The Diploma of Languages and the Limits of Student Activism

CW: Brief mention of sexual assault

On February 28 this year, the ANU Observer announced that the ANU would be returning the previously ‘cancelled’ Diploma of Languages for 2021. As students celebrated its return, some argued that this was an example of student activism in action, crediting the return to student activists and ANUSA. That’s unfortunately not true. Credit almost entirely goes to the ANU for returning the diploma’s funding. As one of the people campaigning for its return, the Diploma of Languages exposed to me the difficulties of student activism and the limits of our student association’s capacity for activism. Yet, for us to create change in our universities, we need to understand what really happened rather than blindly accept credit for the diploma’s return. 


On February 7 2018, Woroni reported that the Diploma of Languages had been “removed” as part of federal government funding cuts on education. In response, the then ANUSA College of Asia-Pacific (CAP) Reps and Education Officer convened several working groups to discuss pathways forward and organised a photo campaign to raise awareness around the diploma. The working group’s recommendations were then passed at the eighth meeting of the Student Representative Council (SRC) that year, with a similar motion being moved at the National Conference of the National Union of Students. By setting these foundations the campaign seemed ready to go. 


As the 2019 ANUSA CAP Reps, my partner and I had hoped to continue the campaign for the diploma’s return. Except, we struggled to maintain momentum. The original working group sheets had been lost, and we couldn’t access the SRC 8 motion because the minutes were (and still are) missing. Ideas like lobbying federal representatives or rallying students felt ineffective, especially since we didn’t understand the cuts themselves nor believed that three dozen students standing on a lawn would change anything. Responses within the university ranged from resigned statements that there was nothing the ANU could do, to complex explanations of the federal government’s policy. Further confusion came from students at other universities claiming that funding for their diplomas was just fine. No one, it seemed, knew anything.


Realising that there was nothing to do within the ANU,  we settled on a letter-writing campaign. We had sought broader help and training from ANUSA, but never received it. Fortunately for us, before we began campaigning, we accidentally found out that the funding had been restored. In an unprompted response to a report we’d tabled, the CAP Associate Dean of Education informed us that the government had backtracked on the cuts. Since the program’s funding coincidentally ran out at the same time as the cuts, the ANU suspended the program rather than cancelling it. But because of the federal policy change, the Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Academic) had begun negotiations to restore government funding, expecting the program to resume soon. With nothing left to do, we moved onto other issues and reported our findings in our second report to the College Representative Council, hoping student media would pick up on it (they didn’t).


With the return of the funding, what did the two years of work achieve? Despite all the outrage and planning and lobbying, the ANU brought back the diploma without our help. And this isn’t a unique occurrence. Many major policy decisions happen internally, with little student input. From the Ramsay Centre to the Kambri booking fees, the university acts according to its internal processes. In the case of the former, pressure from the colleges over academic autonomy scrapped the deal. In the case of the latter, by the time three dozen students had convened on the Kambri lawns, the Kambri Reference Group had already decided on the current booking arrangements. While both public anger and ANUSA’s advocacy might have had an influence, they were unlikely to be definitive. 


And this is just the recent past. Historically, when the ANU has made controversial decisions, student activism has failed. In 2016, despite the student-led ‘Hands off Asian Studies’ campaign and pressure from the National Tertiary Education Union, the ANU hollowed out the School of Culture, History and Language. In 2014, a read-in protest against fee deregulation was staged in front of the chancellery, before it was dispersed as national media coverage turned on the students and then Vice-Chancellor Ian Young ignored student demands. In 2012, in the face of national media attention, a petition with more than 100,000 signatures and over 700 submissions against the cuts, the ANU slashed half of the School of Music’s staff. Even in 1994, when over 500 students occupied the chancellery for days over proposed fee hikes, receiving nationwide support, the ANU only proposed to reduce the fee by roughly half before it voted down the proposal in an eight to seven vote at the University Council.


Several factors are at play here. Most importantly, the ANU is a robust bureaucracy. Most unpopular decisions, especially cuts or fee-hikes, go through several layers of committees to vet proposals, consider alternatives and anticipate consequences. So, when these policies are announced, knee-jerk anger usually fails to sway the ANU to deviate from its plans. The inexperience of many office-bearers in ANUSA due to a lack of training and advocacy experience also allows the ANU and its bureaucracy to dominate. Furthermore, many students only see activism in its public performances of protest – ignoring the community outreach, organising experience and long-term planning needed for any successful campaign. So, when student activists call a rally and nothing changes, they assume something else was at fault, not that they didn’t properly plan or address community concerns. In addition, most student protests are reactive to policy change, undercutting the time and preparation needed to counter them. In these cases, a student union should be poised to respond to controversial policy, except that our student association is not geared for student activism. Whereas student activism hopes to structurally change university policy from the outside, ANUSA focuses on closed-door student advocacy. This has its strengths: poor policy can be killed in-committee, and ANUSA and the ANU can work together to ensure current initiatives consider student needs. But it also allows for institutional capture, meaning that the university can consult then overrule ANUSA, with the association able to do little in response. 


Other smaller factors are at play, too. External shocks, like government policy changes, can force policy change that both the ANU and its students are powerless to stop. A few policy changes may only affect a couple of students, hindering attempts to organise a mass of students in opposition. In other cases, student leaders’ short-term limits can end up prioritising short-term issues over long-term policy changes. Understanding all these factors, current university plans and policies as well as how to organise and protest is key. Unfortunately, most students don’t have the time, experience or energy to do all of that. But this doesn’t mean student activism is impossible. Fossil-free ANU made strong initial gains in its campaign to get ANU to divest. And in more recent memory, the ‘Do Better ANU’ campaign and 2019 Open Day strike provide a blueprint on how to change things on campus. 


Following years of residential hall budget cuts, rising tariff fees, removal of deputy-heads and glacial progress on combatting sexual assault, the Interhall Council of Presidents (IHC) and the ANUSA Women’s Department (WD) launched the ‘Do Better ANU’ campaign. The full details of the campaign deserve its own article, but in short, it succeeded because of their understanding of residential policy, community backing, and the ability to build on the limited capacity ANUSA provides for student activism. By having clear demands and a good understanding of policy, the IHC and WD held the ANU accountable through public forums and private meetings. Furthermore, its community outreach and the endorsement of college leaders for the campaign led to hundreds of students rallying in overcrowded forums and supporting the campus-wide Open Day strike. All this work builds on the, albeit limited, foundations ANUSA has for student activism, as the association provided the financing, logistics and communication channels needed for the campaign to succeed. Because of these factors, the campaign won most of its demands shortly after the strike. 


Ultimately, structural change on campus is hard. For example, despite the success of the ‘Do Better ANU’ campaign, the ANU continues to cut corners on residential spending and leaders behind the campaign have burnt-out. Similarly, Fossil-free ANU eventually ran into roadblocks as the university started fighting back. Yet, by shining the light on how to change policy, all these cases provide future student leaders key lessons to learn from. A good understanding of policy changes, clear and reasonable demands, strong community backing and organisational strength are all necessary for any campaign. These case studies also show the need for ANUSA to build up its capacity to train and equip students to lead student campaigns, so as to achieve further victories when internal meetings fail. And finally, in the case of the Diploma of Languages, just knowing about what’s happening can be half the battle.


Kai Clark was one of the ANUSA College of Asia-Pacific Representatives for 2019.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.