In 1996 a guy called Simon Target documented the everyday struggles of Arts students at Sydney University in a series called Uni. For nine months he followed future Chaser boys Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen as they took on student politics and Manning romance, among other co-curriculars. It’s a time capsule of sorts that’s been recently dug up and released on to the newsfeed, and it’s pretty damn good.
If you’ve ever wanted to venture into the world of extra-curricular over-committers but have never stirred up the courage to dance foolishly on the Seymour stage or don a colorful campaign shirt, then Uni will fill that void. In that sense, it’s a pretty brilliant insight into the inner workings of the University’s inner circles.
If you are a stupol power broker – or even if you’ve just exploited the simple extension system a few times – then you’ll likely find this series troublingly close to home. Students siege John Howard’s appearances on campus, they protest staff pay cuts, and they satirise the capitalistic Vice-Chancellor. From the over-passionate, overfunded stupol campaigns to the far-too-regular afternoon beers, it’s all scarily similar to hack life in 2014.
The first of four parts focuses on the Arts Society (which nowadays goes by the acronym SASS) and the Arts Revue, starring resident entertainer Hansen and directed by Firth who has already established himself as a bit of a campus overachiever. It’s interesting to see how much they are all emotionally invested in the Revue, but in part two the stakes are even higher. Firth, having lost two elections himself, attempts to run his goofy, popular mate Sholto in the SRC Presidential election.
His opponents, who Firth calls “boring institutional bureaucrats”, are Reform and SEA (Students for Education Action). SEA is the dominant faction on campus, having held presidency for eight straight years, while Reform is the sort-of-Liberal, underdog campaign. For Firth, as for all those before and after him, the election is life and death. Aspiring Presidents make many of the same campaign promises they make today, all the while crashing lectures, negotiating preference deals, and eagerly awaiting polling results.
In among the electoral chaos, Hansen provides the voice of reason. “You get worked up and washed out over something that matters so little,” he says, attempting to bring a manic Firth back down to Earth. But such is the way of the hack, then and now, where lost elections are immeasurably worse than failed subjects. But, while Sholto falls short, and Firth is left weeping on the floor of Manning, both echo the sentiment of the hundreds of students who will follow them in bitter defeat: “We came close and we put up a fucking good fight!”
Uni serves as an interesting prologue to the satire we have come to expect from this group. While Firth comes off as entitled and generally quite power-hungry, Hansen spends most of the time with his guitar in hand, strumming a mixture of break-up melodies and political satire. He also goes through spells of severe depression, eventually dropping out of his Honours course and admitting himself to hospital. Jokes aside, Hansen’s story is devastating, as he talks about suicide flippantly, recounting his own past attempt as “pathetic”.
The third episode of the series revolves largely around Hansen’s depression and Firth’s romantic pursuits, while the fourth part documents the staff strikes and protests against the University management. Target also follows around another student, Cal Beattie, whose day-to-day struggles are more in line with the average student population who lay-by computers and balance uni work with full time jobs. But who wants to hear about the measly, run-of-the-mill student? The stars here are the self-deluding hacks.
And there definitely is a certain level of self-delusion to this bubbled life of primary colours. Target perhaps says it best in his cheesy final lines:
“Who can tell what these people will make of their lives? But whatever they end up doing, I’m sure they’ll never forget the time when each moment felt so sweet and intense. The time they spent at uni.”
Sweet and intense? Yes. Unique? Absolutely not. One thing has become abundantly clear having watched all four episodes of this series: hacks don’t change.
Illustration by Julia Zhu Wei.