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Rad Ed review: The Good University?

The session reflected on the existential tension between the politics of love and struggle in student activism.

The Students’ Representative Council’s (SRC) Radical Education kicked off yesterday, the event’s sixth iteration since its inception in 2016. The program provides an annual platform in which student activists nurture and hone their political vision for a better society. These sessions have covered a variety of topics such as disability justice, free education, and indeed for this year, a screening of Incarceration Nation. They serve as free-flowing, non-hierarchical forums for discussion between activists and the curious, regardless of factional stripe, partake in. 

To that end, Alana Ramshaw and Grace Lagan’s The Good University? offered a powerful dose of reflection on how we should organise to attain the free education we need, dismantle colonialism, and the prevailing forces of the neoliberal university. 

Citing extensively from Robin Kelly’s Black Study, Black Struggle, the pair explored different ways of enacting student activism and expanding it beyond the boundaries of the academy. 

“Universities are not up to the task. I believe universities can and will become more diverse, and marginally more welcoming for Black students, but as institutions they will never be engines of transformative change,” Ramshaw said, reciting Kelly’s words. 

For her, the power to catalyse transformative change lies in constant political education and student activism, stressing that, “by definition, it [activism] takes place outside the university”. 

Soon, discussions moved to the need for nurturing a “politics of love and nourishment” within student activism as a crucial political “refuge”, in Kelly’s term, to provide the space and social incentive to develop not merely as activists but as people

What ensued was a deep conversation about the burdens of activism and a key tension facing all seasoned activists: the taxing and relentless dedication required beyond the ever-present demands of work and study. SRC Education Officer Lia Perkins, for one, though acknowledging that a politics of love was essential, one “cannot pretend that we don’t live in a capitalist society”. 

Wiradjuri, Yuin and Gadigal Indigenous artist Nadeena Dixon concurred, saying that there was a need to put oneself outside of their circles: “I can’t practise my own form of segregation by only staying in the black community because if I see myself as an outsider, that’s where I’ll always be. I need to put myself in the broader community because there’s so much work to be done.”

She also challenged the maxim that activists must constantly wage existential battles to win, encouraging students to stay grounded and reminding themselves of their own community. 

“Do I have to go to war? At what stage do I get to just be a strong woman?” Dixon asked. 

“And I am just exhausted you know. I have to go home and look after my babies. There’s something more profound that’s bigger and it contains all of us.” 

Dixon then implored everyone to think of the SRC as “a wonderful opportunity for us to create spaces that nourish” as opposed to adopting a siege mentality that risks betraying a community-minded approach to anti-capitalism. 

Perkins, in a speech that struck a chord with many in the room, pointed out that student activists face competing responsibilities, often working casual jobs to make ends meet while engaging in activism.

“We need to make someone so insanely obsessed with the SRC that they will give up a lot of time and money,” Perkins said.

The investment that activists contribute, for her, is significant and often goes unnoticed. 

A small autopsy of the hurdles facing student activism then ensued, with some pointing out “structural” difficulties in organising inside the SRC, with office-bearers facing different workloads, some heavier than others. Many, including Ramshaw, saw maintaining staunch politics while welcoming and mentoring new activists as a delicate balancing act, a fine line between gatekeeping and political development. 

What was palpable in the room was a sense of poignancy over the depoliticised university, accelerated by a combination of increasingly hostile anti-protest laws, and maintaining political engagement some twenty years after John Howard enacted voluntary student unionism. Even Lauren Lancaster, in her role as SRC President, recognised the toll of activist burnout. 

What united those who attended was a longing to bring community to the table of activism, in order to realise the transformative aim of dismantling the modern corporate university. Lagan offered the optimistic view that the SRC should strive to “select the best and brightest” students as activists. In a sense, the politics of love and nourishment that Ramshaw and Lagan propose is a call to build a sense of camaraderie among activists, particularly during trying times. 

It is no coincidence that the pair’s Rad Ed session shares the same name as Raewyn Connell’s seminal The Good University: What universities actually do and why it’s time for Radical Change, as it confronts the structural hurdles facing campus activism.  

Taking a leaf from the rousing Acknowledgement of Country that Dixon delivered to open 2022’s Radical Education, the politics of love and nourishment that is at the crux of Ramshaw and Lagan’s ‘The Good University?’ was on full display.

“And we see many aspects where we are going to continue to stand for each other. Because if we don’t, any of us is at risk. I’ve gained so much strength. My community continues to nourish me and I like to take everyone for the ride today.”