Past education campaign lessons for today

A protest against the Vietnam War at Sydney University.

The education reforms of the 1970s occurred in a very different political climate from today's education movements, yet there are still lessons to be learnt from it.

The political agitation and mood for change of the 1960s opened the door to a number of movements, many coming from the Vietnam War. Students were not only shocked by the disturbing images of the war on the TV news during this time, but male students were also liable to be conscripted via a lottery process.

Socialist Alliance member and student protester during the 1960s Jim McIlroy said the Vietnam War and the conscription process played a key role in encouraging left-wing political organisation.

“There’s no doubt that the question of conscription did play a major role in the sharp radicalisation of the student movement in Australia and the United States … Everyone knew someone who was conscripted,” he said.

The student movement at the time was quite small, with the largest group on campus being the Democratic Labour Party. However, anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment was beginning to stir behind the movement. As the war developed the movement grew stronger and left political groups on campus began to develop a life of their own.

“Everyone became more aware of the nature of imperialism and that the Vietnamese people were fighting for liberation and their own self-determination, so we began to identify the two processes: what was happening in our own country and what was happening internationally,” McIlroy said.

The two major on-campus groups that developed out of this sentiment were Students for a Democratic Society on campuses across Australia and the Maoist Monash University Labor Club in Melbourne.

The student movement of the time had a number of goals including Aboriginal rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, environmental protection, student-worker solidarity and student-staff solidarity. Another aim was to fight for education reform to create greater democratic processes.

McIlroy said: “Universities were quickly becoming degree factories and this was the beginning of a massive expansion of tertiary education.”

“We were very much linked to an international movement which was demanding student power, so the idea [grew] that universities should become organising centres for political activity and that the resources of the university should be made available [to the movement].”

“We started to have the demand for student-staff control and student elections of their lecturers. So it was very much to do with radical democracy that these ideas started to spread.”

Students began to organise sit-ins and lock-ins, such as the one organised at Melbourne University in 1974 which was attended by 300 students. Students demanded that the Student Representative Council resign over a regulation that would allow universities to exclude students on the basis that they are “troublemakers”. The students argued that this would discriminate on the basis of class and would maintain “the false notion of an ‘ivory tower’ concerned with value free studies” which would transform universities into “merely another instrument in the capitalist productive apparatus”.

This protest reflects the way the movements of the 1970s paved the way for challenging the ideology that the working class only consisted of "blue collar workers" and introduced the idea that universities had a role in producing the working class.

By the early 1970s, the student movement had reached full fruition. The Gough Whitlam government, after running on a platform for "change" would eventually cave in to growing pressure to introduce, among other reforms, free tertiary education. However, the student movement from its very beginnings extended its political consciousness far beyond just a demand for free education. They led the demand for what was to be seen as legitimate democratic proceedings within tertiary education.

“The general impact of radicalisation was that there was the demand for equality and for more opportunities for broader sections of the population, meaning that working class students were demanding free education and working class high school students were demanding access to tertiary education,” Mcilroy said.

He said that challenging the notion of education as a private commodity was one of the most important factors in keeping the movement of the 1960s alive.

“Education was a big part of it: teach-ins were big during those days. We used to try to challenge the ideological hegemony of the ruling class,” he said.

He says that if the students of the 1960s had stopped fighting for change within tertiary education, then the movement of the 1970s would never have gained such momentum.

“The major thing that [students now] could learn is tenacity. If students in the '60s had given up and stopped organising small rallies and small protests, then the movement would never have grown,” he said.

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