Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Controlling the production of knowledge: student participation

Overdue library books – a topic at least as banal as the Monash car park – was the issue at the University of Sydney in April 1967, the consequences of which were still felt more than a year later. Over this issue, students held mass meetings, more than a thousand signed a petition, and up to 250 people conducted several sit-ins of the University of Sydney’s Fisher library, undoubtedly having a fabulous time camping there overnight.  According to then University Librarian Harrison Bryan, some of the students participating in the sit-ins were confused about what the protest was about, a number of them believing they were seeking increased opening hours. One student apparently declared that Fisher library “even sans air-conditioning or light, was so much more comfortable than his lodgings that he would be back any time any old protest was on”.  The Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit gave a number of reasons for students to support the 1967 protest against increased library fines, the most convincing of which was that wealthier students would get a better education than poorer ones, since they would be able to afford to keep books for longer. Students’ real anger seems to emerge with statements like this:
The chief librarian and his nebulous associates … have treated students as morons – not worthy of consultation or consideration in what is essentially their own problem. We as students will rebel against these insults.
The University librarian felt angry too, he confessed, after students protested over his increased library fines – largely because he felt hurt that, in identifying this one failure to consult students, they did not acknowledge all his effort to provide high quality library services. In a heartening display of humility, he also confessed that his anger was “partly I suppose because my authority was disputed (which was perhaps a little ignoble of me)”.  The University Librarian named the student he believed to be the ringleader in the original protest (he was very sorry he did later) leading many more students to mobilise in support of that student, Max Humphreys, escalating the conflict and the sense of division between students and the university’s administration.  The incidents attached to increased library fines at the University of Sydney did not in fact do much to knowledge or its ownership, except to suggest to students that they needed increased representation in university government. This idea, emerging with the feeling of being treated as “morons” by the university, was confirmed in the Victoria Lee case.

Victoria Lee was given some bad advice when she was at school, when her careers advisor told her that studying maths for her high school matriculation was unnecessary, since she wanted to study anthropology and archaeology. Upon application to the University of Sydney in 1969, however, she found that, although she had the required grades, she did not have the required maths. Victoria Lee then enrolled at Macquarie University and took the anthropology and archaeology she needed at Sydney, having them credited to her Macquarie degree. She did this on the understanding that Sydney accepted students who had successfully completed a year at another NSW university. After her year in exile, she reapplied to Sydney in 1970, only to find that the Professorial Board had changed the rules and students from other universities were no longer eligible for admission. Victoria Lee’s polite letter to the University’s Senate explaining all this was reprinted in Honi Soit – for students were deeply concerned about the fact that the Professorial Board, as they explained to the distressed Victoria Lee, had decided to change admission requirements but had forgotten to publish the change in the University Calendar or anywhere else. Victoria Lee felt that her only chance was to appeal to the University Senate to ask them to make an exception in her case. 
What Victoria Lee probably didn’t expect was that a thousand or more students would support her. The worrying precedent of the Professorial Board implementing unpublished decisions made students and the Student Representative Council realise that they really needed representation on the Professorial Board as a means of ensuring students interests were heard and that decisions could be communicated back to them, in the event the Professorial Board forgot. Student Representative Council president, Percy Allen, wrote a very polite (but unsuccessful) letter in which “the Student Representative Council humbly submits that the Professorial Board recommend and the Senate accept two or more students on the Professorial Board”.

In analysing the case for Honi Soit, student John Maddocks was generally supportive of the Professorial Board’s policy, which was obviously designed to “keep out inferior students”:
…to ensure that there is not a flood of applicants to enter Sydney University from people who have completed first year at NSW and Macquarie. The resolution was not passed to exclude a student like Victoria Lee who had easily made the quota for this university.
Students could be as capable of elitism as professors – but were also supportive of a student who they perceived to be one of their own. The same issue of Honi Soit reports that 1000 students had protested within the previous week over the Victoria Lee case. These 1000 students had voted to support student representation on the Professorial Board, publication of the agendas of the Professorial Board and Senate well beforehand, opening the meetings of the Professorial Board with decisions displayed around campus, and that no major decisions be made during students’ exams or vacations.  These resolutions all say the same thing: students wanted increased participation in university decision making and demanded communication from the decision makers. Feeling silenced, overlooked and frustrated, Maddocks, concluded, “it appears that direct action by the student body is the only way to confront the administration”.  One week later, on 25 March 1970, the front page of Honi Soit reported a 3-day student occupation of the administrative offices in Sydney’s Main Quadrangle in support of Victoria Lee and increased participation in University government. Many university staff wrote to support both Lee and student participation in university governance, often expressing a similar level of irritation as students at the university’s lack of consultation with sub-professorial staff.  Before the end of the year, the Professorial Board changed the rules to enable students like Victoria Lee entry to the university and had commenced detailed discussions on a new Academic Board to replace the Professorial one, restructured to include non-professorial academics and students. 

All other universities experienced the same change. At the Australian National University, a sit-in of the university administrative offices sought increased student participation, a change made successfully by the early 1970s.  Student radicals at the University of New England set aside divisions between student groups and the university to work together on restructuring academic governance to include students.  At Melbourne, a formal Planning Group was established to investigate university governance, on which representatives of all types of staff and student served, with students elected by the student body. Simon Marginson, then Arts II (Hons), in his policy speech seeking election (successfully) for a position in the Planning Group, said that the planning should contribute to a restructuring of the university that follows a change in priorities – priorities that should reflect a re-orientation of courses and enhance the capacity for the individual to have increased control over their learning and their learning environment.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee took a detailed interest in this trend. In 1968 they did a detailed survey of student participation in all Australian universities, noting the number of representatives at all levels, from Council and Academic Board to departmental staff-student liaison groups. A draft of the summary report was circulated privately to all university Registrars in December 1968: “as the subject could be a controversial one an opportunity is being given for University Administrations to have a look at the document before it is finalised”.  Having a look, in this instance, means giving the universities an opportunity to collude on desirable levels of student participation. Even Matheson, who supported student participation, was not keen on having too much of it. Earlier in the year at a meeting with the other Victorian universities:
Dr Matheson said that student exchange of ideas was such that if one university put 20 students on its Council, all universities would be under pressure to do the same. In these circumstances, exchange of information and experience between universities was vital.
Matheson researched the issue well before embarking on his student participation project. He practiced first, involving students in focused issues that impacted them and required them to contribute with purpose. His file shows he read this advice from Canada, where student participation in university governance had grown dramatically:
Their contributions were critical without being constructive, often being related to the issues of society at large over which universities have no control.
Matheson hoped to direct student energy constructively to the business of the university. Contributing under leadership was acceptable to some students. The more radical believed that the university should be absolutely democratic and that a majority – majority of students that is, since they necessarily outnumbered staff – should rule.  

[footnotes have been removed from this posting. Please contact me if interested in them]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Hannah for that insight into uni history. It happened at a time when I was an undergraduate and like the majority of students i was unaware of the issues, didnt understand them and cared even less. I was there as a customer of the university, having achieved their quota of marks, for the purposes of gaining a degree and thus a qualification that would lead me to finding a job.
I can see things from both sides and in general am thankful to those students who had a clearer insight into what a university could do with its power. I am still mindful of "caveat emptor" too, and feel the universities were also very generous to actually look at it from the perspective of the students. I wonder if this has in fact altered the quality of student education by either dumbing down entry requirements or altering rules and regulations and thus discipline. nothing is ever really black or white is it! (Michele C)