Student activism: Paris ’68 to Sydney ‘12

The wind is back in the sails of the protest movement. Tim Scriven and Morgan Gardiner look at student activism around the world, in Australia and at the University of Sydney.

Student protestors block the entrance of a University building
National protest campaign organised by Australian students

The University of Sydney has a rich history of activism, and it’s certainly left its mark. Two departments at Sydney University, Gender Studies and Political Economy, owe their existence to activism, and at one point the department of Philosophy was split in two, with the department of “General Philosophy” being controlled by students and staff.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies on the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”

These words are from Mario Savio, in a speech given during the Berkeley Free speech struggle. It’s part of a speech which is widely considered to be the best ever given in student politics; a field known for its orators of varying quality.

Sydney Uni ‘12 may not quite be Paris ‘68 but for the first time in quite some time, student protest amounts to more than a stall on Eastern Avenue. It’s not just happening here and it’s not just happening in Australia. Student protest, often vigorous, is popping up over the world like a thousand spot fires. Why do students protest, and why are they protesting now?

The first university in the world, the University of Bolonga, was formed by student activism. Fed up with their treatment by the city of Bolonga, students formed the university as an assertion of collective power against the city, which punished groups of foreigners collectively for the crimes and debts of each other. Bolonga was, like many earlier universities, controlled by its students. It was seen as a natural thing that universities would be controlled either by staff or by students.

Since then, universities have had many operations performed against them.

They have been variously secularised, desecularised, publicised, privatised, exposed to Cultural Revolution, corporatized, been given over to practicians or plebs, formed into bureaucracy or governed by mass student meeting. Clearly universities vary in time and in place. Despite this variability universities of all sorts are, at least occasionally, centres of activism.

Why is this so?

For the revolutionary (or the reformer) the student is the perfect specimen.

Students are young. They expect to be well-off one day, but are not at present, so they are ambitious. Many are upwardly mobile with working class origins and an expectation of a more comfortable life than their parents. It is no coincidence that the peak of student activism was in the sixties. For the first time ambitious students from working class backgrounds were coming in great numbers.

Student action overthrew the military junta which ran Greece in the seventies, and has prevented military coups. It helped stop the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement through the Freedom Rides…

It is also attractive because it is effective. Student action around the world has done everything from win a set of traffic lights on Parramatta Road to freezing fee hikes for decades, sacking the UTS Vice-Chancellor and even temporarily granting students complete power over the administration of their university. It overthrew the military junta which ran Greece in the seventies, and has prevented military coups. It helped stop the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement through the Freedom Rides. Few people feel less in control of their lives than a typical young adult. The prospect of being able to dictate conditions at your place of study is enticing to say the least.

The University of Sydney has a rich history of activism, and it’s certainly left its mark. Two departments at Sydney University, Gender Studies and Political Economy, owe their existence to activism, and Political Economy still needs to be regularly defended against attacks. At one point the department of Philosophy was split in two, with the department of “General Philosophy” being controlled by students and staff.

Ultimately though, the sense of history is a somewhat illusory veil. A student remains involved for, at most, only a few years and there is often very little handover. Each generation constructs a new legacy of action, often nearly from the ground up, and continuing institutions, particularly in the wake of voluntary student unionism, have grown alarmingly thin. However far it may stumble though, Sydney, like most other universities around the world, always seems to return to action in the end.

Student activism is not always from the left. Theocratic movements in the Islamic world are often centred at universities. There have been various fascist groups at the University of Sydney throughout its history including the Australian National Alliance. European nationalist separatist movements (not all right-wing) had bases in universities. Even when it is right-wing, it is rarely conservative in the proper sense, it almost always demands change.

Student activism comes in many guises, but despite the stereotype of the student leafleting for Palestine or Gay Marriage, the reality is that most student activism is centred on issues of education, and has been for most of its history. Perhaps this is not surprising, all students have a pecuniary interest in education and many also have an intellectual interest.

Nonetheless some of the most interesting activist work within the university has concerned itself with what is outside the university. Those who criticise student organisations and activists involving themselves with matters outside educational policy would do well to remember the excellent track record of these campaigns. An office bearer’s report from Tony Abbott, back when he was President of the SRC, is particularly instructive here. Abbott criticised various collectives and action groups of the SRC involving themselves in what he claimed were marginal and irrelevant causes like ending Apartheid in South Africa and “other Marxist hobby horses” like “homosexual liberation”. Who now would begrudge the assistance the SRC and its activists gave to these causes?

