WORDS | Emma Vlatko
In 1969, Macquarie University students set up a tent embassy in the quadrangle of the North Ryde campus. Starting over concerns about the lack of student housing available, the embassy quickly grew from 30 to 300 students before the university administrators caved to their demands.
It’s called radical student activism and you’ll be hard pressed to find it on our campus today. However, the growing discontent among Australia’s youth with the political decision makers in Canberra, has made Vinil Kumar, a member of Macquarie’s Socialist Alternative, confident that it can return.
“It’s going to be in the context of a broader radicalisation happening in society,” Vinil stated. “It was there in the 60’s and 70’s… the student struggle reflected the broader struggle in society.”
Vinil’s blog, “Radical History of Macquarie University”, handed down to him by former Macquarie University student, and fellow Socialist Alternative member, Jordan Humphries, is just one effort being made to ensure our radical past is being remembered.
The blog documents are Macquarie’s moments of student activism, for example, the “storming of the round table discussions” in 1969, where almost seventy students forced themselves into the Vice Chancellor’s building during a consultation meeting. Or the Vietnam Moratorium campaign on campus in the early 1970’s.
So what happened? Where has all the student activism gone?
“This is not the 1960’s or 70’s” Vinil confessed. “During that time, the union movement set the tone for a lot of what happened.”
Unfortunately for those current Macquarie students wishing to use their new tents, the student union was disbanded in 2007. Student welfare is now run by Campus Life, a subsidiary company by the university.
“Student unionism has been under attack since the Howard Era,” Vinil stated, referring to Prime Minister John Howard’s Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). A scheme, Vinil claims, that was brought in to “attack student organisations.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) agree, stating that VSU “led to a major transfer of services and facilities that were historically student-run to the direct control of universities.”
Vinil’s comments also come just months after the NUS released their report into the spending of Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) around Australia. This report claims that the current structure of SSAF does not guarantee students any direct control over how their money is being spent.
Whilst Macquarie did not participate in the surveys, the report found that not one of Macquarie University’s student services is owned and controlled by a student organisation. Instead, they are almost all owned by the university directly, or by a university owned service company.
“Compare this to CSU, the money went directly to the student organisations,” Vinil states. “Today, students can tell the university what they want, but at the end of the day, the university can still do whatever they want. The SSAF specifically says that you cannot use those funds for political campaigning… They don’t want students to have the ability to politically organise on campus.”
Despite there being no explicit requirement in the SSAF guidelines that universities must “negotiate” with the student body, the report found that most universities maintained regular consultation with student representatives anyway.
Vinil acknowledges things could be worse. “I think we absolutely need to defend the SSAF. Student organisations need more money, not less…unless you have an honest assessment of SSAF’s limitations, we’re basically going to see the further degradation of student democracy and student life on campus.”
2014 has already seen Macquarie University staff take strike action. Perhaps this year will be another entry for Vinil’s radical history blog.