In 1967, Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte officially opened the doors to La Trobe University. It became the third university in the state, and would go on to become the oldest Victorian university to not be included in the so-called “Group of Eight”, a coalition of Australia’s most prestigious and research-driven universities.
Instead, La Trobe would find its reputation during the protest movement of the 60s and 70s, becoming renowned for the activism of its students.
In the half century since its opening, La Trobe has seen mass protests, riots and even the imprisonment of three student protesters, cementing the university’s reputation as a breeding ground for left wing activism.
However, although this reputation has stayed intact over the years, an argument can be made that it is no longer reflected in the student culture.
Ian Armet has worked at La Trobe for 45 years, spending most of that time in the media production office. There, Ian has seen the evolution of the university’s student culture first hand, and believes that today’s students are significantly less involved in politics and activism than their predecessors.
“[They] don’t seem to engage so much in that,” he said. “I mean, there was a little bit around three years ago, when the change process went through humanities, there was a bit around that, but that was sort of just a blip and I haven’t seen much since.”
The change process that Ian is referring to is the restructuring of the humanities department, which took place in 2012. As part of the restructure, the university announced plans to dramatically cut back on the number of humanities subjects offered, initiating widespread student protests.
Ian has also noticed other changes in the attitudes of today’s students.
“I think that students in this era are very different,” he said. “They come to class and then leave, and they’ve all got jobs so they… Don’t spend a lot of time here outside of class time. I’ve noticed that I used to get a lot of requests for extracurricular access to our facilities, but that’s very rare these days.”
Anna Dzenis is a lecturer at La Trobe, and has worked at the university for over 27 years. She doesn’t agree with Ian’s assessment that students today are less engaged than they once were.
“I still think there are active students and political groups who care about certain things, in terms of their education… But I think that when La Trobe started it was also incredibly political, they were revolutionary times,” she said.
“There were those things happening in the culture, and students were sort of part of that broader culture, where there were people protesting against the Vietnam War in the streets. So, in some ways La Trobe was a place where that was happening, but it was mirrored more broadly in society, whereas I think today there isn’t that level of activism that you see with young people, I think that’s probably the difference.”
Anna also identified another possible reason for less frequent student protests.
“Is occupying a building the most useful and productive way of making your point? Young people have access to various kinds of social media and can communicate to a broad audience… There are more channels and opportunities [now]… I don’t like to think that the students are less caring, or less concerned with the issues,” she said.
It is possible that La Trobe’s activist reputation may eventually dissipate, as old-school student protest continues to become less popular. Today’s students have access to innumerable outlets that are happy to publish their thoughts and concerns, often reaching a far bigger audience than a sit-in ever would.
If that happens, La Trobe will have to find a new identity. Only time will tell what that identity might be.