History of the Student Union
The Student Union was formed in 1884 to promote the common interests of students, provide resources for pursuing public life and assist social interactions between its members.
The Student’s Representative Council was created in 1907. It then took over the management of the University’s various clubs and societies and the move to the old National Museum building in 1910.
In 1939 the Student Union successfully fought to exempt lecturers from the draft and gained the support of Prime Minister Menzies in July 1940 for insisting the University remain open throughout the war. Later, in 1958 a student poll condemned the White Australia Policy. By 1971, in protest against the Vietnam War, students turned Union House into a safe haven for conscientious objectors. In this same year it hosted the first interstate conference of Women’s Liberation groups.
In 1954 both George Fairfax and Barry Humphries both premiered work at the Union Theatre. A year later Ray Lawler produced the Australian classic Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. In 1961 the Union Repertory Company moved to Russell Street becoming the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1968. By the mid-1960s student groups had performed David Williamson’s first full-length play and premiered work by Jack Hibbard. Other performers and creators over the years have included Zoe Caldwell, Noel Ferrier, Steve Vizard, Barrie Kosky, Graeme Blundell, Germaine Greer and Cate Blanchett.
In 1975 the George Paton Gallery in the Ewing Gallery Complex of Union House became Australia’s first avant garde gallery with institutional support. Also a publishing gallery, the George Paton began publication of Arts Melbourne in 1976 that became the highly successful Art Almanac as well as producing Agenda Contemporary Art Magazine in 1988. Notable artists and curators have included Howard Arkley, Janine Burke, Juliana Engeberg, Fiona Hall, Patrick MacCaughey, Mike Parr and Stelarc.
For over 130 years, UMSU has been the heart of student life at the University of Melbourne. The history of the Union is heavily entwined with activism, radical politics and power struggles. Delving into the archives offers a detailed reflection of the issues facing students throughout the decades. Even the soon-to-be demolished Union House has layers of history hidden in plain sight: from anti-conscription barricades and police raids, to refugees avoiding deportation in a back room.
Creation of The Union, Gendered clubs and Farrago.
The Union was initially created to serve much the same purpose as it does today: [to] “promote the common interests of students, provide resources for pursuing public life and assist social interactions between its members.”
When chronologically detailed, the ‘Melbourne University Union’ was created in 1884. Initially located in a billiards room, the Union was exclusively for male staff and students, despite Australian women being given admittance to attend tertiary education with the 1881 University Act. Women were able to enrol into any Diploma or Degree offered by Australian universities, yet the University Act states that:
“the council may if it thinks fit exclude females from attendance at any lectures, but not from any examination in the University.”
This exclusive attitude, justified within the very Act itself, lead the women of the University of Melbourne to make their own alternative in 1888: The Princess Ida Club. Named after a comic opera about a university exclusively for women, the club was an important space for women to participate in university life, exchange ideas and partake in the intellectual discourse that was barred from them by the Union of the time.
Initially located in the west wing of the Old Quadrangle, the Princess Ida club members were allegedly so loud and disruptive that a noise complaint made by Professor Harrison Moor was immortalised in a cartoon. Entitled ‘Princesses at Play: The Fantasy’, the cartoon by Alfred Vincent was published in Melbourne Punch in 1897. Illustrated is a scene of animated, energetic women, playing billiards, boxing and fencing, lifting weights, singing together at the piano, and reading in their university robes.
This cartoon richly details the problem that many male members of The University had with the Princess Ida Club: they were stepping out of the traditional role of ‘the feminine', and inhabiting activities and spaces that had always been traditionally masculine. The Princess Ida Club, however, fiercely defended their space, and an 1897 photograph from The University of Melbourne Archives shows the Princess Ida clubrooms captioned with the motto: ‘Let no man enter on pain of death.’
In 1907, the Students Representative Council was created, and in 1915, The Princess Ida Club was replaced with the Women’s Representative Committee, formed to reflect the interest of women in relation to the Union.
The University saw an influx of post-war enrolments in 1919, and as such a greater demand on the Union services and spaces. According to a 1941 Student Union handbook, “temporary” army tents were erected around the Union House (then located in the National Museum building), to make more room. These tents weren’t taken down for 15 years.
Farrago was created in 1925, the first editor being S.H. Heymanson and first chief of staff Brian Fitzpatrick. At the time, Farrago was printed in newspaper format. The first Edition, printed on April 3, 1925, directly references the need for more Union funding.
1940’s – 1990’s:
War, Resistance, and Union House.
During the Second World War, The Melbourne University Union fought hard to keep the University open. In 1939, students successfully petitioned the government to have professors exempt from the draft, and in 1940, they succeeded in keeping the University open despite the war. The following year, however, according to the Union’s student handbook of 1941 the University introduced some “Special Wartime Regulations” for all clubs and societies.
