Protests used as marketing by hypocrite universities

The video starts with the words “some may find the following disturbing”. A rapid-fire montage of visceral rebellion follows. A black-clad anarchist punches neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in the face. Protesters clobber riot police shields. Palestinians fling rocks, and demonstrators flood Australian cities.

Juxtaposed with this are images of corporate power, poverty, famine and environmental devastation. The crescendo is reached as suited men enter limousines to the words “big bucks in the business of blood”. A shot of concrete covered in blood and bullet shells follows. 

No, this is not a Rage Against the Machine film clip. It is a promotional video for Monash University.

The video made quite a splash when it was released. Federal education minister Simon Birmingham called for it to be pulled from circulation. Conservative alumni bemoaned their alma mater’s turn to extremism. And the expected commentators went ape, with the Institute of Public Affairs asking, “Is it Monash or ‘Marxist’ University?”

Yet rather than bucking the trend, Monash’s edgy pastiche reflects a growing trend in the public relations of Australian universities. Take Melbourne University, which recently commissioned a series of murals by radical artist Sam Wallman. The murals show militant struggles dating back to the strikes for the eight-hour day in 1856, and celebrate Communist icons Zelda D’Aprano and Guido Barrachi.

La Trobe University went one step further last year, hosting public forums with the “La Trobe three” – former students who were locked in Pentridge Prison (at the behest of the university) for campaigning against the Vietnam War. 

Sydney University this year celebrated the 1978 riot that kicked off the annual Mardi Gras celebration. Its “Unlearn” branding urges students to “challenge the established, demolish social norms and build new ones in their place”.

What should be made of these celebrations of rebellion? To some, they are unsurprising. In the conservative imagination, universities (or at least their arts departments) are assumed to be hothouses of radical indoctrination, crucibles of dissent corrupting the youth.

The reality is quite different. Across Australian universities, left wing students and other dissenting campus voices are routinely targeted by draconian administrations. 

Take the University of Wollongong. Last year, socialist students won the student union elections in a landslide. In response, the university immediately overturned the result and sacked the student president, replacing her with a conservative who had gained only 6 percent of the vote. The basis for this decision? That the president-elect had made a political speech in a lecture theatre.

Or take Sydney University, where a student was fined and issued with a severe reprimand on their academic record due to allegations that they had thrown a miniature Israeli flag in the bin. No proof was ever presented that this took place, and in a hearing the accusers confessed to lying about having witnessed it. Nonetheless, the fine and the reprimand were upheld, and the student attributed with “moral delinquency” by a board appointed by the university.

In a similar vein is the case of Roz Ward, who was suspended by La Trobe University in 2016 for criticising the Australian flag on her personal Facebook account. 

Ward’s case reflected another worrying trend on campuses: the erosion of academic freedom and the union-bashing agenda of university managements.

Melbourne University is at the forefront of these attacks. While the administration pays tribute to striking stonemasons on its sandstone walls, it has no compunction about driving down staff conditions, including mass sackings, wage rises that barely keep up with inflation, increasing casualisation and dividing academic and professional workers. It is also proposing to remove intellectual freedom as a fundamental principle from its staff agreement.

Then there is the case of Murdoch University in Western Australia, which last year took the unprecedented move of unilaterally terminating its staff agreement.

Linking the crackdown on dissent with attacks on staff working conditions is the profound corporatisation of modern universities. Universities are important institutions of ruling class power in Australian capitalism. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they functioned almost exclusively as training grounds for the born-to-rule. 

Today, universities are massive corporations, churning through tens of thousands of students, charging exorbitant fees and in some cases making tens of millions of dollars in annual profit. They operate with the same ruthless pragmatism as any other giant corporation.

Yet they sell a commodity more highly valued than most: education. Hundreds of thousands of students who do not come from the ranks of the wealthy attend university in the hope of improving their own lives and often of making a positive difference to society.  

University administrators recognise in this an opportunity to make a buck. Hence the appropriation of the legacy of campus protest and resistance to promote their products and institutions. That universities do this while simultaneously repressing actual dissent is rank hypocrisy. 

Perhaps most abhorrent is the appropriation of anti-war movements. This is occurring at a time when Australian universities are aggressively pursuing joint research and investment projects with some of the largest weapons manufacturers on the planet.

Such duplicity is typical of the powerful, whose privilege depends on presenting ruthless profit-making as a social service. We need to expose their lies, but also understand the truths they manipulate. Student rebellion and protest have been vital to changing the world for the better. Their legacy lives on in the activists challenging corporate power today, not in the transparent cooption by university administrations.