Getting Our Bite Back: Sally Percival Wood on the defanging of university students

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Words || Angus Dalton

Dr Sally Percival Wood spends a fair amount of time at Deakin University in Geelong, teaching and conducting research into Australia’s post-war relationship with Asia. At the start of the year when she saw a jumping castle inflated on campus for O-week, she cringed.

“A jumping castle. At an O-week? You cannot be serious. God, how bloody lame it that?”

It’s not that Dr Wood has any particular gripe with inflatable fair-themed fun per se, but after months of researching the fiery student press of the 1960s for her new book, Dissent, the jumping castle in question seemed to exemplify the infantilised, depoliticised and marketing-mad university campus of recent years. As Wood writes derisively in her book, ‘twenty-first century university students seem to like their O Week with a bit of primary and secondary school thrown in’.

“O-Week in 1967 was full on,” she tells me over the phone. Conversations and reportage revolved around the presence of ASIO agents on campuses; at the University of Adelaide, student publication On Dit reported that students on the SRC and members of the National Union of Australian University Students were robbed of important files from their own homes, and that ASIO had tried to recruit a right-wing student politician as an undercover agent.

In Canberra, ANU’s Woroni exposed the police brutality at a recent protest where several of the university’s staff and students were arrested. Anti-war sentiment was no longer seething in undercurrents but broiling over; the cover of Monash University’s Lot’s Wife featured a portrait of the then prime minister, Harold Holt, on a poster with the words ‘Wanted for the murder of kidnapped Australian minors; also for complicity in the torture and murder of North Vietnamese citizens’.

But before all this, at the start of the decade, Sally writes that university students were ‘overwhelmingly obedient’. There were opinion pieces in the University of Sydney’s Honi Soit advocating for the compulsory wearing of academic gowns, and in place of album reviews were considerations of classical music.

“University was considered this prestigious, hallowed ground; campuses were sacrosanct,” she explains. “But that completely changed by 1965.”

Dr Wood says there was a ‘confluence of events’ that catalysed the radicalisation of students, including the introduction of television, the arrival of Eastern European migrants who tended to be far more politically switched-on than your average Australian-born uni attendee, and the fact that university education was becoming more attainable and was losing its status as ‘province of the elite’.

One of the major moments, too, was the arrival of the Beatles in 1964.

“Up until then young people were listening to jazz and behaving much like their parents. And then the Beatles came and they all went mad, and suddenly all these rock bands started cropping up … it’s not just political issues that changed. It’s what they’re wearing, it’s how they’re wearing their hair. It’s smoking dope. It was just such a dramatic change, in so many ways, in the space of about 4 or 5 years.”

The major issue that galvanised student dissent – and sharpened the pens of student writers – was conscription. The student press had a large pile of bones to pick with the conservative government (including draconian censorship laws, in protest of which students would create gleefully salacious cartoons that often landed them in court), but the anti-war sentiment was one felt keenly and consistently throughout the student publications surveyed by Wood.

“The student press really did give the mainstream press a run for its money, especially as the anti-Vietnam War campaign hotted up,” she says. “Student newspapers were actually revealing a lot of information that the general public wasn’t exposed to. They went to great lengths to find the truth, because they knew they were being lied to by the government. They were pretty courageous in that respect.”

“universities have been taken over by marketing, haven’t they? Which just kills the intellectual dynamism.”

Sally says the most shocking content she encountered was the photos from the war that the mainstream press wouldn’t touch.

“In Lot’s Wife, they showed really gruesome pictures of what was being done to the Vietnamese. Decapitated bodies. There was an edition of Farrago where they printed photos of decapitated heads on the ground, but the censors went in before the issue went to press and retouched the photos to make the heads look like piles of wheat. It was really awful.”

Other battles thrashed out in the pages concerned Indigenous rights, equality for women and gay liberation. Student-written opinion pieces, polemics and reportage were read beyond campus, and Sally argues that the dedication and ferocity with which students wrote had a major role in shaping how following decades played out.

She writes: “Australia entered the decade as a mono-cultural, homophobic, patriarchal and prudish nation with a ‘White Australia’ policy in place to preserve its ‘racial integrity’. It exited the decade – in 1972 [the year Whitlam was elected] – with these ideas, if not in tatters, up for serious renegotiation…These transformations were writ large across the student press, where in one decade Australian university students attempted to offload the baggage of an entire century.”

So what does Sally make of the student publications of today?

“Well they’re pretty lame to be perfectly honest,” she says. “There seems to be this concern about offending anyone… there have been some fairly argumentative pieces about policy change to higher education, and student fees. Students seem to arc up about that. But what I find most striking now is that students seem to talk about themselves a lot … there’s all this self-referential stuff which is so tedious. Students in the 1960s didn’t do that.”

However, Sally does find reasons for the apparent rise of the self-obsessed, politically limp student populations of 2017: “It’s the whole corporatisation of the tertiary education sector, which I think has screwed things up as much as anything… And universities have been taken over by marketing, haven’t they? Which just kills the intellectual dynamism.”

This speaks truth to what the Grapeshot team experiences; whenever we steer into a more politically engaged, hard-news style, some Macquarie executive or manager is bound to holler for our print to be halted (most notably when we almost ran an older version of the university logo in a DRAMAC ad – oh, the horror this caused Macquarie marketing). Writing biting news pieces results in letters from lawyers or blatant censorship. It’s no wonder the editors of Grapeshot’s predecessor, Speculum, walked off the job: they were sick of the editorial restriction and their pages being treated as a PR exercise.

“Political potency is dismissed in favour of a high fee-paying cohort.”

Part of this stifling brand obsession is the preoccupation universities have with attracting international students, who collectively injected 20 billion into the Australian economy last year. Having political debates and seminars about Australian politics at O-week doesn’t quite grab your average overseas visitor, so carnival rides are wheeled in and Crocodile Dundee is played by the lake instead. Appealing to international students “fundamentally alters campus dynamics,” Sally says. Political potency is dismissed in favour of a high fee-paying cohort.

Sally’s book demonstrates the political sway student populations and publications have had in our recent history, and she also believes it’s no coincidence that conservative governments have moved to restrict the power and monetary standing of student unions, who fund student publications. Cut fees paid to student unions, and students lose their voice.

“I don’t think Labor governments are so determined to depoliticise university campuses,” Sally says. “The Tony Abbotts of the world, though, are vehemently against student union fees. But it’s wrong to equate student unions with trade unionism, as some socialist plot … it’s about guarding the interests of university students, and providing amenities.”

Macquarie is one of the few universities to not have a student union. In its place we have U@MQ, the corporation which the SRC and Grapeshot fall under. They control the five million dollars of amenities fees we collectively fork out each year, and it’s in this way the printing of Grapeshot is funded. Push the envelope too far and it wouldn’t be all that hard for the uni to cut our funding and put a stop to independent student voice; indeed, we know that there’s marketing staff bent on cutting our printing budget and moving Grapeshot exclusively online. Print is our main platform; it’s our visibility and our way of recruiting knew readers – cut our print, and you’re cutting us off from students.

“My only suggestion is the power of unity,” says Sally, hopeful the spike in political activism and engagement within university campuses she investigated in the 60s could strike again. “That’s what worked in the 1960s; they knew they were being lied to, they fought to find the truth, and students were so unified on the big issues they tackled together that change was almost inevitable.”


Scribe Publications have offered Grapeshot readers 25% off the rrp of Dissent if they use the code STUDENTS17 at checkout.