Student protestors block the entrance of a University building over Staff Cuts imposed by the University of Sydney Senate

To the extent that there is a common or unifying philosophy behind activism it is one of autonomy, understood as self control. The routine of student activism is almost formulaic. First, management makes some decision which is widely considered odious. Then students respond by resisting the decision itself. There are strategic and ideological differences over how far resistance should go and sometimes these differences cause traumatic splits, or at least recriminations.

As the movement develops the students involved gradually begin to question not the decision itself, but they very fact that no one asked them. They begin to demand a greater say in how the university is run. We can see this pattern playing out at Sydney University; the anti-staff cuts campaign was organised against one particular decision. Now students are calling for a change of Vice-Chancellor and greater representation on Senate, among other demands.

Which methods of disobedience are acceptable and prudent are subject to continuous debate and reassessment. Should we obey the law when we protest? On the one hand, by staying “above board” protest might draw in more participants. On the other, purely symbolic action, with no disruption of the administration of the university can be, and often is, ignored. It is not uncommon for movements to split, between those who support disruptive “direct action” and those who prefer the sternly-worded letter and the stage-managed rally.

Activism doesn’t merely come from poor conditions or shoddy treatment, it comes from a combination of expectations and a world which does not match them. The greater the mismatch the greater the response. The most common way a mismatch is created is when standards drop suddenly. Students who had expected to live their lives peacefully were shocked to discover they might be drafted to go to Vietnam. From London to Quebec to Chile, the most common reason for activism is education fees. Perhaps this should hardly be surprising. As theorists as diverse as Marx and Alinsky have pointed out, while activism may be seen as noble, and perhaps it is, nothing motivates it quite like a personal stake.

But why is student activism hitting off everywhere right now? To understand this we have to understand the relation between self-interest and the user-pays model of education. Neoliberalism, or the view that market structures are fundamentally efficient and good, and should be introduced as widely as possible, has been biting the university since its formulation. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis it is fair to say that it has taken on a special bite.

Naomi Klein talks of the “Shock Doctrine”; the idea that unpopular measures of privatisation, austerity and corporate subsidies are best forced through during a real or perceived crisis.

The two faces of the coin are increases in the price and decreases in the quality of education. In most of the world the struggle of student activists has been centred around fees. However, reductions in quality do come a close second.

The whole of the public sector around the world is tending towards a corporatisation of decision making structures and, in the wave of austerity post GFC, an enormous number of universities across the world put the squeeze on, using an assortment of real and fabricated crises. Now the campus is out of control once more.

Student activism’s tie to external conditions perhaps explains the stereotype of the university student as useless. The idea of the impotent student group, railing against the whole world and trying to convince themselves desperately that they are relevant is well ingrained in our culture.

Paris 1968 Workers Protest

In Paris 1968, students led a revolution which very nearly toppled the De Gaulle government and implemented socialism in France. Events like this, the Berkley Free Speech movement and the student protests of the sixities against the Vietnam War, hover like a ghost over the student radical. The university may be a spark, but without a powder keg, the ability of a student front to change things, however large and passionate, is sorely limited. The student movement needs broader movements to interact with; institutions like radical churches, militant unions and community associations. In the absence of these things it becomes a slightly grandiose flame, moving this way and that, searching for tinder.

Yet for all these limitations student activism has, and continues to, change the world. To leave the role of neutral explicator, it is important to get involved and make change. Like a frog on a slow boil we’ve lost sight of how much our education has been losing over time. We’ve been increasingly isolated from control of our student experience by ever creeping bureaucracies; both university administration and sometimes the very student bureaucracies that claim to represent us. But, as is so often the case, the only thing which has made us impotent is our belief that we are impotent. Go along to a meeting, or perhaps set one up yourself. If nothing else, you’ll learn a hell of a lot about how the world works that you could never get from a classroom.


Tim Scriven and Morgan Gardiner.

Tim Scriven is on Twitter: @Tim_Scriven