Students at Monash University have taken its branding of “If you don’t like it, change it” to heart, and successfully campaigned to force the administration to put students’ needs and rights first.
Higher education providers are struggling to adjust to COVID-19, and their assault on casual jobs had been expected. Less so was the university's stubbornness over how it would operate during the shutdown.
While acknowledging that COVID-19 had changed things, the administration initially pursued its business-as-usual approach to grading. Meanwhile, students struggled to deal with loss of income, navigating meagre government assistance and mounting mental health worries.
The Monash Student Association (MSA), which covers the largest university campus in Clayton, was silent. Led by Together, which is close to the Labor Right faction, the union opted to organise a pet show via Zoom while lamenting the loss of the live music “Wednesday Sessions” program, which it believed would relieve students' stress.
On April 6, a week before mid-semester break, the MSA was catapulted into action over exam supervision. The university had revealed it planned to continue its partnership with the controversial Examity software company.
Students were concerned about the contract with Examity, as it is allowed to collect students' personal information, including postal addresses, phone numbers, physical characteristics and browsing history.
Examity admits to not being able to “100% guarantee the secure storage of personal identifiers” and is ambivalent over third-party sharing.
Even more concerning is its limits on personal movements: students have described in detail about how they were prevented from going to the toilet and were subjected to invasive intrusions, such as being forced to show an unknown person, observing them via webcam, the surrounds of their room.
One person noted how they were forced to take their exam in the toilet, as it was the only quiet place in the household that met Examity’s strict requirements.
A grassroots campaign — Monash Uni: Support Your Students — was launched to fight for students’ rights. Activists were disappointed that MSA “refused to advocate” for their key demands, but after petitions, emails, online discussions and cooperation with the student representatives on the Academic Board, MSA and the university both shifted course within a fortnight.
Monash University has now agreed to: allow students to withdraw from units after receiving their results without any academic penalties; not record fail grades on academic transcripts, nor count fails as part of their average and weighted mark calculations; move to Monash staff-based exam invigilation without Examity’s involvement; and launch a $15 million Student Compassionate and Hardship Package.
Despite initially refusing to assist the student campaign, MSA officials immediately attempted to claim credit for the university’s about turn.
Similar campaigns are now being waged on other universities, alongside demands around welfare extensions and support for international students being championed by the National Union of Students.
Decades of funding cuts to student organisations and attacks on the universal right to tertiary education has meant that student unions have suffered. But these victories demonstrate that there is still power in a collective student voice, even if expressed only via the internet.
As Drew Alsop, one of the activists behind the campaign’s success, told Green Left: “We need more people engaged in student unionism who recognise this and are prepared to stand up for students when support is needed the most”.
[Leo Crnogorcevic is a student at Monash University and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]