Save UQ Union campaign wins heritage fight

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

The campaign to save the UQ union complex was not a shrine to past glories, if there were any, in that place. The Vietnam War slowly came to an end as did Bjelke-Petersen and his attack on democratic rights. Uranium continues to be mined and shipped from Australia to end up in dangerous reactors making electricity. Whether it be the old UQ Administration or the new Executive, the space did not belong to the Administration. The UQ union complex was always what students and staff made of it. The past UQ administration of Vice Chancellor Peter Hoj was to make it into an appealing place for international students. Lacking in imagination, his administration saw the shopping mall as a kind of draw-card for recovery of the market in international students.

The new UQ executive is likely to make the complex into a corporate entrance using this large space that was bequeathed to it by the Mayne Family before the Second World War.

Early designs for the Union Building at St Lucia. This plan is held by the UQ Archives (UQA, S234 p228). Drawn by Hennessy and Hennessy, the firm that designed the Great Court buildings.

An early ‘plan of the University of Queensland envisages the Student Union as a dominant presence on campus, occupying its own sandstone edifice with a tower and flagpoles. Zooming in, you will see ‘Union Building’ inscribed above the main entrance. On the left is the entrance to the Dining Hall (aka Refec), while on the right sits the entrance to the Union Hall. Basically, it is the Forgan Smith Building imagined as the student union complex. Were Hennessy and Hennessy implying that students should run the university?’ – Jeff Rickertt, Historian.

Should students run the University?
There has been a long campaign to save the UQ union complex including:

  • a public lunchtime forum in the UQ Union Forum Area;
  • public meetings involving activists, former workers at the student union complex, architects, the student union reps, and radio 4ZZZ at the iconic Schonell Theatre;
  • an historic tour of the complex with stories provided by activists from the past; and,
  • a formal application to recognise the heritage value of the UQ Union complex.

A significant step to securing the heritage value of the complex was announced yesterday in minutes between campaign organisers and the University administration. Yesterday, Jeff Rickertt, the Convenor of the Save the UQ Union Complex, claimed recognition of the heritage value of the the student union complex.

We post here the agreed minutes of the meeting with the University administration. The minutes say that the student union will be consulted down the track, but it is significant that there were no student union representatives present at the meeting with UQ administration.

Perhaps the union’s relative acquiesence to the original proposal put forward by the previous university administration demonstrates the weakness and lack of resolve in current student union politics. Perhaps it was always left to activists and outsiders on the Left to pave the way forward in what has always been a conservative university.

Congratulations to Save the UQ Union Complex campaigners!

Ian Curr,
Editor WBT
29 June 2021

Agreed summary of the discussion

Attendees: Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry; Fabby Ernesta, Director Property & Facilities; Cameron Bruhn, Head of Architecture UQ; Jeff Rickertt; Anne Richards; Howard Guille

The Vice-Chancellor stated:

  • The UQ Executive was returning to first principles for the redevelopment of the UQU Complex and had recommenced scoping and design studies. These would include a consultative process.
  • The following would be included in the redeveloped UQU:
    • Retention of the Schonell and Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio
    • Facilities and space for the UQ Union including meeting rooms
    • Maintaining references to the Forum area, ensuring that the design and re-working of the area honours the history
  • It is intended that the UQ Union manages and controls the union spaces including deciding who can use them for events, speeches etc
  • The UQ Executive will discuss all such matters with the UQ Union through the Advisory Board to the Union

In discussion, in response to concerns raised about aspects of the UQ Executive submission to the Queensland Heritage Council, the Vice-Chancellor apologised for any offence caused by statements that the UQU Complex was not a sanctuary for groups who had been victims of harassment, persecution and violence away from the campus, including First Nations people, LGBTIAQ+ people, and trade unionists.

In discussion, the Vice-Chancellor stated that the University Executive was committed to honouring the history of the site.

The campaign group representatives acknowledged the points made by the Vice-Chancellor and stated:

  • That during the process of consideration of heritage listing we had written to the Heritage Council asking them to convene a full and serious dialogue between the UQ Executive, the UQ Union, the campaign group and the QHC about the kinds of changes that could be made to the complex that would recognise the heritage, restore the fabric and make appropriate adaptive re-use. The QHC did not reply to our request.

  • That we proposed an inclusive, dialogue-based consultation and we would provide suggestions as to how such a consultation could now take place.

