Three students at La Trobe University face expulsion for protesting against staff cuts last year. One of the students is accused of breaking a security guard’s ribs. Rather than taking these serious accusations to court, the University is dealing with the charges internally. The students may be accompanied by a “support person” but this person is not allowed to have a law degree.
Last year the University announced it was cutting hundreds of humanities subjects and dozens of staff. Students responded by staging increasingly large nonviolent protests including the occupation of faculty offices. John Dewar, the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe, has said conflicting things to students and the public. To the outside world he supports the protests, saying, “I think it adds colour and movement to life on campus. I think it’s fantastic.” But while he was sending this message of free speech and open debate to the public, he was condemning students and demanding that they submit any plans for a protest to the University administration 24 hours in advance.
The cuts at La Trobe are similar to proposals by management at Sydney University and the Australian National University last year. Less profitable humanities faculties are being downsized across the country, and academics are being let go or forced into teaching-only roles. Universities have traditionally been about pursuing knowledge for its own sake, but this is changing. The increasing push to privatise every sphere of public life has led to university administrators always being on the lookout for ways to cut costs.
The secret trial of La Trobe students who are not allowed legal representation is a worrying sign of where the university has gone wrong. An institution that once valued free speech sent in dozens of security guards to break up a peaceful protest, and is threatening to expel three students over dubious charges. Transparency and intellectual freedom are values of the old system. In the new neoliberal university model, generations of aspiring intellectuals will only learn about profit and conformity.