Radical simply means‘grasping things at the root'
- Angela Davis
The larger question here is, of course, what is the role of the University? This topic was debated again at two high profile conferences in Sydney late last year, so I want to refer to a couple of arguments presented.
Speakers at the University of Sydney Conference decried 25 years of toxic government policies that successively slashed funding to higher education and resulted in the corporatization of Australian Universities. One speaker explained that education exports are now worth $31.9 billion ‘making brains almost equivalent to minerals and coal as Australia’s top earning sectors’.[i] No wonder academics increasingly feel as though they work in a processing plant.
Universities as corporate giants require complex layers of management and responsibility for extensive real estate holdings. However, a purely managerialist model of governing universities subverts their traditional core functions: providing excellent teaching to students and conducting quality research. In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than faculty staff.[ii]
In relation to the planned demolition of the Student Union complex, there was an informed argument about the overbuilding of universities with some cautionary forecasts about escalating debt and budget blowouts.[iii] In addition, students today have different expectations. Many students don’t go on campus since lectures are available online, students work part or full-time and struggle with large debt. Increasingly, graduates cannot find jobs in their field of study.
There were concerns about the quality of education provided. One US study found that 45% of students showed no improvement in cognitive skills during their time at university.[iv] In some courses, such as business administration, students’ capacity to think got worse,[v] which makes me question the usefulness of this over supply of administrators in universities here.
The pivotal question was raised at this conference, ‘how can we best prepare students for the uncertainties of professional employment, community engagement and democratic citizenship?’.[vi] I believe that I gained these critical skills and was taught the responsibilities of democratic citizenship through participating in the UQ Forums as a young student.
From the mid-1960s onwards, the UQ forum area as a university commons, enriched the educational experience and political consciousness of tens or hundreds of thousands of students, staff and other concerned publics. The cumulative effect of Forum debates created ‘one of the most well-informed and socially-aware communities that our society has unconsciously produced’.[vii]
So I want to focus on this smallish block of land and the buildings that surround it, to elaborate how this site developed a collective life and historical significance outside the control of the University Executive and accepted channels of academic learning.
What did the forums provide for students who stopped to listen and learn from the multiple points of view, both the inspired and the scrambled arguments that were regularly debated? For me personally, it was where I could join a conversation that was deeper than the mediocre mumblings of the Courier-Mail, my Catholic background and local neighbourhood.
I wanted to know why the world was so fucked up.
I wanted to know why Australia was at war in Vietnam, a small, undeveloped country that had not aggressed our nation and had no historical links to Australia, or the United States for that matter.
I wanted to know why my Aboriginal friend lived in a place that I couldn’t find on a map and why she didn’t have any freedom of choice in what she did.
I wanted to know why girls were taught to be quiet and subservient, while boys could do pretty much what they wanted. That role never really suited me.
But I discovered in this forum area, there was a large group of people who wanted to talk about these things too. They not only wanted to talk about them, they wanted to do something about them.
The constant challenge to take action and the repressive government responses united people into a community in all its positive and negative colours: a community with friendships and love affairs, brooding and creativity, frustration, anger, sorrow and encouragement.
I found hope there; the hope that together, this passionate, discordant, and daring group could actually make a difference. This community challenged political powers, social values and educational systems, hoping to rearrange our world and its understanding of what was right and acceptable. Perhaps it was a too bright intensity of hope, but it was palpable.
This was where the first speakers – Brian Laver, Ralph Summy, Dan O’Neil and Peter Wertheim – dared to challenge a largely passive audience in 1966. As the audience grew, so did the number of speakers.
As a movement developed, the Forums were addressed by socialists, anarchists, radical Christians, feminists, trade unionists and Quakers. There were Vietnam veterans, draft dodgers and mothers of dodgers, comedians, egotists and wizards. The ruling powers were hammered in informed exposes that presented government as an Ionesco-esque circus peopled by clowns.
The forum area was a meeting place. I made many life long friends in that space. I locked eyes with first lover listening there. The Forum was where I first met the Watson family when they landed on campus as students in 1970. It was where I met Aboriginal activists Dennis Walker and Pastor Don Brady. We learned from them and joined the fight for the rights of our nation’s first people, many students joining the Smash the Act protests and Land Rights marches.
The Forum was the centre of a circle and from that radiated other nodes of action.
- Teach-ins in the Relaxation Block
- Films in the Abel Smith and Schonell Theatres
- Formal debates in the Refectory that were attended by 1000 or more people.
