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Monash University > Publications > Monash Magazine > Around Monash

Those were the days

October 2005

Student activism has declined since the heady days of the Vietnam War protests. Is all passion spent?

Report: Robyn Anns
Photography: Greg Ford and Melissa Di Ciero

When Monash University was established in 1961, it was at the beginning of a decade that saw student activism galvanised by opposition to the Vietnam War.

Students and staff at Monash, Victoria's youngest university at the time, were perhaps making up in intellectual rigour and attitude what the university may have lacked in tradition and status. The Clayton campus was the site of many vocal protests.

When Emeritus Professor Louis Waller joined Monash as professor of law in 1965, it was at the cusp of a period of intense student protest activity.

"This period of student activism was concerned with growing opposition to Vietnam and other issues that were bundled together around 1967," Professor Waller says. "I believe student opposition to the Vietnam conflict was crystallised by a decision by the acting vice-chancellor, Professor Rod Andrew. I recall he made a decision prohibiting the collection of funds on campus for the North Vietnamese Red Cross.

"A lot of people -- students and staff -- recognised that as the catalyst for opposition to the Vietnam war on the campus."

Between 1968 and 1971, activism at the Clayton campus -- as part of a wave of student protests in the US and France -- attracted a lot of public attention.

"The name of Monash became well-known for protests around Australia and overseas," Professor Waller says. "The level of student political activity at Monash was very high and driven originally by this growing opposition to the Vietnam war in many parts of the Australian community. The unrest was also intermingled with a battle over the authority and government of the university and how much of that control was to be either seized by, or given to, the student body of the university as opposed to the academic or administrative staff.

Monash meant protest: Professor Louis Waller recalls how Monash earned its activist reputation.

"In terms of us and them -- students versus the administration -- the original administration building was the physical focus of some of the pieces of behaviour that attracted most attention.

"Things that had not been common, such as occupations of buildings, started to happen."

Professor Waller was not opposed to student action, but he did not agree with disruptive or destructive action. "Meetings were good. I attended very large meetings, often held on the lawn outside the Menzies building." Hundreds of people turned up and had their say.

"It's very important to realise that, during these times of unrest, the very important life of the university such as teaching, research and examinations, went on," he says.

Dr Bob Birrell, director of Monash University's Centre of Population and Urban Research, recalls an astonishing level of student involvement in campus politics when he joined Monash as a sociology lecturer in 1970.

Campus life has changed dramatically since then. "In some respects it's for the better," he says. "In the past, campuses were very inward-looking, and created a hothouse atmosphere that poisoned relationships between some staff and students and between staff and the student union."

No going back: Dr Bob Birrell says campus life has changed dramatically.

Dr Birrell says people felt secure in voicing dissenting opinions. "There was a freedom in those days to indulge, to experiment, and campus was the logical place to do that."

He sees today's students preoccupied with the need to support themselves. "So many students are forced to work, and almost all feel the need to supplement their support with paid work," Dr Birrell says. "Their attendance on campus is therefore more episodic -- many have difficulty meeting regular classes because of work commitments.

"The government is not making student financial assistance any easier to get, so I can't see us going back to those days."

Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Monash Centre for Research in International Education, was a student activist "with a hard core of realism" while at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s. He completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and edited the student newspaper.

He sometimes visited Monash in those days, long before joining the academic staff in 1998.

He agrees that times have changed and believes mass education policies and a more vocational climate have generated the decline in student activism.

Hard core realist: Professor Simon Marginson says the old activist days are gone.

"The affluent middle class can afford to take more risks with its identity and its future," he says. "Today, the affluent, middle-class kids are a smaller proportion of the student body than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Now there are more hard-nosed students who have to support themselves and cope with life in a more immediate and direct way. These students are less ambitious about their culture and identity."

The increased HECS fees, however, did see a burst of activity. In early 2003, university students in Melbourne and Sydney protested on campuses and in city streets about the planned rises -- increases that have since become reality. "The HECS situation has not had the impact that was feared because the debt does not kick in until the graduate earns enough to trigger repayments," Professor Marginson says. "But living allowances and grants are much harder to get, and the numbers of students working to support themselves are much greater."

It all adds up to reduced leisure time, he says. "The majority of full-time students, about 70 per cent I think, are working part-time during semester. A significant proportion of full-time students also work full-time. So most full-time students today are like the part-timers of the sixties and seventies -- largely disengaged from youth culture on campus due to work and other pressures."

Professor Marginson says the old activist days are gone. "We won't see a re-run of the late sixties and early seventies when affluence and full employment spawned a whole youth generation who were edgy, who directly confronted the dominant mainstream with demands for change. There are still individuals like that, but they no longer constitute a whole student culture."

Dr Birrell believes students are still passionate about causes, even if they don't join protest actions. "I feel the students themselves these days are just as principled and concerned about public issues as they were 30 years ago.

"I am impressed with the sense of concern about society that is shared by many students I meet in the Arts faculty.

"But the difference is that students 30 years ago were much freer of concerns about their careers after university."

Alive and kicking

Today's activist: Mr Nick Richardson.

The president of the Monash Student Association at the Clayton campus, Mr Nick Richardson, says modern-day activists tend to be split into two camps.

"There have always been revolutionaries who fundamentally object to the state of things," he says. "Then there are reformists who are happy with the overall situation but who act to improve the current state of affairs. I would put most of the official activities of the association in the reformist category."

The final-year arts student says direct action has become the more dominant form of student protest. "We feel that walking down the street in a rally is a fairly passive gesture," he says.

"Over the past few years, stunts, political actions and radical critiques of policies that affect students have been coming to the fore."

There were national protests last year as students objected to HECS increases. Those protests included marches and rallies, blocking or hindering vehicles entering the campuses and occupying university buildings.

This year, university students are protesting against the planned abolition of compulsory student unionism. Activities have included students chaining themselves to the doors of the Liberal Party headquarters in Melbourne.

Students want to support causes, Mr Richardson maintains, but many cannot commit their time because they work to support themselves as well as study. "The pressure of work and university studies leaves little time for anything else."

He says activism does not always take the form of protest. "It is a form of activism for people to volunteer to help others by working to address social issues such as poverty and the environment."

For example, the association operates a Free Food Mondays program that provides groceries for struggling students. The student union's Transport Collective repairs discarded bicycles and sells them to students, and the Monash chapter of Engineers Without Borders works with the university's Disability Liaison Unit and the association's Welfare Group to rebuild old computers for needy students.