Today, the Courier Mail is reporting on The University of Queensland’s plans to demolish the historic student union complex and Schonell Theatre for a new airport-style “commuter lounge” with a towel service. This farce is almost worth laughing at, but it ultimately forms the basis for the most violent attack on student unionism and free speech UQ has witnessed in its entire 111-year history. Fresh off the back of spending up to a million dollars on 3 law firms and 2 PR firms to expel me for criticizing their close economic relationship with a dictatorship committing a new Holocaust, UQ now hopes to bulldoze the symbolic home of student dissent on campus, potentially bankrupting and annihilating the student union in the process. You can’t get more on the nose than that. They are now well and truly out of control.
How did we get to this disastrous point? Like a coiled boa constrictor, the administration has been steadily tightening its grip over student life and campus unionism for years to the point where we now face total suffocation. This will be a longer post where I hope to explain how this process has taken shape based on the knowledge I gained when I had access to some of the university’s most sensitive internal documents as an elected UQ Senate member. I have been familiar with UQ’s long-term strategy to kill off student unionism for years, and my knowledge of this assault has informed much of my own thinking and strategy fighting UQ. I firmly believe that if you knew my thinking, you would be at war with UQ too. After all, by actively working towards undermining and eroding the student union’s social and financial basis, they have already declared war on us. Not even Sir Joh could have dreamt of coming this close to the complete destruction of student unionism on campus.
I will first explain the significance of the administration’s attempts to break the social foundations of student unionism on campus. There is clearly a huge gulf in resources between the university and the student union. Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj outlasted eight student union presidents during his tenure, earning a million-dollar salary while managing a budget worth billions. In the past, this huge gulf in financial power did not weaken the student union because it still retained the capacity to mobilize thousands upon thousands of students to grind life on campus to a halt in opposition to administration power grabs.
But now the administration has since robbed them of this power through the creation of UQ Life, a corporate entity expressly designed for the purpose of supplanting the student union. This is no secret – the administration poached student politicians to help build it up. Former student union president Gabii Starr, the person hand-picked by the administration to replace me on the UQ Senate, was hired straight out of university on a generous graduate salary to presumably help UQ Life plot out a path to replace the student union. Armed to the teeth and firmly under administration control, it has since quickly become the main service provider to students on campus, leaving the student union in the dust.
And student engagement with the union has declined massively as a result. At the last student election, just three per cent of the student body turned out to vote. Though the union nominally represents all fifty thousand students, the recent union council budget meeting to decide the allocation of tens of millions in student contributions was attended by no more than thirty people. The student union is dying. I asked the current UQ Union President whether the union has an email database to communicate with students. She explained to me that she had inherited a situation whereby the student union’s only capacity to communicate to the student body at large was through UQ’s own email lists. UQ gives them the ability to send one campus wide email to the student body per semester.
Imagine trying to organize a mass student protest through that system. Please Madam Vice-Chancellor, may we use your own email lists to organize against you? The administration’s strategy for eroding the student union’s social basis on campus has been so successful that the union increasingly exists only at the leisure of the officials working to destroy it.
Some might respond to this situation with a blasé shrug. If UQ Life is so good at delivering services to students, why do we still need the student union, they may ask? Of course, there is a reason why UQ Life has built up such good will in the community. You’ve probably had positive experiences with their food trucks, movie nights and bean bags on the Great Court. They hire hundreds of students as ambassadors on great wages. Their pay rates are a lifeline for many students who would otherwise be forced to struggle through 40-hour work weeks serving fries alongside their studies to survive. So maybe you’ve been hired by them or know a friend who has, and view UQ Life in overwhelmingly positive terms as a result. That seems to be the university’s general plan, and it seems to be working quite effectively. But this doesn’t tell us much about the plan’s overall morality. Sirens, those dangerous creatures of ancient mythology, were also quite effective in luring sailors to shipwreck themselves upon the rocks with their enchanting music and lovely singing voices. Beware the Greeks bearing gifts, as they say.
The reason why it’s so ultimately horrible for us all is because the vision that underlies it is one of a radically hollowed out student life on campus. It represents a vision of student unionism without the students and without the unionism. All UQ Life major decisions are formulated inside the walls of the UQ Kremlin (AKA the head administration offices) without real student control or input. That’s why you can have travesties like UQ Life charging students $25 a support hamper during the massive economic catastrophe brought on by the first COVID lockdown. They were genuinely hoping to make profit margins off impoverished students while promoting their hampers as a charitable act. Only bureaucrats on million dollar salaries could think this a good idea.