I will never forget Sekai Holland in full African dress speaking on Apartheid to a crowded Refec. She was an inspiration – so articulate, proud and strong.
- Mass meetings were held in the Great Court with crowds of 2,000 in 1967 during the Civil Rights campaign, crowds of 3,000 in 1970 for the Moratoriums and 3,000 again in 1971 to debate the Springbok Tour and Apartheid. This was where a young Sam Watson first spoke for his people.
- There were People’s Park live-ins with tents, bonfires, cheap wine, some music and 24 hour debates for anyone who wanted one.
- Ralph Nader, the American consumer advocate and early environmentalist, spoke to a crowd of 6,000 down by the lake.
Many battles were acted out in the Student Union Building. The university paper Semper Floreat played a key role through its articles, satire, multiple reviews and letters. Sometimes I watched the Forum action unfold through the windows and see-through besser brick wall that sided the first floor Semper office.
The J D Storey Room served many functions. It was occupied following the arrest of students during the Quang Incident when a group of students blocked the South Vietnamese consul from leaving campus. The first closed Women’s Liberation meeting on campus was held there with Merle Thornton, Babrbara Wertheim and Ann Doggett as speakers.
The circle broadened into university departments as more academics became involved which can be seen throughout the pages of Semper and the many critiques of university departments in Up the Right Channels.
There was the Red and Black Bookshop in Elizabeth Arcade and the ever-present Jim Beatson manning the bookstall outside the Refec. The printing press at Gloucester Street constantly churned out leaflets, often three a day, 3000 copies for each print run. Then the leaflets were handed out by students covering the half dozen entry points to campus. The house at Ascog Terrace hosted a consultation service for draftees on how to fail the army medical, and also the False Registration Paper Parties (the FRPPs) for the mass filling-out of false National Service forms. There was always the RE for debriefings and fun.
The effects of these lunchtime Forums spread into schools with the growth of the high school Students in Dissent (SID) movement. There were questions in Parliament, Special Branch stake-outs and informers, sensationalist news headlines and alarmed parents. Its effects spread across the suburbs and the state.
But there was another stream across these protests that was immersed in cultural events: plays, street theatre, poetry, music, films and festivals. The roots of these diverse creative groups lay with the FOCO Club held at the Trades Hall. It offered the first tantalizing mix of politics with cultural experiments and entertainment.
The largest theatre production was On Stage Vietnam by Yeti Theatre that had a cast of 100 and ran for three weeks at the Rialto Theatre, West End. Later Paul Richards from Yeti set up Aboriginal Legal Aid with Denis Walker, and then Wayne Goss.
Bomber Perrier moved from Yeti to help establish HARPO, How About Resisting Powerful Organisations. Among other ventures, HARPO set up the Wholefoods Cooperative, firstly on campus and then on Milton Road. Wholefoods created another partnership with local organic farmers who couldn’t find a market for their produce.
The revue, I Hear What You Say, directed by Errol O’Neil/ SuperZel had a driving energy backed by the music of Capertillar. Performing in this revue led to Geoffrey Rush and Bille Brown gaining three-year contracts with the newly formed Queensland Theatre Company.[viii]
Then there were the film buffs such as Larry Zetlin, Frank Neilsen, Steve and Peter Gray, Bruce Dickson and many others. Triple ZZZ, the first FM Stereo Radio Station in Australia, hit the airwaves in late 1975, breaking all boundaries for alternative youth media. Its impact cannot be underestimated.
One striking difference between that time and today was that we didn’t have telephones. Only one house I knew (at Macdonell Street) had a phone and we all knew it was tapped by Special Branch, as was the phone at Semper. It was the constant stream of pamphlets that circulated widely, and it was the forum area, the Refec and the RE where we got the latest updates.
It was the forum area where cars pulled in to take protesters to Parliament House, Australia House, King George Square or the Tower Mill. That driveway was where buses took people to Sydney for the weekend to see the musical Hair that was banned in Queensland. The Forum was where people gathered to catch lifts in a convoy of cars and vans driving to the Nimbin Aquarius Festival.
The Forum area was indeed a space for ‘creative dissent’, as Dan O’Neil hoped it would be in 1967.[ix] And it continued in this role for decades after I left campus. It was a place for debate, streaming ideas, taking action and creative collaboration across so many areas.
