A 'Tutorial' in Student Activism

If there’s one thing tutorials have taught me it’s that when students fight, we can win. In August last year Royston Gustavson, an Associate Dean of College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), caused outrage when he sent students in the college an email outlining a plan to move away from tutorials and towards a “forum” model. This was couched in the language of “pedagogy”. He argued that forums, massive rooms with 50 students, were a superior learning environment to the more intimate tutorial setting. It was stated that any tutorials that weren’t abolished in favour of forums faced increased numbers of students.

Of course the reality was the Vice Chancellor, obsessed with the university’s surplus, had failed to provide CASS with an adequate teaching budget. Instead of focusing the resources they had and fighting the Vice Chancellor for a decent teaching budget, the Dean of CASS was setting up new courses that she thought would attract students and be easy to market. We were caught between the VC and CASS management. Neither care as much about the education we receive as they care about running the university like a business.

I was in the first Education Action Group (EAG) meeting after the tute cuts were announced. The meeting was huge and the anger was visceral. The EAG is a group of students at the ANU who are committed to fighting against cuts to our university. I’d been a member for a few months but this was by far the largest meeting I’d been in and it was full of new people. Some were PhD candidates who were also tutors, realising tute cuts would mean the end of their jobs. Some were students with English as a second language or with learning needs for whom tutorials were crucial in helping them clarify their understanding of readings. Everyone was furious that the university was destroying the tutorial, one of the vital tenets of university education.

Out of that meeting, we called a rally for 15 August. We knew that a rally would be good, that it would send a clear message to the Dean of CASS and the Vice Chancellor that students were prepared to fight for tutorials. But we also knew that it might not be enough. Quietly, we hatched a plan for an occupation of the Dean’s office. On the day of the rally I estimate at least a hundred students marched to the CASS offices. A few EAG members had gone ahead and were ready to open the doors from the inside. There was a moment of hesitation. All it took was a few people at the front to shout, “Let’s go in!” and suddenly we were through the doors and running up the fire escape. We poured into the Dean’s offices chanting, “Bullshit, come off it, our education is not for profit.”

The next day students interrupted a meeting the VC was holding and grilled him on why exactly it was that he had failed to provide enough money in the budget for a decent education.

We followed this up with a successful action on open day, interrupting the Deputy VC’s opening address with a theatrical “die-in”. Students dressed in bloodied clothes and accompanied by a grim reaper held up a banner on the front stage that said, “Don’t kill our tutes”.

By the end of the semester university management understood a number of things:

1)      That students were furious about the proposal to cut tutorials.

2)      We were not afraid to interrupt the ordinary running of the uni – such as occupying offices and interrupting meetings.

3)      We were not afraid to humiliate the administration.

In September a “Review of Teaching Forums” was released. In Orwellian fashion, the review claimed that there never was a plan to cut tutorials. Student outrage was obliquely referred to as “difficulties related to communications”. The report denied that financial factors played any part in the proposal to implement forums. This blatantly contradicted what students had heard continuously throughout the semester. When students lined the corridors of the Dean’s office in August, it was “financial difficulties” that were used to excuse the forum model. In an attempt to pass the buck, the VC himself assured us he had no responsibility over CASS’s budget – clearly implying that budgetary constraints had shaped the plan to move away from tutes.

The review that was released in September was an attempt to save face and an absolute victory for students. It showed categorically that fighting back against cuts works. In the face of the tedious narrative that students are apathetic and lazy, hundreds of ANU students carried out a daring and organised campaign that forced the university to back down.