1969 was a memorable year. Woodstock promoted peace and love, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and the war in Vietnam was dividing the country. It was also memorable as the year that the Western Australian Institute of Technology created a guild to represent its students. As the Student Guild celebrates its 40th birthday, one of the students involved at the very start looks back on a very different student experience than most.
Peter Quinn was Vice-President and then President of the Student Guild in the early 1970s. Reflecting on his time studying social sciences at WAIT, the now 59-year-old recalls the issues faced by students of the era.
‘Well, at about that time a lot of young guys were called up if you failed: you were conscripted into the army. So there was an incentive there not to fail of course,’ he laughs.
With the Vietnam War raging, Peter acknowledges WAIT’s Bentley campus was a far more politically charged environment than it is today, due to a quickly growing student population and also the material being taught to many students.
‘Some of the stuff that was being taught was the Marxist theories of the day and social linguistics, so these were indicators towards activism,’ Peter says.
A clear example of how politically active the students were was the time Peter was arrested after attending an anti-apartheid rally. Sitting in the lock up at three in the morning, Peter began talking with his fellow protesters who had also been taken in by police.
‘I was there with these guys I didn’t know… turns out they were all WAIT students,’ he remembers.
It was this largely idealist student population, then numbering around 10, 000, that Peter represented when he became Guild President in 1972. In the spirit of the times, the Guild took their defiant, activist approach towards world issues of the time, and applied it to university matters that affected students.
The result saw students taking a stand against issues deemed unfair. When cafe’s on campus suddenly raised prices, students boycotted them and ate food from caravans supplied by the Guild until prices dropped. When there was a strike which limited the library’s opening hours just before exams, the students had a sit-in and refused to leave until opening hours were extended.
‘I remember sitting with Norm Dufty, who was the Acting Director of WAIT, and negotiating at around half past 10 at night out by the pond in front of Hayman Theatre, with students sitting around with rugs and candles,’ Peter remembers with a smile.
Peter is quick to praise the WAIT administration of the time, which gave the students somewhere to run the student body by backing the tender on the first guild building, and also gave the students a forum to air their grievances by providing the Student Guild with two chairs on the institute council. Peter says the fledgling guild would have struggled to make an impact without this open-mindedness at board level.
‘It probably would have taken a lot longer, and we probably would have had ended up having disputes like those going on at Flinders Uni, where there were long occupations of administrative buildings, and Melbourne Uni where the cops burst in because there were people occupying the place. That was because they couldn’t get traction for their debates at the University council level.’
Today the Guild has new obstacles to contend with. A prominent issue is Voluntary Student Unionism, which now gives students the option of not paying a compulsory fee to become a guild member, a development which has caused thee Guild to lose a large chunk of its income.
An opponent of VSU, Peter urges students not to underestimate what the Guild offers to campus life with its contributions to various political, social, and religious, sports groups and clubs. But he also puts the onus on the Guild’s ability to represent its members.
‘The better you can represent people’s interests, the more you’ll be able to sustain the compulsory fee argument,’ he says.
‘But personally I believe it’s a fee that’s attached to being a student; it’s one of those costs of being a student. It’s part of the whole “student life” thing.’
In an inner-city café near his office where he works as a senior advisor for CPR Communications and Public Relations, Peter is hard-pressed to name one particular highlight from his time as student. After a lengthy pause, he says his main source of satisfaction came not only from acquiring things you can touch.
‘There was the tangible stuff like guild buildings, grants and such. But the intangibles… a lot of students were straight out of school. So just demonstrating and showing to students: “you can make a difference”, “you can get involved, become a member of the Guild or one of the clubs”.’
‘So I guess it was the intangibles that were important to me.’