Today however, university campuses across Australia are largely silent. According to a recent survey, 83 per cent of Australian universities stifle intellectual debate by restricting free speech.[x] The University of Queensland includes ‘sarcasm’ in their Harassment and bullying policies, as a form of violence.[xi] Universities exist in a complex global political and cultural environment, but freedom of speech still needs defending here.
After all this history, isn’t it strange that it is left to secondary schools, the teachers and students, to take to the streets to protest the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island, and to strike on climate change? That is fabulous!
But where are the universities, the supposed ‘Guardians of robust debate’? It’s taken just one generation for this alternative public sphere to be muzzled.
I would argue that this is a time to encourage and support contemporary activism by celebrating this Forum area, not cementing it over. Students won’t flock to UQ as a shopping experience. There is enough consumerism online and throughout all the malls of Brisbane.
It is not needed in this space.
The Forum area chose its mission long ago and it is desperately needed again.
6 February 2019
Publisher’s Note – The banner photo is of an anti-conscription protest in 1970 in the forum area. Source Unknown. The sign behind the speaker (Dick Shearman) with the megaphone is for a ‘commercial redevelopment’ of the site adding the Schonell theatre and an extension to the refectory.
[i] Baird, Marian, 2018, ‘The Dilemmas (and Delights?) of the Modern University’, What should Universities be? University of Sydney Conference, 22-23 November 2018. Accessed 1 February 2019. http://sydney.edu.au/usap/docs/Report1.pdf
[ii] Spicer, Andre, 2017, ‘Universities are broke. So let’s cut the pointless admin and get back to teaching’, The Guardian, 21 August 2017. Accessed 2 Feb 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/21/universities-broke-cut-pointless-admin-teaching
[iii] Martin, Andrew, 2018, ‘Building a Showcase Campus, Using an I.O.U.’, New York Times, 12 December 2012. Accessed 2 February 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/business/colleges-debt-falls-on-students-after-construction-binges.html
[iv] Arum, Richard & Roksa, Josipa, 2011, ‘Limited Learning on College Campuses’, Society, May 2011, Vol 48, pp. 203-7. Accessed 1 Feb 2019. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12115-011-9417-8 ; Arum, Richard & Roksa, Josipa, 2011, Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
[vi] Shergold, Mark, 2018, ‘How can universities best prepare students for the future of work?’, What should Universities be? University of Sydney Conference, 22-23 November 2018. Accessed 1 February 2019. http://sydney.edu.au/usap/docs/Report1.pdf
Critical thinking is generally regarded as the foundation of democratic citizenship, freedom and autonomy (Arum & Roksa, 2011). It is also considered to be an essential factor for university students progressing successfully in their studies (Utriainen, Marttunen, Kallio, & Tynjälä, 2016).
[vii] Doessel, Darrell, 1967, ‘Acting V-C’s ill considered statements’, Semper Floreat, 37/8a, 18 July 1967, p. 1.
[viii] Rush, Geoffrey & Carlton, Rob, 2012, ‘Geoffrey Rush in conversation with Rob Carlton’, ABC Big
Ideas. Available Radical Times Historical Archive. Accessed 1 February 2019. http://radicaltimes.info/
[ix] O’Neill, Dan, 1967, ‘-D. O’Neill’, Semper Floreat, 37/8a, 18 July 1967, p. 2.
[x] Lesh, Matthew, 2018, ‘Eight in ten universities restrict free speech’, The Australian, 18 May 2016; Lesh, Matthew, 2018, Free Speech in Decline: IPA Free Speech On Campus Audit 2018, Institute of Public Affairs, 10 December 2018. Accessed 2 February 2019. https://ipa.org.au/publications-ipa/media-releases/free-speech-in-decline-ipa-free-speech-on-campus-audit-2018 ; AdL-Tabatabai, Sean, 2017, ‘Liberal Australian Colleges Ban Sarcasm From Campus’, NewsPunch. November 17 1018. Accessed 2 February 2018. https://newspunch.com/australian-colleges-ban-sarcasm/
[xi] Lesh, Matthew, 2018, Free Speech in Decline: IPA Free Speech On Campus Audit 2018, Institute of Public Affairs, 10 December 2018. Accessed 2 February 2019. https://ipa.org.au/publications-ipa/media-releases/free-speech-in-decline-ipa-free-speech-on-campus-audit-2018 ; AdL-Tabatabai, Sean, 2017, ‘Liberal Australian Colleges Ban Sarcasm From Campus’, NewsPunch. November 17 1018. Accessed 2 February 2018. https://newspunch.com/australian-colleges-ban-sarcasm/