1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Student Radicalism

A long history of student radicalism at the University of Melbourne began in 1937 when a rowdy meeting about the Spanish Civil War attracted the concern of the chancellor. In the years after World War II the Melbourne University Labour Club, led by ex-servicemen mostly connected with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) or the Australian Labor Party, became the dominant political force on campus.

In 1962 University of Melbourne students demonstrated against Henry Bolte's attempts to hang Robert Tait, and Monash University students demonstrated five years later against the university's award of an honorary degree to Bolte within months of his hanging Ronald Ryan. This campaign against capital punishment saw the emergence of the Monash Labor Club's broadsheet, Print, which was the prototype for broadsheets that appeared on all campuses in the late 1960s and tended to lead the debate in advance of the student newspapers.

Later in 1967 Monash students took the first action that was to contribute to the university's reputation as Australia's most radical campus, when the Labor Club collected aid for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), against whom Australian Forces were fighting. The Commonwealth Government passed the Defence Forces Protection Act 1967 to outlaw the collection.

For the next few years both tertiary and secondary students were involved in protest activities against the Vietnam War and conscription. The movements at Monash and La Trobe University were influenced by Maoism, although none of the three communist parties played as significant a role on campus in the 1960s and 1970s as the CPA had in the 1950s. Some of the activities on campus concerned students' rights to protest and involved sit-ins and blockades of administration buildings and council chambers. Others were responses to subsequent attempts to discipline students for political acts. Students expelled from Monash in 1970 were reinstated the following year after months of campaigns. At La Trobe, the exclusion of twelve students in 1971 was followed by the gaoling of three of the excluded in 1972 for ignoring injunctions banning them from campus. These students were also eventually reinstated.

Off campus, students played a leading role in the moratoriums and other anti-war protests. After Australia withdrew from Vietnam, campuses were influenced by the general move to the Right. Students were involved in significant protests on environmental and anti-nuclear issues during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the issues that have aroused the most militancy in this period (including a prolonged occupation of RMIT in 1997) relate to universities themselves: the reimposition of student fees, privatisation and cuts to staff and courses.

Dave Nadel

York, Barry, Student revolt: La Trobe University 1967 to 1973, Nicholas Press, Canberra, 1989. Details