Student activism

Katie Wood

The defining character of the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the student protester. In the eyes of their elders, these unkempt, long-haired radicals were bent on disruption and destruction. For the protester, they were fighting for a better world and their grand social visions encompassed the universities and their aims. The University of Melbourne had a reputation as one of the quieter campuses, particularly in comparison to its rowdy younger counterparts Monash and La Trobe, but it certainly did not escape the storm.

The student movement inhabited the formal structures of student representation but at the same time was often in opposition to these same structures. This was partly because these bodies reflected what was becoming an outmoded view of the university community. There were two main bodies of representation: the University Union and the Students Representative Council.

The University Union was established in 1884 under the guidance of the vice-chancellor and was intended to be a social club for undergraduates, staff and graduate students. The Students Representative Council was formed in 1906 out of the Sports Union (which had been a feature of campus life since 1883) and in 1923 was given two elected positions on the university’s governing body, the University Council. The National Union of Australian University Students was founded in 1937, and became the Australian Union of Students in 1970, with a decidedly more radical reputation.

From the late 1960s political groups flourished and as they did, the ubiquitous broadsheet littered campus. Every week, tens of roneoed rants and exposés, foolscap-sized and in every pastel colour, put forth the positions of the student clubs. PAX and Downdraft represented the War Resisters’ International and the Melbourne University Draft Resisters respectively. Catch-22 agitated on behalf of Students for a Democratic Society while the Liberal Students’ Paper Tiger—as well as An Old Fashioned Look produced by ‘The Wizard’ (Ian Channel, a counter-cultural icon who disliked most student activists)—filled out the spectrum.

Radical student politics has almost always been a feature of life at the University of Melbourne. Important figures in the history of the Communist Party of Australia, such as Guido Baracchi, Ian Turner and Ralph Gibson, cut their teeth in battles against the university’s conservative students. The reception was not always indifferent; for instance in 1932 a mob of hundreds of students dunked two communist sympathisers in the lake (which no longer exists) and ordered them to sing ‘God save the King’. This caused a stir and became just one incident in a long debate over the tolerance of free speech. Such contention largely died away in the 1950s as the complacency prevalent in broader society seeped onto campus.1

By the early 1960s there were signs of a revival in student political activity. Student Action, a protest group that spoke out against the White Australia policy, was formed in 1961. In 1962 the Victorian Premier, Henry Bolte, had his tyres slashed whilst on campus, prompting the vice-chancellor to call for an inquiry into student demonstrations.

But it was in the late 1960s that things began to heat up. Inspired by the direct action of students overseas—including the civil rights movement in the United States and the insurrectionary movement of May 1968 in Paris—the campaign against the Vietnam War and conscription radicalised.2

The year 1971 was the high point of the student movement at the University of Melbourne. That year saw multiple ‘lock-ins’ (where students barricaded a building so that staff could not leave) of the Raymond Priestley Building, the administrative centre of the campus, in protest over the university’s admissions policy. There was also a four-day occupation of Union House in support of a number of draft resisters.3

Anti-war activity on campus declined with the announcement of the troop withdrawal and protest against the university itself was somewhat ameliorated by the establishment of the University Assembly (although a few issues remained outstanding, such as the provision of child care). The women’s and gay liberation movements developed, while off-campus, union activity intensified. The legacy of the student movement was to remain in the minds of generations to follow and it changed Australian society for good.


  1. Alan Nicholls, Ken Gott and Anthony Clunies-Ross, ‘Student life: Then and now’, series inMelbourne University Magazine, Spring 1961.
  2. Graham Hastings,It can’t happen here: A political history of Australian student activism, Adelaide: Students’ Association of Flinders University, 2003.
  3. John Poynter and Carolyn Rasmussen,A place apart: The University of Melbourne: Decades of challenge, Melbourne University Press, 1996.