A loving critique of feminist organising on Australian university campuses

By reacting instead of acting, we ultimately give universities the upper hand.

Image: Jazzlyn Breen

There is an undeniable romance about the student movement. It conjures images of Vietnam-era demonstrations, of pre-VSU hi-jinks and of mass protest. Though much of what makes the mythology of our political past so alluring has changed form, the spirit of campus activism remains steadfast. This is particularly true in women’s collectives, which form the basis for feminist organising on university campuses across Australia. 

It’s for this reason that I believe it is important to vigorously criticise these collectives, and the broader movement that they operate within. As a former Women’s Officer, I am intimately aware of the responsibilities and difficulties of feminist organising. I offer the following critique with love, and in good faith. 

In recent years, the issue of sexual assault on campus has come to national attention. This is largely thanks to the work of student activists and sexual assault advocates, who have been agitating for this issue since the late 1970s. It is an issue that affects all university campuses, and is often the predominant uniting cause of the women’s collectives. 

Despite this, there is no real national organisation of university women’s collectives. Though there is some cross collaboration between campuses, they otherwise operate as separate entities. In particular, the University of Sydney Women’s Collective is viewed as a vanguard, frequently touted as the most radical, and the most active, of the collectives. This presents a number of problems. Most obviously, the aims of the movement as a whole are less effective when championed by a single campus. In addition to this, the reliance on a single collective to drive the momentum of a campaign means that, should that collective falter or fail, the campaign will fail with it. It also relies on the assumption that USyd Woco is the most radical and active of the collectives, or is more so to a significant extent, which is not necessarily true. 

Amongst the campus collectives, there is a definite political divide. This is especially present in years where members of student Labor factions hold a majority of convener or officer positions. Irregardless of the proclivities of the individual, party politics don’t exactly lend themselves to radicalism. Many of these collectives focus on community, rather than activism — devoting their energies to social events over movement building. 

The current USyd Women’s Officers, Ellie Wilson and Vivienne Guo, have identified this as an issue that affects the movement at large. “At the moment, when social media presence is crucial to our organising due to social distancing measures stifling other channels of protest and collective activity, we’ve seen very little from other university collectives. When we do see content, it’s often very tame and a bit liberal, rather than really pushing for any sort of radical feminist ideas or action.” Though this is likely a fair comment, it’s worth questioning what USyd Woco are doing that differentiates them from their less favourable counterparts. Their Facebook page is regularly used to fundraise — a worthy endeavour, but hardly a radical action. Much of their work since the beginning of 2019 has been focused on community building and social events, rather than acting on their claimed radical politics. I don’t mean to single USyd Woco out in this criticism — there are much less active collectives. It’s simply worth considering that inactivity is an issue that affects all collectives, not just the ones on other campuses.

There is very little in the way of national organising. Though there is the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA), and the Women’s Department of the National Union of Students (NUS), neither do anything particularly effective or meaningful. NOWSA only functionally exists as a yearly conference, and the effectiveness of NUS is dependent on the whims of whichever Labor hack is instilled at the NUS’ National Conference (NatCon). Ultimately, NUS can’t be given too much credit in either the success or disappointments of student feminist organising, because it does very little at all. 

The lack of collaboration between collectives is a generational issue, one that has persisted for several years, and that won’t be solved under the structure of NUS. It is perpetuated by a frustrating resistance to criticism that is present in all the collectives, and which is further ratified by the fact that they are autonomous, affording them an almost holy status in the liberal, identity obsessed world of student politics. 

I believe that such an issue could be fixed first by an increase in cross-collective communication, and further by a move to organising under a structure similar to the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN), which is a democratic student network that elects state and national conveners, and organises through campus collectives. Though there is no easy fix to such long standing issues, a move away from NUS as a means of national organising, and toward an alternate structure, will go a long way in improving the overall strength and effectiveness of the movement. 

If we accept that NUS is functionally useless, then the importance of individual and collaborative campus activity is twofold. Notwithstanding the importance of sexual assault as an issue for all campuses, there is a noticeable lack of long term planning or co-ordination around attempts at reform that have existed, in some form or another, for decades.

In recent years, collectives have relied on the release of a report or event, such as the 2017 AHRC Change the Course report, to mobilise. These reports emerge every few years, and by their nature are overwhelmingly disappointing (the exception being the Red Zone Report in 2017, which was authored by unpaid activists and advocates). Campaigns are organised in reaction to these events, rather than sustained to build momentum and respond when they do occur. 

I don’t believe that this is a particularly effective or strategic method of organising. In relying on the output of institutions such as the AHRC, or the work of Elizabeth Broderick in recommending measures for ‘cultural renewal’ of the colleges, we ultimately weaken our aims. Our political action should not be relying on the work of agents acting in favour of the University.

The University of Sydney SRC Women’s Officers identified the delay of the Universities Australia survey, which was due to occur this year, as a reason for why they have not yet established a specific campaign around campus sexual violence. “The Universities Australia review has unfortunately been delayed for the foreseeable future due to the host of new issues in tertiary education that have arisen due to COVID-19, which makes it hard for us to organise around sexual violence on campus in the ways we had intended to when starting our terms.” 

Though I understand and accept that the pandemic has caused considerable setbacks, I can’t help but feel that the absence of a sustained campaign in 2019 and 2020 will ultimately leave the movement in a weaker position post COVID-19. Why wait for the release of a report, review or survey to organise, especially when such an event is being organised by a university peak body? By reacting instead of acting, we ultimately give universities the upper hand.  

Aside from coordination and strategy, I believe that there is a major issue in the historic and contemporary demands of the sexual assault campaign, especially at the University of Sydney — namely that of demanding punitive policies to police sexual assault from the University itself. 

In campaigning to increase the scope and severity of penalty for reported sexual assault, we have given the University increased powers to control student behaviour. This is evident in the rise in cases of student misconduct levelled against student activists in recent years. Right-wing interventions into the misconduct process, such as that of Bettina Arndt and Greg Donnelly against myself, have often been labelled a perversion or manipulation of a system that had been partially reformed to better assist survivors of sexual assault in acheiving some semblance of justice. 

Though I used to agree with this idea, I now know that this is not the case — the system is working exactly as it has been designed to. We, as student activists, have failed to properly consider the full implications of what we have demanded from the University. 

Beyond this, advocating for such punitive measures is incompatible with left-wing ideals, especially abolitionist politics, which have recently risen in popularity within the USyd Women’s Collective. When the broad majority of the left considers processes of community accountability and restorative justice to be best practice in achieving justice for survivors of sexual assault, it seems odd that we would suddenly revert to more punitive measures under the structure of the University itself.  

This contradiction is a symptom of a broader issue, where false importance is placed on the relationship between Women’s Officers and University administration. As communication and collaboration between Universities and Women’s Officers has increased, many collectives, including USyd Woco, have substituted participating in university committees and meetings as a meaningful avenue for agitating for reform. In the absence of a campaign, these meetings become the only consistent action around the issue — which is an obvious problem, given that they are conducted by management with conciliation in aim.

Despite my criticisms, I have an immense fondness for campus feminism. For many of its members, it’s an entry point for a deeper engagement with left-wing politics and activism. Though this may be easier said than done, I am optimistic that a better movement, an actual movement, can be built across university campuses.