Impoverishing the life of students


Was it something someone said? Was John Howard too nervous to speak at union night when he was a lad? Did people tell too many bad Tony Abbott jokes? Whatever has caused it, the government is determined to eliminate the university unions, and come July they will have the numbers. The value of co-curricular activities, and of a system of self-government that has worked for the common good, is to be denied. Universities have been told they will be punished for continuing to provide the services in health care, child-care, and cultural life that they pioneered.

One of the central planks in the promotional brochures and websites for elite private schools is the section devoted to Co-curricular or Extra- curricular activities. The details can be found on the web sites of Geelong Grammar, The King’s School and Shore (Sydney Church of England Grammar School).

Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, these schools do not surround their learning environment with beautiful grounds or provide sporting and cultural activities out of pure snobbery. The founders and supporters of elite education understand that well-rounded individuals with active intellects are nurtured by experiencing life outside a swotshop. There is, of course, a price to be paid for the elite sports programs, the theatrical and music events, the active support of debating and visual arts programs. There is no dispute. The overwhelming majority of our Federal politicians who send their children to elite private schools pay the fees without a single complaint. They know they are getting value for money even with the students who choose to watch rather than to participate.

Anti-Student Organisation Legislation (ASOL) protest banner

Anti-Student Organisation Legislation (ASOL) protest banner

It was a King’s old boy who had later taught at Shore, E.R. Holme (1871-1952), who was responsible for the modern face of the University of Sydney Union, the university union I know the best. The Holme building is named in his honour. He had travelled to Germany to see their developing university system. But his own schooldays meant he understood the value of students having a sense of community – places to meet and eat, somewhere to read and to debate, and the many cultural events that flowed from the union’s active support.

Thanks to Holme and his colleagues, Australian universities developed almost a parallel curriculum to the sometimes narrow, often uneven, scholarship of their formal degrees. As well as the Union, most universities had a Student Representative Council (SRC), which really was closer to a union in the sense despised by Tony Abbott. As I recall, Abbott so loathed the SRC that he became its president.

Outsiders tend to notice the facilities and the food. They see discount meals, the Manning Bar, the bands, Honi Soit which first published Laurie Oakes and Patrick Cook, the Union Recorder which published the early works of major Australian poets and was at one stage edited by Peter Collins. But there always was more to the universities’ co-curricular life than mere subsidies to the drama society that nurtured Nick Enright, or the sports associations that dominate Australia’s Olympic and football teams.

The secret success of Holmes’ vision for the union was self government. The students are elected to boards of management and have the illusion that they control their own budgets. Within the sheltered environment of the university, generations have learned how to balance utopian aspirations against fiscal responsibilities. They make sure that students in the Dental hospital and the Vet School have proper common room facilities as well as keeping the serious drinkers in engineering reasonably happy. Sometimes they run into trouble. A few years ago Melbourne University’s Student Union was commandeered by young entrepreneurs raging out of control, to put it kindly. But for the most part, the student unions have prospered. This is in part because, despite the fears of politicians, university Senates keep a reasonably close eye on the life of students, and the administrative staff act to educate student politicians in the grim realities of life on a balanced budget.

In Sydney, the Union was the nursery for Peter Wilenski, Michael Kirby, Nick Greiner, Joseph Skrzynski and Percy Allen. Their first lessons in public life happened in the Union and we would all be poorer if they had not been given that experience. Other people of even greater value are less well known. They include Dorothy Hoddinott of Holroyd High, whose brief includes giving both literacy and hope to students who were once refugees, and Jack Herman who adds the necessary leaven of humour to the work of the Press Council.

As Holmes never supported women, Sydney had a separate Women’s Union until 1972. It was the Women’s Union that led the push for long day child care centres that are now a part of everyday life. I remember when Bruce Shepherd provided the funding for the Shepherd Centre which was to become Sydney University’s first child care centre; he was adamant that it was not to run at a loss. The Women’s Union created a needs-based fund that saw some students being given a 100 per cent subsidy, but still kept to the letter of Shepherd’s demand. It was reasonably easy to get elected to the Women’s Union board, so both the incredibly fair minded Irene Chee, who later became Irene Moss, and I had the experience of being involved in management and moving out of our working class cultural origins. When the two unions amalgamated we saw the tenacious Daphne Kok (now a magistrate) wear down her male opponents by speaking at length to amendments – just before a meal break. Maybe it’s a coincidence but none of the recent major corporate scandals have featured former directors from student union boards. If the cowboys running HIH, FAI or OneTel had spent a few years answerable to rowdy students, justifying their expenditure to a cynical senate, they may have been more prudent with their expense accounts.

The great strength of the university unions and one of the reasons they continue to add much to Australian public life, is the intergenerational support, of graduates for undergraduates. One of the memories of my student years is seeing a very polite Kirby gently correct a brash young Malcolm Turnbull.

Now I work in another university, in a faculty of Fine Arts, where the Students’ Association provides lunch once a fortnight to give our students some much needed social glue. As we are constantly reminded, students don’t have the luxury of time we experienced thirty years ago. They rush between lectures and jobs, often working more hours in cafes than at class, so the chance to sit in the sun in the courtyard and talk is only taken because the meal is free. Students regularly call into the association’s office is to get advice on solving academic and personal problems, to find out where they can get help. Because the students feel they own the students’ association, they are more likely to listen to their own than to an employee of the university, no matter how well meaning. The COFA student association also runs Kudos Gallery, which gives young artists and curators the necessary professional experience to kick-start their careers. Not everyone participates in creating exhibitions, but everyone benefits from the results.

The University of Sydney Union is apparently talking about poker machines in the Manning Bar. I suppose that’s one way of differentiating between public and private education.

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