The University Assembly

Katie Wood

The turmoil and questioning of authority that characterised the 1960s were not restricted to events and issues external to the University of Melbourne. As students and staff found their voices on a host of issues, that questioning and the demand for a more participatory democracy found their next target in the university itself.

Parallel to the growth of the social movements, the changing nature of the university prompted introspection. The increase in the number of students and staff weakened the traditional bonds that had maintained the university as a rather close-knit community with informal structures dominated by the professors, albeit one with its fair share of controversy. In the late 1960s calls from non-academic staff (represented by the General Staff Association) for greater input into the running of the university and for better-regulated conditions were also growing. Further to this, the increasing importance of Commonwealth funding encouraged the university to self-consciously articulate its purpose within the national economic and training agenda.

In a sign of the times, a general meeting of students in June 1969 called for a commission to ‘examine the nature and structure of the University, including its place in modern society’.1 But the issue of university governance really came to the fore the following year with the rejection of the transfer application of Albert Langer, a leading activist who had been indefinitely suspended from Monash University. The newly established Students for a Democratic Society campaigned vigorously against the admissions regulations, and found an audience as the political attitude of students and staff became increasingly militant in 1970–71.

On 6 May 1971 a meeting of over 1,000 students carried out a ‘lock-in’ of the Raymond Priestley Building. The vice-chancellor, David Derham, wrote an open letter to the university declaring, ‘Such action can achieve nothing. It can only impede rational discussion and improvement in the management of our affairs’. At a student–staff forum called in the aftermath and attended by 3,000 people, the idea of an inquiry was again presented as a favourable solution to general calls for greater openness from the administration. A month later, the University Council passed a resolution calling for submissions on how to ‘organise, fund and conduct’ an inquiry into the ‘aims, functions and system of government’ at the university.

A succession of elected working groups developed their proposals over several years. They grappled with the tension inherent in attempting to radically reshape the consultative mechanisms of an essentially hierarchical institution. The final recommendation shelved the notion of a once-off inquiry in favour of a permanent body with a similar mandate for reform.

For the more radical members of the groups this conclusion evaded the question of how to implement change in the very nature of the university, by focusing instead on the question of effective organisation of a consultative body, to be known as the University Assembly. The assembly, made up of 114 members elected directly by staff and students, met for the first time in July 1974. The university’s response reveals its ambivalence towards the calls for democratisation. On the one hand, its acceptance of the University Assembly contrasted with the attitudes of other universities such as Monash, which refused such measures outright. On the other hand, the vice-chancellor was clearly loath to agree that such a body should have significant powers of inquiry.

The University Assembly operated by the method of working groups established on a range of topics. These groups researched and then reported on their issues and the assembly as a whole advocated for the findings to be implemented. This method of working to change the university was a product of the way in which the project had evolved and no doubt reflected the influence of those senior university academics and administrators who were involved.

Despite the difficult relationship between the University Assembly’s radical wing and the university administration, the assembly did achieve a number of important aims during its life span. It influenced significant changes to university policy in fields such as confidentiality of university records; reorganisation of university theatre; establishment of the Office of Prospective and New Students, an organisation for postgraduate students and child-care facilities; and the university’s condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid regime. One of the strongest working groups was the Women’s Working Group, whose two reports on the status of women at the university were instrumental in forcing the university to adopt equal opportunity policies.2

The University Assembly was a fixture of campus life for 15 years, delving into an extraordinary range of topics and practices through its working groups, forums and publications. Many of the key figures of the 1970s and 1980s, both students and staff, feature in its list of elected members. But much as its birth was a product of the heady days of the late 1960s, its death seems to have been a product of the ‘managerialism’ of the 1980s, although the causes of its demise were as much debated as anything that passed through the assembly.

REFERENCES

  1. John Poynter and Carolyn Rasmussen, A place apart: The University of Melbourne: Decades of challenge, Melbourne University Press, 1996, page 356.
  2. Pam Stavropoulos, Short circuit! The Melbourne University Assembly, 1974–1989, Melbourne University Assembly, 1989.