Inside the walls of UQ

Welcome to the first newsletter from myself as a member of the UQ Senate, elected by graduates of the university last year. This is a curtain raiser, just to deal with the future of the Union precinct at St Lucia. The Senate met on 22 February, after some eight new members of Senate, out of the 22 total, had briefing sessions and meetings with the Chancellor and Vice chancellor. The Senate approved the budget and annual report, to be the subject of newsletter #2.

The newsletter is for information and commentary from one member’s perspective, for a defined readership, it is not published on behalf of the Senate. Please excuse the ‘no frills’ approach; I have not given thought to formatting it; emails if concise enough seem to satisfy most people’s interest. Please pass this on to contacts you have who may be interested; advise me of persons who might like to be included in the group address; send me a “please remove” note if you would like your name taken off it.

Also, please see below information about the online consultation on the precinct; you might like to take part in that.

Union precinct

The Union precinct is the cluster of buildings in the forum area, set up as a responsibility of the UQ Union, including, under various names the refectory, Schonell theatre, recreation building and Union building.  A plan by university management to demolish the entire cluster, to be replaced with a commercial zone, some premises for the Union and study areas, run by UQ management, was unveiled in 2018 and immediately contested by a coalition of alumni, staff and students. The campaign demanded, and achieved a stay on the project, to allow time for adequate consultation, advancing two arguments: that the precinct had strong Queensland and university heritage values needing protection, and that control of the area should be vested in the Union not UQ management, as originally set up in the 1950s. It was uncontested doctrine at that time, enunciated at the opening of the Union building by the then State Governor and Vice Chancellor, Abel-Smith and Schonell, that this would be a students’ area, a space for free inquiry and development of a university community. The campaign, with which I have been actively associated, emphasised the role of the precinct in providing an organising base and sanctuary for cultural activities, including the theatre, cinema and 4ZZZ, and for movements that developed most often against hostility from the State government: civil liberties, Vietnam war and conscription, apartheid and the Springboks, the new feminist movement, and gay and indigenous rights.

Last year the Vice Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, announced a new start. The UQ Executive would “return to first principles” for the redevelopment of the complex and had recommenced scoping and design studies. It later engaged an outside consultancy Conrad Gargett to canvass ideas and responses on prospective redevelopment of the precinct from across the university community. Adjunct Professor Don Watson in the Architecture school initiated a student design competition for the area which provided the management with some creative plans for consideration, taking in concerns about community and heritage. Conrad Gargett met the different groups which had been campaigning on the issue, in two-hour sessions, and have gone to other informants as well – I do not know as yet who those other persons were.

Three developments:

  • A Campus Infrastructure Working Group has made detailed plans for “decanting” the precinct, which is to say emptying out all the occupants, e.g. the catering outlets, offices, services, with temporary new locations identified for each one.
  • The Vice Chancellor has advised that work on the redevelopment will go ahead without delay, as soon as the consultation process is completed, resolving what it will be, ahead of actual work on the ground.
  • The consultants have been conducting an on-line consultation. My understanding is that this will be open up to the end of this month, and closing it will mark the completion of the gathering process. Possibly we might see some answers in May.

Two points:

The prospect of the area being empty and presumably fenced off now comes home as a reality. It might be a good idea to hold one more commemorative forum there, except that, it should emphatically not be a farewell event: interest is now focused on what the new development will be. The second point refers.

Second point: please take part in the online consultation.

Dr Jeff Rickertt, who has been coordinating activities around this issue, advises as follows:

“Conrad Gargett, appointed by the UQ Executive to consult with historical ‘stakeholders’ over the UQ Union Complex, has provided an online survey form for written feedback, available here.”


“If anyone wants to keep in touch with the campaign group, I am happy for them to email me, and I will add them to our list. “

Each to their own, I will put here answers that I gave, indicating the kind of thing I think that the consultants might be interested in hearing about, whether or not it will carry much influence. Please give attention and send in something that will be more influential than what I have managed to do.

I would be grateful to hear from you on any matters.

Best regards – Lee Duffield


What does this place mean to you?

The place was the centre of my university years, a formative time in life. It provided community and stimulus, bringing together dispersed learning from the tutorials, lectures, college and library. It was a protected zone for freedom of expression and the stimulus of ideas, and a hub of social life.

What do you value most about the UQ union complex?

The forum, as a space made into what it was by students and staff, in the union’s own space. I was conscious of the ideas about that space, as an extra zone of learning, expressed by VC Schonell and Governor Able-Smith at the opening of the main building in the precinct.

What’s your favourite story, memory or event from the UQ union complex?

UQ Union complex 1960s

It might have been seeing the radical student leader Brian Laver get up and start talking, to inaugurate the forum one day, or it might have been the vote taken to commence the “big march” for civil liberties on 8 September 1967, the goals of that protest eventually realised for the general good of Queensland people.

What influence did your experience at the UQ union complex have on your life story?

It defined me for myself and others. I encountered ideas encapsulated as liberal thought, which have been my guide. This was for me the universitas, Athens university 370 BC, a home for creativity and original thinking that committed me to uphold truthfulness and defence of freedom as a daily habit … It vastly helped me working in the dangerous world of news media. 

What is your vision for the UQ union complex into the future? What aspects of the UQ union complex will be important for future users to understand?

Built around a dedicated forum with suitable permanent inscriptions commemorating its origins and ongoing potential, there wherever called for. There should be a theatre and space for arts. A hall would be excellent, like the refec again, and access to a large indoor meeting room. There should be space for the Union and its associated societies – and importantly, the space needs to be controlled and run by the elected Union body, not by the university management, as is clear enough from the enduring agreement on that subject.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

The place was intended from the beginning of UQ, … universally agreed on as necessary,  as a community space that would have strong ramifications for learning and culture. That is how it developed. Its importance was vividly demonstrated during times of crisis, like the fight over civil liberties in Queensland. It has had abiding importance now to generations of Queensland people, in their personal formation, very many becoming leaders in society. This part of the university, in its dedicated material space, made it be fully the university OF Queensland.  

Lee Duffield PhD
Independent AustraliaPacific Journalism Review
University of Queensland Senate – member elected by UQ graduates 
+61 (0) 407702860

See this book!

Arnie: Pearls and Luggers in the Torres
Strait By Arnie Duffield & Lee Duffield (

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