During the war, no student, or group could arrange meetings or speeches “on any social or political matter by a speaker from outside the University,” and furthermore, it became forbidden to distribute “any printed, typed or written document dealing with political or social matters” on campus. This was to potentially avoid any anti-conscription sentiment or material being distributed, as the government relied heavily on war rhetoric and a sense of duty for new recruits.
However, Australia could not rely on duty as an incentive for recruitment a second time. As society and attitudes shifted after the Second World War, and the peace-centric 60’s and 70’s caused more citizens to reject the idea of war as a solution, anger at conscription grew. In 1971 during the Vietnam War, university campuses across Australia were central hubs for protest.
On September 27, 1971, four conscientious resisters, Ian Turner, Paul Fox, Michael Hamel Green and Laurie Carmichael Junior, barricaded themselves inside Union House with the help of students to broadcast a pirate radio station, “Radio Resistance,” in what is now the George Paton Gallery. To help in their mission, students created complex layers of barricades to stave off police raids. The barricade system included blocking stairwells with chairs and tables, lookouts on rooftops, student patrols on foot and by bike, alarm systems consisting of flares and foghorns to announce police presence and summon back-up students from nearby colleges.
The barricade lasted two and a half days before police finally broke through. Two of the resisters escaped out a back entrance with the help of students, while two others avoided detection by allegedly hiding in a secret alcove. They later fled to Adelaide where they were given sanctuary at Adelaide and Flinders universities. The raid inflicted thousands of dollars of damage on Union House, and it has been alleged in some sources that the barricade also involved heavy “egging” of police on behalf of the students.
Union House was also a place of resistance during the conflict in Timor-Leste in the 1990’s, where students at the University allegedly hid several East Timorese refugees facing deportation. Specific dates are unclear, however evidence of graffiti and messages of “groovy solidarity” are written across the walls, inside what is now a storage room at the top of a back staircase behind the Officer Bearers space in Union House. A hole made by an axe through the door is still visible, where police allegedly broke through to remove the refugees, as well as a drawing of the Timor-Leste flag. It is most likely that these messages were written in retrospect of the event, as one of them is signed by Robin Taudevin, who had spent time photographing refugees and conflict zones in Timor-Leste. Taudevin passed away in 2006, however a loved one confirmed his handwriting to Farrago, and suggested he may have visited Union House in the late 90’s, along with others paying tribute to the refugees.
Political power struggles, corruption, (too) many acronyms.
In 1981, the Associations Incorporation Act enabled eligible student body organisations to merge. In October 1988, UMSU’s predecessor was created: MUSUi, Melbourne University Student Union Incorporated.
However, on February 6, 2004, MUSUi ended in liquidation by order of the Supreme Court of Victoria. This order came following a threat by the University of Melbourne to withdraw funding on the basis of financial mismanagement following several tumultuous years for MUSUi, which nearly forced the Union to the edge of bankruptcy.
The Court reasoned liquidation was necessary due to concern over conflict of interest, falsification of certain records, and an unfair electoral system. Detailed by Gary Newman in the now infamous documentary The State of the Union, student politics began to crumble under Darren Ray and Scott Crawford who were consecutive presidents of the Union in 2002 and 2003. While the purpose of student politics was to engage in a fair and democratic election process, under Ray and Crawford, it became a messy web of factions and alliances, all with the intent purpose of taking control of the multi-million-dollar Union, and channelling votes to the right-wing Labor Club faction. Tactics included suddenly changing rules in clandestine meetings, ‘shit sheets’ (defamation leaflets) of opposition parties, as well as targeting specific people to defame such as the acting CEO of the Union Graham Cornish.
However, the main cause of the liquidation of MUSUi was connected to the $44 million dollar Optima Property deal, approved by Darren Ray. Ray, who, according to The Age would later be jailed for falsifying business statements and bank accounts in his personal life, signed the 20-year agreement with the intent of using it as student accommodation. This would put a monumental financial strain on the Union.
In light of what occurred under Ray and Crawford, the University was highly concerned about giving students unlimited access to Union funds. The liquidation caused mass criticism of the University of Melbourne from media, and after MUSUi was dissolved, MUSUL (Melbourne University Student Union Limited) was created. MUSUL was a non-for profit organisation fully owned by the University. Its objective was to provide concurrent commercial services to the newly created UMSU, which was approved in November 2005. MUSUL was, most importantly, in charge of payroll and accounting for UMSU. When MUSUL wrapped up in April, 2017, its services were divided between UMSU and the University.
While the Union has morphed through various forms (and acronyms!) over the last century, it offers today what it initially was created in 1884 to do: promote the interests of students, and assist in social interactions and eventually, inclusion. The Union has been about more than resistance, and has also been a reflection of desired change amongst the student body. From “Student Action,” the 1961 student resistance to the White Australia Policy, to the Queer department campaigning for safe and inclusive spaces over decades, as well as Women’s Liberations movements and the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s; The Union, provided a rich well of resources and spaces for ideas to quickly spread and grow.