February 6, 2020. I’m on exchange in Montpellier in the South of France. My first class for the day, Grammar and Methodology, is set to start at 8:45am — except it won’t. I’d seen indications on Facebook that the local student union, SCUM, was planning to strike, but I hadn’t realised what exactly that meant. When I arrived on campus, the stairway leading up to my classroom was completely blocked with the shoddy furniture that would normally be arranged in neat rows facing a whiteboard, rendering the whole block fully inaccessible. When the students in France strike, they make sure no one can cross the picket line. At the library door, students posted an explanation for their action. Their biggest issue was reforms to retirement schemes, but they also wanted their thirteenth week of semester back — an issue I hadn’t expected to be so universal. It also advertised the protest that would be occurring imminently in a prominent city-centre location.
My course, designed for international anglophone students, was nonetheless able to organise a substitute classroom for the week-long strike. My professor, a kind older woman with thick black eyeliner from the north, asked my class if we understood why student protests were such a big deal in France. When French students start to protest, governments sit up and pay attention. Their movements are coordinated, all-encompassing, and effective.
In May 1968, a protest against conservative president Charles de Gaulle broke out. What originally started over the right for two students to sleep together, blew into one of the biggest movements the country had ever seen. At its peak, two-thirds of the workforce were on strike, paralysing the country and its booming post-war economy. What came of the revolutionary May of 1968 were major reforms to education, the eventual resignation of the president, and the rise of new values across France, namely autonomy. But for some reason, after hearing all this, it didn’t feel like the same thing could happen at UTS.
THE UTS CAMPUS
First of all, UTS simply doesn’t have the space to facilitate this kind of action, and that’s not an accident. Before gaining university status in 1987, the educational body had worked up an expansionist appetite in the sixties, keen to create a new Broadway-facing campus for what we know today as UTS. Grand designs of seven buildings, each twenty stories in height, dominating the western entrance to the CBD emerged and were whittled down until, in 1977, one of Sydney’s ‘ugliest’ buildings was born: the UTS Tower.
The finished building was full of compromises: necessary wall-mounted equipment meant no windows at eye-level, the chic Grafton sandstone intended for the building was replaced by a dull grey-brown, and most crucially: ‘the Student Union — to be the ‘hub of the entire complex’ — was deleted to avoid its use as a flashpoint space for the kind of student insurgency witnessed in Paris in May 1968’ (Freestone et al. 2021).
Of course, the campus is much larger than Building 1, but still no ‘hubs’ exist where a massive group of students can really make themselves heard. It’s clear from the way architects and designers (and UTS executives) speak about the campus that it’s a project of grandeur, a playground for international brochure photoshoots. Such a campus is great — if you want to milk all the money you can from international students! Freestone et al. cite Mould’s identification of a grim ‘branding issue’, where universities ‘[build] as much to give themselves an identity as they [do] to give themselves accommodation’. Take the decade-long, $1.3 billion project to renew and renovate the UTS campus with flash new buildings and resources. This was meant to create a ‘sticky’ campus, one where students are keen to study, stay, and socialise. The makeover also sought to address the ‘fragmented nature of the [pre-existing] campus’, or so the plan was. Our renovated campus is now a smorgasbord of disjointed styles split into an archipelago by bustling city streets while trying desperately to feel connected. And at its heart, our precious strip of The Outdoors: the Alumni Green.
If you were to organise, it would make sense to choose the Alumni Green as your location: it’s central, easily located, visible. But it’s never that simple. According to Education Officer Ellie Woodward, if you want to use the Alumni Green, you have to book it. “It’s all quite bureaucratic, we don't have a lot of free use of campus … I think that contributes to a feeling that we’re guests here and that we don't have much of a right over the place, literally or in terms of the institution itself.”
