You’re probably going to see a lot of activism while you’re at university but the great majority of activism actually happens behind closed doors. Whether in the unacknowledged work of the banner painter or in the subversion of unexpected agitators working on the inside, there’s more to activism than public stunts.
Throughout 2016 a small but elite society of undergraduate medicine students engaged in a quiet campaign to have the length of their scholarship extended. The scholarship in question is the University’s coveted ‘Sydney Scholar’ award. Though it can be awarded under alternate circumstances, a $10,000 per annum scholarship is automatically conferred on students who achieve an ATAR above 99.90. In order to secure undergraduate entry into the university’s combined medicine course, domestic students must achieve an ATAR of 99.95. This means that each domestic student in the undergraduate medical stream receives $10,000 every year.
In 2015, the university quietly reduced the duration of the scholarship so that instead of covering the full seven or eight years of medical school, students who began in 2015 and 2016 would only receive a scholarship for the undergraduate portion of their degree.
By mid-2016, the Combined Medicine Association (COMA), which represents undergraduate medicine students, began lobbying the University. Being relatively inexperienced as lobbyists, the group’s first move was to embrace an ‘insider’ strategy, one often dismissed in activist circles.
They began with a letter to the University, arguing that incoming students in 2015 were unaware that their scholarships would be removed when they enrolled, a serious concern given the high costs of a medicine degree. The group followed this with a second letter, this time to Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Registrar, Tyrone Carlin, before attempting to see his secretary in person. COMA persisted with this strategy until 9 December 2016. After roughly six months of this ‘insider’ strategy, COMA was informed that students commencing in 2015 and 2016 would have their scholarships extended.
COMA’s strategy – writing letters, emailing the university, and organising meetings – is normally an ineffective one. That’s not to say that activists don’t attempt to do what COMA did – groups like the Sydney University Student Representative Council Education Action Group (EAG) and Let the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) Stay, among others, consistently employ similar strategies. It is often their first port of call.
It’s not as if COMA’s demands are cheap. The cost in extending the medical scholarships for another 3 years for students who started their degrees in 2015 and 2016 is well in excess of $700,000 a year, and over $2.8 million in total. This amount would go some way towards covering the annual ‘deficit’ at the SCA. And yet, despite the University’s concern with its bottom line, it was relatively swift in acceding to COMA’s demands.
It’s unlikely that COMA’s correspondence – while no doubt elegant and well argued – did or said anything that experienced activists hadn’t tried before. In fact, SCA activists, as with countless others, did initially attempt a less adversarial campaign. It probably wasn’t the way that COMA presented their case that allowed them to achieve their demands. It was, most likely, their identity.
By virtue of their ATAR, domestic undergraduate medical students are likely to come from affluent backgrounds. Undergraduate medicine students are, according to one source, regularly reminded that they’re the ‘cream of the crop’. It’s a rhetorical flourish supported by generous funding and lavish facilities like the $385 million Charles Perkins Centre, which houses much of the University’s medical training facilities.
Though medical students’ education and resourcing is hardly perfect, it is a far cry from the average experience of students in other courses. Students studying arts, education or social work face the broad threat of a restructure, as well as course cutbacks, dated facilities, and overcrowding. This is to say nothing of the hardships faced by students at the SCA attempting to save their campus.
The outcomes of the Let the SCA Stay campaign support this. The University, concerned about a $5.5 million ‘deficit’, decided to merge the SCA with a number of other art schools, while ‘reimagining’ the bachelor of visual arts program. In response, activists exhausted their playbook; they occupied the administrative building of the SCA for 65 days, organised numerous rallies, performed stunts – all in addition to the ‘insider’ strategies employed by COMA. Though SCA students have met with some success – the merger was scrapped and the move from Callan Park has been postponed – the process has been long and arduous. After all that, the University has not confirmed whether it will keep the SCA’s Callan Park campus open anyway.
In contrast, COMA lobbyists employed typically ineffective tactics, achieving their demands within 6 months. One of the key arguments used by the COMA students – that it was unfair to change the terms of their education once they’d enrolled – is still being used by SCA students, but to far less impact. In a context where the University cuts regional pathways into medicine while honouring guaranteed placements that bypass the HSC for GPS students, this is not that surprising.
Comparing the SCA campaign with COMA’s lobbying efforts points toward a concerning, yet probable, reality: one in which the University administration is more sensitive to the ambitions of elite students than they are to the grievances of the average class.
That is not to say that activism is redundant. It’s precisely the University’s treatment of the average student that activism so necessary. Until the University responds to the average student’s needs with the same sympathy and speed as they did to COMA students, there is a need for well-organised campaigns.
Perhaps the most devastating insight for activists is this: for the most part, the quality and effort you put into your campaign is almost irrelevant. You can occupy buildings, organise big rallies and perform stunts as much as you want, but unless the University cares about you and your cause they’re unlikely to budge.