Students at the University of Sydney
Student activism at the University
This webpage provides brief information and photos about student activism at the University of Sydney.
On this webpage:
Student Commemoration (Commem) Days
Commemoration Day festivities by students began in 1888, when students gave an impromptu concert to the audience at the annual commemoration of benefactors and conferring of degrees in the Great Hall. The concert tradition continued until 1897 when, following tension between authorities and undergraduates – a characteristic of the Day’s history - 300 students led a procession down George Street. The annual Commem Day processions were noted for their witty and political floats, and festivities were often exuberant. The last official Commem Day was held in 1975.
Read about Student Commem Days.
View the Commem Day gallery.
The 1960s and 1970s were characterised by world-wide student activism and students at the University of Sydney became involved in protest activity. Students sought greater power within the University and protested over issues such as discrimination against Aborigines, nuclear power, censorship and the White Australia Policy.
Read 'Student activists at Sydney University 1960-1967: a problem of interpretation'
Read 'The Development of Radical Student Movements and Their Sequelael'
When Australia became involved in the Vietnam War and conscription was introduced, protests became more intense and radical. The scene for much of the activity was the front lawn between the main Quadrangle and Fisher Library, where several meetings were held. Demonstrations were also held outside the buildings of the Sydney University Regiment. 1969 and 1970 saw the most spectacular protests at the University.
'Freedom ride' 1965
Protests also tackled issues particular to Australia. In 1965, Sydney student Charles Perkins (BA 1966 Sydney) led a group of 30 students to travel through remote New South Wales on a 'freedom ride' to protest against discrimination against Aboriginal people in small town Australia. Perkins, the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from university, later became the first Aboriginal to become a permanent head of a federal government department.
View articles and photos about the Freedom Ride:
'Freedom Ride, 1965', National Museum of Australia, Canberra
'The Freedom Ride rides again, University News, 11 February 2011
'The Wheels of Change' by Ann Curthoys, 'Sydney University Museums News', June 2011
'FREEDOM RIDERS: Art and activism 1960s to now'by Matt Poll and Katie Yuill, 'Sydney University Museums News', June 2011
Protest against excessive library fines and inadequate consultation 1967
Within the University itself, a 1967 protest against excessive library fines and inadequate consultation represented the first major questioning by the student body of the established authority. Following disciplinary action against Max Humphreys, the psychology master's student who organised a series of protests against the fines, the student body rapidly mobilised in support.
This episode was the beginning of a long-term and substantial shift of attitude to student representation at the University. It led to a major push for better student representation on the University’s governing and decision-making bodies – all of which had a major impact on students' welfare and studies.
Student demonstration and occupation of the Registrar's offices 1968
In 1968 there were a large student demonstration and an occupation of the Registrar's offices following a Professorial Board decision not to allow the transfer from Macquarie University of a student who was taking a course at Sydney that was not available at Macquarie. The occupation was ended by a court injunction.
Demonstrations during the visit of the Governor of NSW 1969
On 1 May 1969 protesting students confronted a Sydney University Regiment guard of honour for Sir Roden Cutler VC who, as well as being Governor of NSW, was honorary colonel of the Sydney University Regiment. He had been invited to the University to address a Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony. There was a brawl between those students who supported and those who opposed the prescence of the Regiment. He was jostled, pushed, and hit by a tomato, and there was public outrage.
Vietnam moratorium demonstrations 1960s - 1970s
In 1965 several front lawn meetings were held to demonstrate against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.
Students took part in Vietnam moratorium demonstrations, including a nation-wide Vietnam Moratorium, beginning and ending with gatherings on the front lawn in 1970.
Disputes over Political Economy 1970s
Beginning in the late 1960s, the conflict between those committed to the teaching of mainstream Economics at the University of Sydney against the proponents of an alternative program in Political Economy led to a dispute which continued for decades until a Department of Political Economy was established in the Faculty of Arts in 2008.
Read 'Political economy at the University of Sydney' by Evan Jones and Frank Stilwell.
Read 'A dispute well worth winning' by Dr Gavan Butler.
Student occupation of the Vice-Chancellor's
Student occupation of the Vice-Chancellor's
Demonstration against a lecture by controversial Professor Hans Eysenck 1977
In 1977, there was a demonstration against a lecture by controversial Professor Hans Eysenck who was an influential British psychologist. Through his many articles and books he achieved world renown. However he also relished controversy: He championed Arthur Jensen's belief in inherited IQ racial differences. He supported the tobacco industry's denial that cigarette smoking had been proved to cause lung cancer. He espoused Michel Gauquelin's conclusion that the positions in the sky of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn at birth correlate with adult personality traits. In each of these cases he adopted a position that many scientists found outrageous.
Protest against Senate's introduction of full fees for local undergraduate students 1997
On 7 April 1997, students protested against Senate's consideration of a proposal to introduce full fees for a restricted number of local undergraduate students, to take effect in 1998. Student Charles Firth broke through a plate glass window during the meeting which had been moved to the Vice-Chancellor's office. An adjourned meeting was held on 22 April.
'Our Education is Not for Sale' rally 2001
On 5 April 2001, thousands of students took to the streets in a national day of action called by the National Union of Students. Students and supporters demanded an end to corporate control of universities, a liveable income for all, an end to government funding cuts and the abolition of up-front fees.
In Sydney students rallied at Victoria Park then marched into the city.
Protest against Senate's consideration of raising HECS fees 2003
On 7 July 2003, students protesting against raising HECS fees (a proposal of the Nelson Review of Higher Education) prevented entry to the Senate Room and the Senate meeting was moved to General Lecture Theatre 1. However demonstrators prevented continuation of the meeting and had to be removed by police, with the meeting being adjourned to the following morning.
Protest against Senate's 'in principal' support for increased University fees 2004
On 5 April 2004, students who were objecting to the University Senate's 'in principal' support for an increase to University fees blockaded the doors of the building where the meeting was due to be held. The meeting was held on 7 April.
Student activism regarding Voluntary Student Unionism 2005 - 2006
As late as 2005 some commentators saw federal legislation introducing Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), a policy under which membership of – and payment of membership fees to – university student organisations is voluntary, as the culmination of struggles in the 1970s.
On 28 April 2005, University of Sydney students joined thousands of university students to march through Sydney to protest at the Federal Government's plans to introduce VSU (voluntary student unionism).
Read about the Rally.
Read the then Vice-Chancellor's statement on VSU, 12 December 2005.
Students held a rally before the Senate meeting on 14 August 2006 at which the Vice-Chancellor's proposal for funding to SUPRA and SRC, which the student Presidents supported, was to be considered. The student Presidents addressed Senate regarding their concerns that the commitment include some in-kind support.
Read 'University of Sydney pledges $millions for student activities'.
SUPRA's barbecue on 19 September 2006.