So even if you did want to pull off some collective action on campus, where are you going to do it? And how will you keep it from getting shut down within minutes? These questions aren’t quite as relevant as they might have once been since the way we do politics as students has shifted over time. Student unions have become more professional and largely representative bodies, such that the need for collective action, like forming a picket line, is eroded. An increasingly diverse student body, with different backgrounds, views, and interests is undoubtedly a good thing. However, it doesn’t make it any easier to rally around one shared political cause. It’s exactly this factor that makes a representative system — students sitting on councils, duly meeting with university executives — more appealing.
Neoliberalising the university experience
Really, given how much has been thrown at disintegrating student life over the years, we’re lucky to have student unions and any semblance of a culture on campus. Beyond the physical inability to congregate in large masses literally built into our campus, voluntary student unionism (VSU) is regarded as one of the strongest blows to our autonomy as students. In 2005, the Howard Government ended compulsory membership of a student union, spelling job losses and reduced funds accessible for universities. It certainly wasn’t a simple issue — even now-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, then a senator, voted against the legislation — but it had real effects which rippled throughout the sector. The policy was met with some of the biggest demonstrations by students in years, and by 2007 student services were shutting down across the country.
You might be surprised to learn you used to mandatorily belong to a union by virtue of being a student, but it isn’t like you aren’t paying up now. By 2008, a Labor government had taken power and conducted a review of the impacts of VSU on universities: ‘Many submissions put forward the view that VSU had resulted in a lessening of the vibrancy, diversity and, to some extent, the attractiveness of university life.’ Then in 2011, that government introduced the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF, or the second page of that semesterly online Tax Invoice student admin emails you about). If you loved compulsory student unionism, then you would consider the SSAF the next best thing. There was a huge difference though: funds could not be used for political purposes.
Establishing VSU is symptomatic of the brand of neoliberalism that has increasingly shaped our politics since the eighties. The neoliberal approach to all things — not least of all higher education — means we see everything primarily in economic terms, erasing some of the more human aspects along the way. Thus, in a highly neoliberalised higher education landscape, you have little chance of escaping its effects. The massive student contributions to Bachelor’s degrees means way more students are working now, than at the heyday of student activism in the sixties and seventies. Not only does that mean we have less time to take action (“You going to the climate strike on Friday?” “Can’t. I have to work.”), but it also means we view ourselves in economic terms — as good little student-consumers buying our prestige qualifications from our lauded university. We’ll be leaving with heavy debts, so we have to think about our study as a return on a big ‘investment’. Think about how you even ended up choosing this university. Did the product (your degree) offer you attractive employment outcomes, ones with higher salary expectations than if you’d done your studies elsewhere? Did UTS’ global rankings entice you? Maybe you were a fan of the fancy buildings?
Precedents for UTS politics
The thing is, UTS does have a proud, um... bona fide history of student politics. A glance at the UTSSA website reveals occupations of the Vice Chancellor’s office in 1991, after the uni allocated $2 million to his home on campus. And again in 2000, following then-Chancellor Gerald Brennan’s homophobic remarks in response to students’ request for funding for a float at Mardi Gras... It goes on (anti-Iraq war, anti-Cronulla Riots, anti-fee increases), but there is one glaring omission from the webpage. Easter ’97: students seized the uni administration amid threats to Youth Allowance and deferred student fees, the latter of which the protestors claimed UTS was keen to spearhead. They lasted three days before cops busted in at 2am with police dogs. Police claimed the costs of the action totalled $110,000, including $40,000 in damage. That this crucial point in our history doesn’t rate a mention in the UTSSA’s history is why the word ‘proud’ is struck through above.
Maybe if things were different — if we had a campus more amiable to collective action, a student press that reported weekly on student issues, a student politics to which we felt genuinely attached and engaged, then the culture on campus would be more autonomous. As it is, USyd’s Honi Soit does a better job keeping tabs on UTS’ student politics than we ever could locally (no fault of our beloved Vertigo!). If we had the means and the will, we could have had a better say in trimesterisation, more nuanced discussion on staff cuts and fee increases, and exactly what it is we want out of being a student here.
