


The sequence of the process has also be deeply flawed, likely intentionally. Big and vast purchases have been made, in some cases seeing our only university paying three times the government valuation for the property. And applications have been made by UTAS to commandeer our streets and parking. And approvals on $86 million refurbishments are well underway, despite the rezoning of the Sandy Bay campus – which is pivotal to concept – missing. It’s almost as if they’re spending someone else’s money.


QUESTIONABLE CONCEPT


And finally, the concept itself. Costly and repeated advertisements tell us it’s all about improving access to education. According to UTAS, a three-kilometre shift will result in a big upswing in university qualification attainment across our lower socio-economic communities. If that was indeed the case, there would be a much stronger argument that the overall benefit outweighed the downsides. But it isn’t.


University qualified or not, rational and objective people know that the barriers to university qualification attainment are much deeper than the number of buses you have to catch to arrive on campus.


Real barriers are naturally the potential student’s socialisation and what’s seen as the norm in their world. The need to earn immediate full-time income and the need to care for others are major barriers to committing to study, as is someone’s appetite to take on big student debt and their underlying literacy and numeracy, which we know in Tasmania is woeful. These, and others, are real and much more potent barriers to a university graduation.


The real driver behind the move, which is starting to unfold, is money and UTAS’ financial viability. UTAS would have been far wiser to come out with this truth from the start.


The moves impact on our community and CBD cannot be underestimated. UTAS already own around five per cent of our CBD which is significant. Their plans for the CBD will see multiple city blocks closed to traffic in a city that’s already a rabbit warren of one-way gridlock. UTAS’ activities will fill spaces that could have been used for retail, hospitality, professional services and residential services.


And the current Sandy Bay campus will be stripped of its significant trees and its buildings demolished by an organisation that ironically prides itself on sustainability. In its place, a micro-suburb the size of Blackmans Bay with 2700 dwellings will be crammed, with a shortfall of 3000 car parking spaces proposed. Even as a strong advocate for increasing housing supply, this boost doesn’t counterbalance the negative impact this will have on congestion, liveability and the permanent loss of a truly special place for learning.




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