One of the most memorable filmic depictions of education politics is the final scene of Dead Poet’s Society. The students’ final salute to their mentor, John Keating, has brought tears to the eyes of countless English teachers. No doubt emotional rawness and pedagogical envy are both factors. The “O Captain! My captain!” protest is defiant, solemn, and, sadly, probably ineffective in bringing about tangible institutional change.
This is unsurprising. The students attend an old boy’s academy, steeped in tradition consolidated by top-down power and authoritarian law enforcement. They have no representative body and, hence, are reduced to limp, inconsequential actions, such as standing on desks.
On September 3rd, the Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association (MUPRA) will defend itself against Macquarie University, the very organisation that endorsed its formation in the late 1990s, in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. MUPRA will be fighting for its right to sit at the table of educational decision-making, rather than have individual members stand on it in ineffectual dissent.
The legal action centres on a dispute over $500,000 that MUPRA received from the University prior to 2007 and has saved in a bank account since. The account was frozen by the Macquarie administration late last year. The University is seeking to shut down MUPRA, appoint a liquidator, distribute its net assets, and have itself awarded legal costs.
The official justification is that MUPRA has not been “meeting its financial obligations” and providing “limited postgraduate services.” The union disputes this, arguing it has provided valuable social, educational, and political incentives to students, while saving money to protect themselves against voluntary student unionism (VSU) and dwindling support from their university.
A Student Advisory Board has been established to replace MUPRA. Under the Board’s charter, Macquarie University’s Chancellor has the power to appoint the chair of the organisation. This is in contrast to the student election process favoured by the postgraduate union.
This rollback of student unionism is reminiscent of the dark ages. After the Howard Government’s VSU laws came into effect in 2007, the National Union of Students and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) reported a mass university takeover of student services and advocacy.
Although the Gillard Government’s compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) has clawed back some ground for student organisations, a court ruling in favour of Macquarie University could see student unions weakened once more.
CAPA’s President, Meghan Hopper, is concerned the case may establish a precedent for other university administrations, “[It] could lead to…universities across Australia using this decision to close their own student associations, take back student money and replace independent student representation with sub-standard, non-democratic ‘advisory’ bodies.”
This is why the MUPRA case matters for student unionism at large. An administration victory may establish a standard for other universities, including Sydney.
Furthermore, it could bolster support for VSU in parliament. Only last week, Liberal senator James McGrath and House of Representatives MP Alex Hawke announced their intention to table private member’s bills to abolish the SSAF. The Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has said the Government will “consider it.”
Of course, the more we disempower unions, the more universities will become vocational training factories. The more we place control in the hands of university administrators, the more we strip power from those for whom university is intended – students.
Tertiary education is about social ideals as well as personal utilities. The collage of student unionism contains images of anti-Vietnam War protests, the Freedom Rides, and marriage rights rallies, amongst other things.
Universities shouldn’t restrict such free speech by sequestering student organizations’ assets. They deserve respect, an independent voice, and a degree of power. With these provisions, they will surely seize the day.