This year, as the Education Action Group (EAG) was gearing up for a rally against job and course cuts, members went postering around campus to spread the word. The Students’ Association issued a warning that they weren’t allowed to do that. When the EAG posted to Facebook announcing it would continue to defy the warning, UTSSA President Aidan O’Rourke took action, telling Honi the post was against the university’s rules and placed the Association at risk. What ensued was bountiful political drama, dubbed #BluTackGate, reported widely by USyd’s press. If we pay attention, there is real student politics taking place on campus, something you could have a stake in, but we can’t see it without an expanded student media.
The future of UTS
So what of all of this now? We’ve spent this entire semester behind our computer screens in our homes, far from the sterile white lights of UTS classrooms. Quick Zoom classes and a few pre-recorded lectures took up all our time, and the size of the Alumni Green and what that means for protesting a policy you hate is probably the last thing on your mind. Well exactly! How much more subdued can you get as a collective if you can’t collectivise? How do you strike when you’re already forced to stay at home? Zoom-bombing is one option, but only until the host sends out a new link to participants and sidesteps your radical action. The mute button can literally silence the student voice.
Of course, lockdowns obviously aren’t life as normal for anybody, but online classes might one day be. The move to online learning has been UTS’ goal for ages. ‘Blended learning’ or as it is branded at UTS, learning.futures, is the future for us, and will mean more and more time spent off-campus. You may never see the inside of a lecture hall again! Such a model is cheaper for the uni and COVID-19 has handed the high-ups an opportunity to speed up the process in spades. In 2019, Nigel Oliver, the project manager for the 2010s renewal of our campus, summarised where we’re at: "We certainly don't need the massive buildings … to provide online courses. But we do still need infrastructure to provide for a student-focused campus environment for the more social aspects of their higher education” (Freestone et al. 2021, p. 41). So why can’t we focus a little more on how students want this place to be run?
Sous les pavés, la plage: the French believed if they pulled up the repressive and overly organised structures that ruled their education and lives, they would find freedom beneath. God knows what’s beneath the UTS campus.
References and Resources
Cooke, R. 2020, ‘A unitary theory of cuts’, The Monthly, August, pp. 8-10.
Dept of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2008, The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university student: summary report, DEEWR, Canberra.
Forsyth, H. 2015, A history of the modern Australian university, UNSW Press, Sydney.
Freestone, R., Pullan, N. & Saniga, A. 2021, ‘The making of a city campus’, Geographical Research, vol. 59, pp. 29-45, <https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.uts.edu.au/10.1111/1745-5871.12439>.
Harrison, D. 2010, ‘Student union fees to return’, The Age, 30 September, viewed 31 August 2021, <https://www.theage.com.au/education/student-union-fees-to-return-20100929-15xgk.html>.
Heath, R. 2000, ‘Fear and loathing on University Council’, Vertigo, vol. 7.
Lichfield, J. 2008, 'Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968', The Independent, Saturday 23 February 2008, <http://www.independent.co.uk>.
Nimmo, A. 2016, ‘The city campus and urban agency’, Architecture Australia, vol. 105, no. 4, pp. 52-56, <https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.168179642802110>.
Ollivain, C. & O’Brien, S. 2021, ‘UTS Students’ Association accused of censorship and breaking collective autonomy’, Honi Soit, 7 April, viewed 1 September 2021, <https://honisoit.com/2021/04/uts-students-association-accused-of-censorship-and-breaking-collective-autonomy/?fbclid=IwAR0iPbGsSAvbyPGe9Y8tH22LtEA_FEgd3HAMY1h0fIoEADe1vv-us-Gsrq8>.
Raaper, R. 2021, ‘Students as ‘Animal Laborans’?: tracing student politics in a marketed higher education setting’, Sociological Research Online, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 130-146, <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1360780420952810>.
University of Technology Sydney n.d., How our students learn, UTS, Sydney, viewed 1 September 2021, <https://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/learning-and-teaching/learning.futures/how-our-students-learn>.
UTS Students’ Association n.d., History, UTSSA, Sydney, viewed 30 August 2021, <https://utsstudentsassociation.org.au/about/history>.