Inextinguishable Embers

1st place in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021

Nothing tastes better than the Dean’s wine. 

Eighteen students have bunkered down for the night in their new home, the administration building of Sydney College of the Arts (SCA). Stormed that day by sixty students, now chained and locked with industrial equipment, the building will be held for sixty-five days, the longest occupation of a university administration building in Australian student history. One student’s brave, barefooted climb over the roof and in through a window has opened the only locked door: the Dean’s office. The occupiers celebrate, the taste of the Dean’s cabinet-hidden cabernets on their lips. They laugh and lark, lying in sleeping bags in the common room while playing Class Struggle (the board game) and toasting their success.

To many this would strike as a scene from the 1970s. It’s not. This is August 22, 2016, and University of Sydney students are upping-the-anti in their fiery campaign against the disassembling of their art school.

SCA was birthed in the wake of the art and student movements emergent in the revolutionary fervour of 1968. Art, like society, was changing. SCA’s pedagogy usurped the technical institutions of the past: art was about ideas and learning at SCA was about embodying those ideas through innovative artmaking. SCA’s radical roots reified in its nascent daily-life with elected students on all major committees, a pass-fail marking system and a free creche to care for children while parents – mostly mothers – engaged in the richness of their free, studio-based education.

This stand-alone, state-funded school of the Whitlam era was forced into a university – as were most art schools – by the Hawke Labour government’s neoliberal reconstruction of tertiary education in the late 1980s. Education has always been tied to the aims of the state. Minister of the newly dubbed Employment, Education and Training portfolio, John Dawkins, reinvented the tertiary sector to blueprint the neoliberal system we study under today: decreasingly state-funded universities relying on domestic and, increasingly, international student fees and corporate sponsorship that mass skill the national labour force and invest in state-prioritised technological development. The production line of human capital – playfully dubbed “human cattle” by Steve Andrews – in the factories that we call universities has proletarianized and casualised academia and turned students into cash-cows.

Are we destined to be herded down this path? Or can ‘Student Power’ be an imperative force in tertiary education at the fork-in-the-road of COVID-restructured Zoom-torials, mass sackings of academics and Vice-Chancellor salaries that are annually more than a home I will never be able to own?

There was little inherent to SCA that sparked the explosive student radicalism of 2016. While students and staff in the 1980s had campaigned against the school’s dissolution into a New South Wales Institute of Art, that was a distant memory at the school unbeknown to any undergrads. John Howard’s Voluntary Student Unionism – a policy of opt-in unionism that defunded both political campaigning and services for students – assured the dissolution of any student union presence at SCA’s campus by the mid-2000s. Indeed, the initial student response to management’s plans to minimise SCA onto the University’s main campus in 2015 was a handful of students requesting a token consultative committee.

What did exist at SCA – and, I believe, exists in various formations in all education – was the community’s love for its school, pedagogy and creative practice, as well as an inherent trust that their managers – the Dean, Provost, Vice-Chancellor etc – were genuinely interested in their success.

When the University backflipped, announcing SCA’s closure and merger into an incongruous art school at the University of NSW in late-June 2016, this love and broken-trust clashed in contradiction, like steel to flint, igniting a burning rage in students. Staff were about to lose their jobs, PhD students would be unable to finish their theses and international students who had moved to Australia for this unique education were about to be abandoned.

The response flared immediately. When the University’s Provost visited SCA just days later, hundreds of students roasted him in a cauldron of their fury; they muted his microphone, interrupted his “spin”, chanted him down when he retorted and eventually chased him off the campus. By admonishing their administrator, the SCA students’ fury sparked a fuse that would eventually lead to the explosive and record-breaking occupation of their Dean’s office. They established the campaign Let SCA Stay.

In the winter holidays they protested the University Senate. Nearly 500 students and supporters stormed the Business School and spiralled the staircase to deliver a petition with over 5000 signatures. They were stopped only by fences, security and riot police who sealed-off the Senate from its constituents, symbols of systemic fissures abound.

Let SCA Stay launched democratically mandated student strikes. Students deserted their campus en masse and flooded the main campus in a festival of colour. Effigies of management figures and bed-sheet-banners brought belligerence to the historic Quadrangle’s manicured lawns. Fences were trounced as students set their stomping ground. 

When the occupation was finally raided by police on its sixty-fifth day, hundreds of students and supporters had visited or stayed a night, many thousands had signed petitions, many hundreds had protested. The struggle for SCA was on the tip of the Australian artworld’s tongue.

The student campaign saved a form of SCA. Its dissolution into the University of NSW was thrown out within a month and an at-first derisory plan for its transfer onto the main campus was injected with $20 million and a semi-suitable home for SCA in the Old Teachers College. While students slept in his office, the Dean resigned. One third of staff who faced sackings in management’s initial relocation plan had their jobs saved and all studios that had faced the chop were retained. Nevertheless, and shamefully, the University’s attacks scarred SCA’s unique pedagogy and the future of contemporary art in Australia.

Tertiary education faces a crossroads. Declining government funding and the COVID pandemic have been exploited by increasingly corporate governance structures: staff are being squeezed and sacked while students are being sold an expensive educational experience near-exclusively executed from their laptop. 

The University of Sydney is a prime example. Management made 252 staff redundant in 2020 despite recording a surplus – “pandemic opportunism” as one staff unionist labelled it. Tone-deaf as ever, the Chancellor of the University, Belinda Hutchinson, recently decided to name the new $30 million administration building – inspiringly named “F23” at its inception – the “Michael Spence Building” after the staff-sacking, course-cutting, record-breaking-salaried Vice-Chancellor who presided over its construction in 2017. Can quality education harmonise with this amusia?

Let SCA Stay not only saved much of its art school, but it showed that ‘Student Power’ is more than a relic of history; it can be a driver of history.

Student fury remains, the cauldron further brewing with each post-lockdown Zoom link, each recorded lecture from 2018, each special consideration application unanswered. The legacy and lessons of Let SCA Stay are tinder to the ever-burning embers of student struggle. Students must fan embers to flames. Fresh kindling flares rapidly in a furnace; such can be the small struggles to ignite pathways for universities beyond COVID. 

When the time comes, I expect the Vice-Chancellor’s wine will taste even better.