  • That it would be extremely useful for those designing the new brief and the architects who might contemplate taking on the brief to meet with some of the people who were involved in the life of the Complex from the 1960s to the 1990s, in order to familiarise themselves with the social, political and cultural milieu. We would be willing to assist with arranging participants.

  • We recommended that the UQ Executive consider resourcing the Fryer Library or similar group to arrange a substantial exhibition about the 1960-90s history. This could be held in, say, the first quarter of 2022.

Vice-Chancellor Terry, Fabby Ernesta and Cameron Bruhn acknowledged these points and indicated they supported a meaningful dialogue, where possible including in-person gatherings involving stakeholder groups.

One thought on “Save UQ Union campaign wins heritage fight

  1. Press Release says:

    UQ’s turn-around on saving the ‘Schonell complex’
    The citizen group campaigning to preserve heritage on the Queensland University campus has welcomed a ‘turn around’ in the university’s plans for the student union complex at St Lucia.

    Dr Jeff Rickertt, Convenor of the Campaign to Save the UQ Union Complex (SUQUC), said today representatives of the group met a university delegation headed by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, on 18 June, and the meeting reached agreement on key points — indicating that significant elements of the heritage zone known as the student union area would be retained and that, consistent with the history, the spaces created in the redevelopment would be under student control and allow for student-controlled political, social and cultural activities.

    He said the university management had indicated it was committed to honouring the history of the site, and had given some undertakings:

    • The UQ Executive would return to what it termed ‘first principles’ for the redevelopment of the UQU Complex and had recommenced scoping and design studies — to include a consultative process.
    • The following would be part of the redeveloped UQU:

    o Retention of the Schonell and Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio
    o Facilities and space for the UQ Union including meeting rooms
    o Maintaining references to the Forum area, ensuring that the design and re-working of the area honoured the history

    • It was intended that the UQ Union would manage and control the union spaces
    • The UQ Executive would discuss all such matters with the UQ Union through the Advisory Board to the Union

    Dr Rickertt said:

    “We are prepared to trust the university administration on its intentions and we interpret these as a major change, so that the plan publicly released by the previous administration is off the table.

    “Under that plan the complex would have been demolished and replaced by some kind of mall and corporate hub with no longer any control of the space by the student union — just another mega-development like many others.

    “It would have been a planned, general air-brushing and trashing of the history and heritage.

    “The change will be an embarrassment to the Queensland Heritage Council which rejected an application we made in 2019 for protection of the site. It will be reasonably argued, by ourselves, that the Heritage Council failed to apply its own guidelines for protecting sites of historical significance, preferring instead to reject our application on spurious grounds that some changes had occurred to the fabric of the buildings.

    “The redevelopment will now honour the history of the site, which is a tremendous step forward, and a credit to the hundreds of Queensland people who backed our campaign, made submissions to the University or the Heritage Council, and responded with sadness and outrage whenever the story reached the news media.
    “As a what’s-next we have proposed a consultation where the university will discuss plans for the student area with a reference group we shall put in place, to include First Nations people, former student activists and other groups closely associated with the history of the site.

    “We are encouraged that in an agreed statement, the university representatives aver that they support a ‘meaningful dialogue, where possible including in-person gatherings involving stakeholder groups.’”


    Campaigning started in 2019 after the release of the then UQ plan for the student Union area at present based around the open-air forum, taking in the Schonell Theatre, the Union building, refectory, student services building and conference centre.

    The plan was basically to reduce the historically valuable site to bare dirt, commandeer much of the space for teaching and learning, which never before intruded into the student hub area, and set up a marketing zone for university managers to showcase dreams of entrepreneurial activity and service to industry.

    It would have meant direct control of the area by the managers – an area until now always separated from the demands of the administration. The campaign pointed out the pivotal place of this site to the mainstream life of Queensland: built by earlier administrations and governments as an affirmation of student autonomy and collegiate running of the university; a forum for ideas; the forum area and buildings as a refuge during the days of attacks on dissent by authoritarian state governments, 1960 to 1990; a cultural hub for several communities, including First Nations and LGBTQ, and cultural impacts through drama and cinema at the Schonell, and the home for dissenting opinion and new music on radio station 4ZZZ.

    Campaign to Save the UQ Union Complex (SUQUC)
    Contact: Jeff Rickertt, 0421-637172,, Facebook@SUQUC
    Brisbane, 3 July 2021

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