All hope (not) lost

The need for further activism is undermined when people can point to their USU rainbow keep cups.

“One, two, three, four! We don’t want a fucking war!” Thousands of student activists march through the streets of Broadway chanting as loud as possible. Flying high are banners calling for peace carrying powerful messages such as “not one more death.” There’s something radical in the air and each student can sense it. With fresh memories of friends, families, and acquaintances drafted into the army, student activists march with purpose and determination. This is their time. Together, they will bring an end to the injustice that is the Vietnam War.


A group of fifteen or so gather around on Eastern Avenue, listening intently to a student activist speak dispassionately through a megaphone. Next to them a stack of pamphlets being blown away in the wind. As the clock strikes four, hundreds of students pour out of class, not taking heed of campaigners. A few more speeches, some half-hearted chants, and the activists pack up for the day. Two hundred had clicked going on the Facebook event – actual numbers are a lot less. As organisers walk home, carrying rolled up banners, they ask themselves:  Is student activism worth it?

The Glory Days

Those unfamiliar with the University’s history of student activism may think that small, uninspiring protests are the norm. That is certainly the way Jay*, a fourth year commerce student at the University, conceives of student protests. “I can’t say I care too much. It’s just a louder version of Socialist Alternative giving me a pamphlet.”  However, this sense of apathy towards civil disobedience is far more recent than one may think.

Professor Ann Curthoys, a student at USyd during the ‘60s and ‘70s, recalls when student life was “very focused around associations.” Ann, along with her comrades in Student Action for Aborigines, participated in the seminal Freedom Rides of 1965, which she describes as having a “significant effect on public debate on Aboriginal rights.” In the same period Julie McCrossin, a queer activist from USyd, recounted dressing as a nun to protest at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a bold feat that ended in a police escorting her from the church. She was protesting on behalf of teacher Mike Clohesy, who lost his job at a Catholic school after speaking on TV about decriminalising homosexuality. Other notable examples include the Merewether Occupation, which lead to the formation of the Political Economy department, and the Philosophy Department strike action over the teaching of feminism. In those days the sense of radicalism that surged through USyd seemed to know no levee, streaming on and off campus.

These days, however, the surge seems to have run dry, and one can’t be blamed for thinking student activists have lost their power. In 2016, the Sydney College of Arts occupation was unsuccessful despite being the longest student occupation in USyd history. Similarly, USyd remained one of the only major universities in Australia that did not publicly support marriage equality, despite the persistent and passionate rallying of queer activists. More broadly, activists appear to be fighting a losing battle for refugee rights, while the rising price of higher education tells its own story. It would be intuitive, but misguided, to think that such a decline in the social appeal of activism is attributable to a change in the tactics or attitudes of student activists. What then is the cause of this radical shift from ‘the good old days?’

Trapped in the Neo-Liberal Clusterfuck

In comparing eras of student activism, Andy Mason, the former convener of the Australian Student Environmental Network, suggests the most obvious difference consists in the sheer size of student campaigns, or lack thereof in more recent years. Whilst protests of the past frequently attracted hundreds or even thousands of students to their actions, nowadays such turnouts would be anomalous.

A contributing factor to this decline in student numbers has been Australia’s changing economic landscape across the last forty years. As successive governments have adopted more neoliberal economic policies (i.e. policies that tend to favour the free-market), the socio-economic conditions students face have changed radically. Increases in the costs of living, housing struggles, the end of free education, and employment pressures have all reduced the amount of time, and thought, students have been able to commit to activism. Professor Curthoys recalls students enjoying a “sense of freedom…that was challenged later on as students’ time became more circumscribed both by part time work and continuous assessment.” Additionally, the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU) has also undermined activist culture. Alongside the obvious reductions in resourcing, VSU has also hampered student culture, reducing the degree of solidarity students feel with each other and their ability to forge strong institutional memories.

