Dr Jen Rae - Spectra

25TH MARCH - 6TH MAY 2022


register interest


Register your interest


Get Involved

Email [email protected] to help, volunteer, or participate in an event.

Dr Jen Rae

The Listening Agent

Assembly for the Future | Live from Blakfullas University
Dispatch by| Dr Jen Rae
Future generated with | Devika, Aviva, Alison & Catherine

So the story goes like this.

Or perhaps, these are some of the missing pieces. 

In the mid-aughts, the international student recruitment trend was on an upward trajectory in Western developed countries. Some said that attracting international talent would help diversify and future-proof higher education. Maybe that’s where it started (and, I’m no expert), but somewhere between 2007-2009, it seems the ‘higher ups’ in the big buildings enlisted fancy PR folks to change the goal posts and up the ante on attracting, I mean, targeting more and more international students. A federal parliamentary inquiry in 2018 revealed that loopholes in the Australian migration laws allowed universities, vocational and other training schools to exploit international students. Even organised crime and illegitimate labour hire companies jumped in on the opportunity to earn high profits at the expense of these people. I once overheard a recruitment agent in the toilets say, ‘if they have a heartbeat and a credit card, we’ll take them.’ I knew who he was talking about. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the intersecting forces of neoliberalism and settler colonialism underpinned these unethical practices. They had their model and story. It was refined, scaled and replicated at the detriment of vulnerable people. I’d been around a lot of these institutions over the years and sadly they were all the same – complicit and culpable, and never accountable. 

I am witness to the cycles and a listening agent to the affected.  I am the story agent for the takedown.

Back then, at the beginning of each school term, tens of thousands of international students flooded corridors, libraries and support services. In many universities, almost a third of students were from overseas. You could tell them apart from the domestics in lots of ways, but mostly because they were the ones who hung around on campus after hours socialising and/or studying. After years of eavesdropping, I picked up a few of the languages and had a good sense of what brought most of them here to study, their anxieties and ambitions. For many, the prospect of gaining a permanent visa was a powerful draw card. For others, they believed there would be koalas, kangaroos and cockatoos on the lawns and white sand beaches within a stone’s throw of their UniLodge. Study here and it’s all yours for the taking. It all sounded so enticing until the week after Orientation Week (O-Week) and tuition was paid in full. The reality is that most of these students never ventured far from campus or their own cultural groups. After bank accounts were depleted for their Australian degree, many left Australia without ever having dinner at an Australian’s home or affording a beach holiday. It’s sad, ain’t it.   

International education export was big business (cha-ching…like a billion-dollar kind of business). Right after iron ore and coal, international education was like a keystone species of the Australian economy. Remove the keystone and you have a sort of trophic cascade. Everyone knows about the Yellowstone wolves doco, right?

Anyway…higher education institutions incrementally increased their international student revenues for more than a decade until March 2020. International students were hit really hard during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Melbourne, most of the academic and professional staff escaped the city to Mount Martha, Ocean Grove or the hills. I might have done the same if I had the means. People were really scared in those early days of the pandemic igniting more paralysis and flight than altruism and fight. Self-preservation trumps the welfare of others in a disaster situation and only amplifies the pre-existing order of shit that’s already there under the surface. The ongoing poor treatment of international students and the lack of emergency planning for such a large group of people were such things. 

The lockdowns came within weeks of many international students arriving and barely settling into the university precincts. You can imagine how everything upended for these students, many with limited means and taking risks for the first time away from support and family in a foreign country. The fault lines quickly became apparent in the lack of foresight, accountability and care for the students. Isolated and locked out of government support services, students became reliant on online social messaging platforms to resource their basic needs – many choosing their mobile phone plan payments over meals. In Melbourne’s CBD, by the time the Food Bank opened its doors, the line of international students stretched hundreds of metres. Newspapers reported the situation and posted images of the students, masked and socially distanced. All were on mobile devices which to viewers was probably ignored or interpreted as an activity to mediate the boredom of standing in line for hours. I bet it was never imagined to be an act of mobilisation that eventually led to the takedown.

Covert activism comes in many forms, intended or consequential. Like Mum used to say, ‘the mice come out to play when the cat’s away’. Threats aren’t always big once-off events. They often emerge from the things you’re not paying attention to or the accumulation of tiny little actions by the many who outnumber the few. We have a song about this in Australia, the one written by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly about big things growing from small things.



Things stick in people’s minds in times of crisis – in the before, during and after. It might be words, people, experiences and/or feelings. WhatsApp, WeChat and TikTok became not only online lifelines to stay connected to others but also a few years later led to the formation of LATTICE – a kinda dark web portal once it became apparent that a high risk mobilisation was happening. It all began when WeChat User @haradwaith in communication to @pyrusnivalis began a thread discussing the University of Melbourne’s Welcome to Country during O-Week. A Wurrundjeri Elder shared stories of resistance in adversity and the resurgence of culture to support one another in the climate emergency. You have to remember, the Elder was speaking after the devastating bushfires and an unknown disease potentially spreading worldwide. The Elder’s emphasis was care for Country and Country cares for you in all knowing, doing and being. Others in the WeChat thread began sharing their Welcome to Country experiences and what it meant to them as new arrivals in this time of disconnection, having never been offered anything like it before. 