Outraged, me and some mates organized a massive fundraiser to provide 250 free hampers to students in need. We raised $5000, built the hampers ourselves, and spent days driving them all around Brisbane right up to people’s doors, all for free. Embarrassed by the pressure, UQ soon made their own hampers free.
This is ultimately the difference between student driven support services and support services run out of the UQ Kremlin by out of touch bureaucrats on million-dollar salaries. We delivered those hampers as a radical political act, as a way of expressing a vision for a different kind of student life on campus. We wanted to make people think about politics, think about a different kind of society where both domestic and international students didn’t have to go through their studies with the grim spectre of poverty shadowing their every move. That’s impossible with UQ Life. They will never allow politics to come into anything they do, let alone stand up for students when the administration is doing them over. What’s the chance of seeing UQ Life criticizing the corporate university administration it is ultimately part of? Zero. What’s the chance of seeing UQ Life advocate for the interests of the student body against the corporate university administration it serves? Zero.
We can’t sugar coat this. We must recognize that the university administration’s interests are fundamentally at odds with the interests of students. They are interested in profit maximization. We are instead interested in learning and growing as human beings who inhabit a wider social whole. These interests are diametrically opposed, and so UQ Life can never represent us. UQ Life can never represent us because we students want to be more than just lines of digits on some bureaucrat’s screen.
We want to be more than simply a cash crop to be extracted, or for that matter, infants to be managed. We want control over our own student services, our own events, our own student life.
We want agency as human beings, and until we get it, we will be miserable. I know that I was deeply unhappy when I first transitioned from school to life at UQ. The atomization and alienation inherent to campus life was staggering. I went from a close-knit school where I knew the names of every person in my cohort, to feeling like I was but an anonymous drone in a vast, hostile system of management and bureaucratised control. I only escaped that misery when I fell in with the student counterculture, discovering solidarity in working with friends in trying to overturn that system of hostile alienation. Now, they want to seal that escape hatch shut forever, driving a stake through the heart of student unionism with the destruction of the facilities that provide its financial basis.
Because UQ Life is ultimately just one of the hydra’s many heads. After breaking the social basis of the union by pouring funds into a powerful service delivery arm completely controlled by the administration, the boa constrictor suffocation strategy then moves on to kneecapping what little economic basis the student union has left by demolishing its main facilities. To this day, the student union derives a huge portion of its income from letting out areas in the student union complex to franchises and restaurants who pay top dollar to sell burritos and Boost Juice’s to the huge captive campus market of tens of thousands of students. This arrangement historically made the UQ student union one of the wealthiest and therefore most powerful student unions in the country, giving it independence where other student unions were going bankrupt.
UQ recognised that this independent financial position gave the student union power over its own destiny. It therefore had to be stripped from the union at the earliest convenience. The administration bided its time until an opportunity presented itself in the mid-2000s. At a time when student unions across the country were collapsing because of Howard’s abolition of mandatory student union dues, the UQ student union faced financial oblivion. Even their comparative wealth was not going to be enough to save them, and so they turned to UQ for a bail out. UQ’s terms looked reasonable enough: sell off the entire student union complex, UQ said, in return for millions and a 99-year rent free lease. What harm could come from that? The student union leaders thought “awesome!” and signed the release forms, and the money was deposited in the union’s accounts. And in the process, the administration gained ultimate legal authority over the student union’s land and facilities. It was this deft bureaucratic manoeuvre, designed to look like a rescue package, that ultimately gave UQ the power to extinguish the union once and for all. UQ immediately set in motion its long-term plans for demolishing the entire space, to replace it with an airport lounge under their complete control. Since taking legal control, they’ve deliberately let the place fester and descend into a pitiful state so as to further break down any residual student affection for it.
Once the demolition was complete, the student union would be made homeless, left with nothing in this brave new world. Its income from renting out space to franchises and restaurants would evaporate overnight, making it insolvent.
The student union, marginalized and unloved, forgotten by the student body, would be allowed to roll over and die.
And the administration would finally have total control over all aspects of student life and culture, allowing them to squash trouble making radicals and activists who threaten the drive towards profit maximisation. That’s the future, the end result of UQ’s long term strategy to suffocate the student union and break its social and economic basis. This is the bleak future we will soon face on camps unless we dig in and fight.