Battles at Queensland University: Starting to look like conflicts of the past

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Protests have been turning into displays of violence among students at the University of Queensland (Screenshot via YouTube)

Dr Lee Duffield says the protests and confrontations of the last few weeks at the University of Queensland are taking the university back to a time when it was a leading centre of radical action.

THE CURRENT TROUBLES are calling up images of the university’s “Golden Age” of alternative culture and dissent, coinciding with a Heritage campaign to preserve on-campus reminders of that time.

UQ, with nearly all its 49,500 students located on the sprawling riverside site at St Lucia in Brisbane, is among Australia’s oldest and also richest in terms of endowments.

Its management and government remain focused on that – the money – and the drive to bring in more money for spending on grand plans have caused much of the present-day grief.


As much as any university, UQ has gone in for corporatisation, reaping in money from a burgeoning international student population making up just under one-quarter of all enrolments. It has also profited from heavily promoting links with industry and being run as a business under highly directive management.

Friction has built up in many corners of the enterprise, whether among academics demanding to keep the main say on standards like the curriculum, students wanting better access to teachers than the new “learning process” offers, or overseas students anxious about surveillance from back home.


Hundreds of students from Hong Kong wanting to support the democracy protests there rallied on campus on 25 July. Hundreds of others on the “Beijing” side confronted them. After some four hours of shoving and abuse, with police called in to keep order, the main stand-off ended. The conflict has settled into a routine of the “Hong Kong” students now coming under cyber abuse — somebody’s passport and family details appearing on the internet and so on.

That day, the Federal Government announced its inquiry into whether agreements between universities and overseas-backed institutions might lead to unwarranted or unlawful foreign interference. UQ has its Beijing-backed Confucius Institute dedicated to teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture, housed in a walled-off section of one of the sandstone buildings.

It came out last month that on 15 July, without announcement, Xu Jie, China’s Consul-General at Brisbane, had been made an honorary visiting Professor of Language and Culture. The official endorsement jarred with the objections of Australian and Chinese students over Hong Kong and to actions of the Chinese Government in Tibet, or mass detention of Uyghur people in the Xinjiang region.


Never outdone, the United States also featured in the weeks of discord with the official signing of an agreement to open a Ramsay Centre, for promotion and study of Western traditions. These centres – three being actively planned in Australia – are contentious, paid for by a private foundation, set up to eclipse standard teaching at universities and accusing them of not recognising a primacy of Western ideas.

Under the UQ deal, dated 7 August and worth $50 million over an initial three years, 150 hand-picked students on $30,000 p.a. scholarships will cluster in small groups to imbibe gems of trans-Atlantic wisdom. The curriculum offers a Major in a Humanities or Law Honours program, dispersed over themes like “the Enlightenment”, or “Shakespeare, Art and the Modern”, updated a little with such things as writings on “Women and Gender”.

There is not much evident scope for specialised study, but should be enough course time to make it more than a light-taster in a liberal arts format. The Ramsay Foundation, headed in Australia by Right-wing mates John Howard and Tony Abbott, will pay for some staff, though UQ management keeps insisting they are not abdicating responsibility.

‘UQ will maintain control over staff appointments as well as the curriculum and teaching,’ they said, announcing finalisation of the deal.

This development was all plain anathema to students and staff campaigning against it for close to a year. A protest organised by student Union Council members packed to overflowing the 420-seat Schonell Theatre, itself the object of a separate on-campus campaign. Some reported they had been pleased to see a delegation of Right-wing students turn up, offering fatuous arguments and getting whistled, who went off actually crying.


All these proceedings are well-recognised by activists from earlier generations who have returned to the UQ campus for a campaign to save part of it from planned demolition.

Together with present-day students and other concerned citizens, they have formally applied for Heritage listing of a section of campus that was the centre of many past movements for change. They are anticipating a response within two weeks from the Queensland Heritage Department, which will send its report to the State’s Heritage Council for a decision.

The object is a complex of structures, including some prize-winning architecture of its time, built around an open-air forum area, taking in the Schonell Theatre, refectory and other student union buildings. Dating to the early 1960s, the complex was built with student funds to be run by students as a zone away from the demands of the curriculum.

As well as the catering, clubs and sport, a popular cinema, experimental theatre and the first home of the breakaway music station 4ZZZ-FM, it became a key site for reform campaigns in Queensland, ranging from opposition to the Vietnam war, resistance to bans on street protest during a long period of conservative government, the “Bjelke Petersen years”, support for early feminist campaigns, gay rights and rights of Indigenous Australians. 


Under a $300 million plan endorsed by the University Senate, it will all be knocked down to make way for new buildings and new purposes. As far as can be made out, these are put forward as a grand entrance to campus, with a performance space, learning areas, cafes or restaurants, shops and offices set aside for the Student Union.

The Chairperson of the Campaign to Save the UQ Union Complex, Jeff Rickertt, said this week that UQ management had shown some anxiety about the approaching decision on Heritage, just recently circulating information about the plan:

This is a glossy prospectus that really lets the cat out of the bag on some aspects that had been foreshadowed earlier and caused a lot of disquiet.


Firstly, the university appears to be going for a total clearance of the site, leaving no vestiges of all that is valuable; secondly it affirms the university’s intention to commandeer much of the space for teaching and learning, which have never before intruded into the student hub area and thirdly, it sets up a marketing zone for entrepreneurial activity and service to industry, once again not activities ever before located in the student area.


It is astonishing that a university with more campus land than most of its peers can't seem to figure out a way to improve student facilities without destroying heritage of outstanding significance to the people of Queensland.


They have adopted a crash-through approach reminiscent of the arrogance and standover tactics of the Bjelke Petersen era, the bad old days when developers could destroy recognised heritage structures at will.

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

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