All were seeking some form of deeper connection. Some shared the Uluru Statement of the Heart, others the music of Yothu Yindi, Electric Fields and Alex Skye, and then a whole lot of reports, images and stories about the history and impact of the Colonial Project and the Stolen Generations through to the protests for recognition, treaty and reconciliation. The WeChat pings struck at lightning speed with shares and commentary. Even my phone caught some strikes as I was looped into the group by a couple of younger students I was looking after during that time. The topic of tokenism and hypocrisy was named a few times but it wasn’t until the 2022 O-Week when everything landed like piece of fiery space junk in an old growth forest. 

User @panjandrum was inflamed by the oration of a said Vice-Chancellor at one of the Universities after the Welcome to Country. “Those fucking bastards”, @panjandrum wrote. “The pandemic and how we were treated is a hiccup to them. They don’t fuckin’ care about anything other than their dividend payments and bonuses. What the hell is acknowledgement if there’s no fucking accountability!?!”. Many users endorsed the comment with emoticons. Of course, some piped in about the Federal Government’s track record of depleting the higher education sector in this country, but still…you can continue to work within a broken system or you can tear it down and start over….or something like that. And that’s just what these young folk did.

Users @pigwidgeon and @gadabouts2000 linked in their mate @jarrawillah a Barkandji student they met in 2020 at O-Week. @jarrawillah added others. Within a short time, the group grew – an online group of newly arrived and Aboriginal young adults. I’m running out of room here, so I’ll keep it brief. The group developed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with Aboriginal Elders assisting with content. The 10-lesson MOOC explored the different histories and contemporary perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Australia. From an Aboriginal perspective, the course explored the complex experiences Aboriginal peoples face today highlighting national and local Aboriginal-settler relations. Topics included the myth of Cook’s arrival, weapons of cultural erasure and genocide, land claims and environmental impacts, legal systems and rights, conflicts and alliances, Aboriginal political activism, Care for Country and language, art and sovereignty in all of its expressions. The MOOC went viral. Everyday Australians and/non-Australians were hungry for the content. Its success coincided with the establishment of the BLAKFULLAS University (BU). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, activists, scholars, artists and young people were mobilising. Revenue from the MOOC funnelled into BU and Pay-the-Rent initiatives. The group questioned how they could scale up efforts to further support the work.


Then two things happened simultaneously in the chat.

User @m_oblongata posted a media release statement from 2022 where Australia’s largest medical research foundation, Snow Medical Research Foundation (SMRF), suspended its multi-million-dollar fellowship program to the University of Melbourne, because they only awarded honorary doctorates to white men over the past three years. Snow Medical highlighted the institutional hypocrisy and was cutting all ties until the university could prove a commitment to gender and cultural diversity – “culture must change from the top” an official from SMRF was quoted. @m_oblongata asked “could we persuade other funders to do the same?”. 

Then User @hoipolloi told the group about their PhD project. @hoipolloi was working in collaboration with BLAKFULLAS University Elders and artists to develop an experimental artificial intelligence (AI) software called LATTICE. They were looking at the patterning in traditional and contemporary Aboriginal paintings and weavings to develop AI algorithms for their new Sky Ranger and on-Country cultural burning program activities. @hoipolloi proposed that the software could be applied to investigate higher educational institutional funding and cross-reference it with their diversity and inclusion strategies and policies to see if there were more patterns of discrepancy between what they received money for and who benefited. It came as no surprise months later, when LATTICE reported back the figures of inequity and power.

That’s when LATTICE went dark and users became agents. There are a lot of powerful people in the higher education sector who will retain power at all costs. Over the next couple of years, LATTICE agents generated a large-scale covert divest-and-divert campaign to identify caustic and corruptive practices in higher education by exposing them to philanthropic foundations, other non-government funders and eventually the public. They created an ethical channel to receive funding to support BLAKFULLAS University and other emergent forms of free and inclusive public pedagogical learning academies that centred Care for Country and intergenerational justice in areas of medicine, engineering, science, art and humanities amongst others. The MOOC expanded providing training for academics to transition out and to decolonise their research. Professionals were offered strategic foresight training to accompany their cultural competency development. With this pathway and some LATTICE funded support for some, early and mid-career academics wilfully resigned from their precarious roles within universities. Professors retired or applied for positions in the academies. The takedown didn’t take long, and it continues. 


Little things.   

I don’t know who will find or read this. It’s all I got to say before punching out and leaving the building for the last time. I’ve cleaned these corridors, toilets and lecture halls for a long time, invisibly witnessing and listening. 



Transcribed from a toilet wall in the now derelict Redmond Barry Building at the University of Melbourne before its scheduled demolition in October 2029. Author unknown.