University of Queensland students start the year with protests

It’s not often that there are two demonstrations on the first day of semester at the University of Queensland.

Dozens of people, including many ex-students of the university, gathered to protest a plan to demolish the student union. University bosses, particularly vice-chancellor Peter Hoj, were incensed by the planned protest. In the morning, they emailed all students and staff informing them of the importance of the demolition to ensure that the university remains “internationally competitive” and to increase teaching space.

Hoj’s email made no reference to the current building being controlled by an elected student union whose job is to defend students’ rights. Nor did he refer to the historical significance of the building, which has been the birthplace of many political movements in Queensland, from the first gay liberation organisations to campaigns for Indigenous land rights, women’s liberation and civil liberties.

Those were the themes taken up by the speakers at the protest, many of whom had participated in those struggles during their time at the university.

Indigenous elder Sam Watson described how student and Indigenous activists led the way against racism from the 1970s, and in the establishment of Murri Radio, the first Aboriginal radio station in a capital city.

Rosemary Severin described the late 1970s campaign for civil liberties, which defied then-premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on street marches. Students marched all the way from the union buildings to Brisbane’s CBD, despite hundreds often being arrested.

Other speakers emphasised how the space in and around the complex had hosted mass assemblies of students to debate political questions such as the nature of the university, the attitude to take to the Vietnam War and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and even a two-week strike and student takeover of the campus in 1971.

Whether or not university management is moved by the clear evidence of the historical and contemporary importance of the union complex, the campaign will continue.

Only a few hours after this demonstration, one of the bigger campus protests in some years gathered outside a meeting of the university senate, organised by the National Tertiary Education Union. The 150 students and staff in attendance opposed the university’s courting of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which is trying to establish a degree on campus.

Union member Alissa Macoun addressed staff concerns about Ramsay’s involvement with the university:

“This proposal would see a public university taking money from a conservative foundation to deliver an ideologically framed curriculum … in service of an explicitly politicised agenda, which a small group of selected students who meet ‘Ramsay attributes’ would be paid to study.”

Considering the composition of the Ramsay Centre board, which includes right wing luminaries such as Joe de Bruyn, John Howard and Tony Abbott, the political intent behind the proposed degree is clear. Under both Howard and Abbott’s Liberal governments, academia was attacked for its alleged failure to emphasise the importance of the “Judaeo-Christian tradition” and for “pandering” to Indigenous people and other oppressed groups. Abbott more recently said that the Ramsay degree would not just be “about Western civilisation, but in favour of it”.

The protest emphasised that Ramsay was basically “purchasing” a degree from UQ with an offer of nearly $50 million, suggesting that, for UQ’s bosses, intellectual inquiry is something to be bought and sold rather than dispassionately pursued.

The meeting of the senate, rather than listen to the assembled protest, authorised the vice-chancellor to draft a memorandum of understanding with Ramsay, making it clear that the campaign to stop the centre has to step up to win.

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The next event in the “Keep Ramsay out of UQ” campaign is a forum on 21 March at 6pm in the Sir Llew Edwards building, room 115.