Beyond direct implications on students’ lives, neoliberalism has influenced the operation of University management. USyd PhD student Tim Briedis explains that during the ’60s and ‘70s Australian universities were situated in a broader context of education expansion, making them more responsive to changes that would attract a more diverse range of students. In contrast, universities today are being financially ‘squeezed’ by the government, forcing them to focus less on the diversity of education and more on revenue streams. A good example of this can be seen in Universities’ responses to the demand to eradicate sexual violence on campus. As activists evoked powerful narratives recalling legitimate student experiences of campus sexual violence, it appeared the University’s main concern was managing its own public relations. Rather than meaningfully engaging with the activists’ demands management appears to have adopted minor initiatives that are merely window dressing this entrenched problem.

The same anti sexual violence campaigns also revealed that movements towards change can be a mirage, most notably in the meetings that Women’s Officers and other elected SRC office bearers would have with management throughout 2016. The group attending these meetings, which originated in response to the prevalence of sexual assault on campus in 2015, was later named “Safer Community Working Group” a euphemism indeed. Student activists recalled that management randomly added new students to the group, forcing discussions to restart. Management would also bring up other important issues, forcing activists in attendance to pick between worthy causes in an effort to dampen the severity of the unchosen option. Moreover, activists recalled that if students asked too many questions the Uni representatives in attendance would cast them as aggressive and not ‘team players’. Activists later concluded that the meetings were largely for show; an attempt to point to a line of communication to suppress protests that cast the university in a bad light.

A similarly cynical ploy can be seen in USyd’s embrace of ‘pink capitalism,’ wherein aspects of the LGBTQI+ and sexual diversity movement are appropriated to further financial gains. The recent ‘Unlearn Marriage’ university promotional posters and USyd Mardi Gras floats are but two examples. The need for further activism and radical changes to society is undermined when people can point to their USU Rainbow keep cups.

Transcending the Apathy of Modernity

Though the present seems gloomy, the final nail has not yet been hammered into the coffin of student activism. Neoliberalism has done a lot to try and shift society’s aims and present us with false indications of change, which makes the task of even measuring success difficult. Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be is getting more popular. Student movements across the globe look to be increasing in size and traction, and Australia is no exception to that trend.  Briedis recalls the successful creativity of students at UTS in 1997 who, when protesting the proposed introduction of upfront fees, were able to outwit law enforcement and occupy of a campus building. Similarly, Mason points to the more recent Bentley Blockade where, following several years of protests, activists were able to organise a camp of thousands to block a coal-seam gas exploration site.

Changes in the compositions of universities have altered campus culture but they have also brought universities closer to the mainstream. Subsequently, student activists can interact with a more diverse range of people and avoid the self-imposed segregation of the past. This provides a unique opportunity for students to organise their campaigns around the more visceral concerns of oppressed groups in society. The rise of the international student movement in the last few years at the University of Sydney, most notably in the form of 2017’s successful Panda SRC campaign, provides a good example of this. Additionally, as the structure of the university changes and university management focuses more on research outcomes, traditional methods of on-campus occupations and strikes have become less effective. If student activists can start focusing their civil disobedience towards places like research hubs at the university, it is possible that their negotiating power with the university could radically increase.

The recent global context has seen the rise of protest politics, with turnouts at civil disobedience actions increasing. Professor Curthoys states she’s seen “student activism wax and wane and then wax again’ and suggest that ‘we seem to be in an activist era.” Notably, organising around the treatment of refugees on Manus Island has drawn significant national attention, most relevantly at the Liberal fundraising protest in November 2017. Student activists have also learned how to effectively employ a range of methods beyond civil disobedience, all of which have been critical ancillary methods.

Student activism at USyd is far from dead. Consciousness appears on the rise, protest attendance is on the up, and popular dissatisfaction with political inertia abounds. Like their predecessors, student must organise with careful detail to the context in which they operate. If they can do that, and continue to fight the system in creative and impassioned ways, it is possible that glory days will soon return. Perhaps Professor Curthoys puts it best:  “as someone who graduated from a BA over 50 years ago, recognise how special this time is and use it to the best of your ability.”

Connor Parissis and Katie Thorburn assisted with this article.

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