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Campaign to save Queensland Uni's union complex cuts through

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Student Priya De addresses a rally in 2019 to save the union complex at The University of Queensland from demolition (Screenshot via YouTube)

Queensland University has dropped a plan to demolish its student area and take it over as an enterprise hub, which may be a sign that universities are pulling back on excessive campus-building, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

STRANGE THINGS are happening in Australian universities when a campaign by students, staff and citizens can head off one of their mega-building plans — but this may have happened at The University of Queensland (UQ) in the past few months.

Two years ago a neoliberal regime there was preparing to invest big in the St Lucia campus, with two built-up "hubs" to frame the famous art deco sandstone façade. Spreading out, the university would buy up neighbouring suburbs and even erect a bridge across the Brisbane River to take part in gentrifying the long-time university dormitory zone called West End.

Just like America

The project reflected the desecration of several American universities, turned into real estate corporations — even selling students’ families (who could afford it), their "dormitories" as luxury apartments.

That plan saw wholesale undermining of learning and academic standards. Student “customers” informed against their course-work in “experience surveys”, seeing their programs re-written or dropped for offences like “too much reading”. Expensive and wilful academics would be phased out, replaced by precariously employed casual tutors, to satisfy student demand for “close attention” — coaching for assessment.

Ivory Towers

Could that have been happening here? UQ did have its share of casuals available to be dumped in any crisis — as was seen across all Australian campuses with the onset of COVID-19.

It was also “marketing” a forthcoming “product” to prospective students: “online learning” and “study centres” (more bean bags and wi-fi points, and make up your own curriculum). Basically, "you can study what you want, how you want, where you want and when you want”.

On American precedents, this marketed skittishness will mean poor standards and even with management-imposed, simplified and limited assessment, high failure rates. The shortfall in quality graduates might be made up at least for a time by brain-draining the most applied, talented and drivingly ambitious young professionals from poorer countries.

The grand architecture foreshadowed at UQ was wrapped in a master plan published in 2019 by the administration of then-Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj, a long-time South Australian academic, of Danish background, who conducted research into viticulture at Adelaide University and went back there as vice-chancellor last February.

It was a boom time for the managerialist putsch in Australian universities — to convert them into corporations, steam-rolling change through compliant university senates, with little opposition seen or expected.

Treading on a snake

But the unexpected was to happen due to one feature of the UQ project: the demolition of the so-called student union precinct at St Lucia, an area traditionally run by the elected union council and a home for student activities — social, political and cultural.

It had dramatic spaces including the Schonell theatre and cinema building, a union building, convention centre and refectory. It was built around an open-air forum, associated with large student rallies from the Vietnam war era, and later, when it became a refuge from authoritarian state governments that banned protest. The “alternative” radio station 4ZZZ was there and fledgling feminist, LGBTI+ and Indigenous rights movements found a safe home there.

Under the master plan, most of it would be demolished forthwith, to be replaced by a “hub” of buildings given over to different purposes. It would be run by managers not student controlled; there would be a display centre to show off university and student entrepreneurialism and service to industry and study centres for “teaching”, where the university administration had never intruded into the area for that purpose. Naturally, a mall could be expected with franchise outlets and some fancy shops — but definitely no more forum.

All that caused alarm among students and staff and past students, who got up a movement to try and stop it.

The movement – given the improvised title Campaign to Save the UQ Union Complex (SUQUC) – attracted strong numbers of supporters, through mail-outs to alumni urging them to cut off donations to the university, Facebook, some sympathetic media, campus tours, sending of delegations and a reprise, on site, of the late-1960s radical forums.

This was heritage

The group argued that this was "heritage" and asked to see a plan that recognises the part it played in the mainstream life of Queensland.

SUQUC achieved a hearing at the Queensland Heritage Council, getting rebuffed on the grounds that buildings in the union complex had seen alterations and changes. It did turn around statements to that council by university officers that the principals were on a “nostalgia trip”. 

SUQUC produced arguments from architects and others qualified to defend the quality of the surrounds. It brought out documents on the construction of the project from the late 1950s, with conservative worthies, the state governor and vice-chancellor of the day, declaring it a zone run by students to exercise freedom of thought.

It was agreed all round that the parties might still consult and then other urgent concerns began stalking the country.

Høj was succeeded at the end of his term by a new vice-chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, another senior manager in the higher education sector, with a background in the psychology discipline.

The new job came, unpropitiously, just as the pandemic arrived, with the Federal Government deciding on no extra help for universities — and with lucrative fees from international students now cut off. The great days came to a halt and with that, surpluses for expansion and aggrandisement like the master plan at UQ.

Dramatic turnaround?

In June this year came signs of a turn-around, which, if carried through, will be a dramatic change aimed at building for the future while still drawing on the best from times past.

On 18 June the Vice-Chancellor and two senior executive members met three representatives of the community-based SUQUC and made some startling declarations.

The university management would commit to honouring the history of the student area and would return to what it termed “first principles” for the redevelopment of it; they had already recommenced scoping and design studies and there would be consultation over that work.

The Schonell theatre and some adjacent facilities would stay; there would be references to the forum, ensuring that the design and re-working acknowledged its history; there would be facilities and space for the UQ Union — and the whole zone would be substantially run by the student union, not the university management.

Why this change?

The announcement came from SUQUC, not UQ management, so questions still have to be asked. Is the university broke enough now it is looking at a less Brobdingnagian plan? Are we, just maybe, seeing traces of a new dawn of more collegiate university management and sensitivity to the interests of the university’s host community — the public of Queensland?

The convenor and chief inspiration of the SUQUC campaign, Dr Jeff Rickertt, a university librarian who talks about memories of government incursions into the campus in the 1980s, says the actions of the new university executive might be taken at face value.

In a SUQUC media release on 2 July, Dr Rickertt said:

We are prepared to trust the university administration on its intentions and we interpret these as a major change so that the plan publicly released by the previous administration is off the table... It would have been a planned, general air-brushing and trashing of the history and heritage. The redevelopment will now honour the history of the site, which is a tremendous step forward... As a what’s-next we have proposed a consultation where the university will discuss plans for the student area with a reference group we shall put in place, to include First Nations people, former student activists and other groups closely associated with the history of the site.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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