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Autonomy  •  19 October 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Beneath the Tower, the Beach

Student Autonomy on the UTS Campus

By Josh Green

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>.‬

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