Student publications in Australia are a soapbox from which young adults find their voice, values and occupation. This often raw student media has fostered a strong tradition, passion and community of emerging journalists and content makers.
Typically independent of the university to which they are connected, they tend to be partially or fully funded through a student representative body such as a student union or guild. Editors are elected by the student body each year, and hire unelected staff as sub-editors, contributors and artists to aid in the production of the newspaper or magazine. Although editors receive little or no pay, and their publications have often been embroiled in controversy, these papers and magazines remain an integral part of campus culture and a launching pad for passionate and talented individuals. They take advantage of their autonomy and act as watchdog over their university community, often to the ire of university managements.
The first student magazine, Hermes, came into being in July 1886 due to the initiative and institutional loyalty of two University of Sydney undergraduates, Sydney Thompson and George Barbour. It has continued, focusing more on literary matters and with varying frequency, into the 21st century. In 1929, Honi Soit became the official organ of the Sydney University Undergraduates’ Association, and the two publications run in parallel.
In 1927, the Sports Union established the Melbourne University Magazine ‘to record the doings of all sides of university life’. It continued until 1979, but became more specialised after the launch of Farrago in 1925—the same year the University of Melbourne’s Labour Club was founded. Student newspapers reflected the ideological turbulence of these years, centred particularly on the Spanish Civil War and debates about censorship.
The Queensland University Magazine appeared soon after the university’s establishment in 1910, changing its name in 1921 to Galmahra. It was published three times per year until 1932, and annually between 1933 and 1950. A weekly, Semper Floreat, appeared in 1932. Whack-ho, a book of student songs, jokes and comments on lecturing staff, first appeared in 1935 and at subsequent Commemoration Day ceremonies.
At the University of Adelaide, the Varsity Ragge (1928–31) was succeeded by On Dit in 1932; a one-off issue of the Ragge in 1934 attempted to compete with the interloper. In 1936, On Dit’s campaign for a student president of the Adelaide University Union was successful.
The University of Western Australia’s Pelican began in 1929 as a weekly current affairs broadsheet, and evolved into a monthly newspaper. A decision by the Guild of Undergraduates to revive student processions and stunts led to the publication of a satirical newspaper, SrussSruss, in September 1931. The material was condemned as obscene on the front page of the Sunday Times. The guild published another edition in 1932, laying the foundations for PROSH’s tradition of satire and smut. What became Togatus was launched at the University of Tasmania in 1931.
At their inception, student publications were typically two to four page broadsheet publications published weekly during the academic year. Some stopped printing during World War II due to newsprint restrictions, and then returned in tabloid format.
These chronicles of campus life created a training ground for journalists, writers, artists and politicians, including Cyril Pearl, Alan Moorehead, Donald Horne, Brian Fitzpatrick, Jack Linsday, P.R. Stephensen, Max Harris and L.F. Crisp.
With the founding of new universities after the war came publications including Woroni (Australian National University, 1950), Tharunka (NSW Institute of Technology/ University of New South Wales, 1953), Opus (University of Newcastle, 1954), Lot’s Wife (Monash University, 1964), Rabelais (La Trobe University, 1967), Unit (Queensland University of Technology, 1967) and Arena (Macquarie University, 1968).
At the University of New South Wales in the early 1960s, Tharunka was the mouthpiece—and weapon—of the new Faculty of Arts. In 1961, the newspaper demanded that the vice-chancellor resign and that the university be the subject of a royal commission; this was too much for the Student Union itself and the issue was suppressed. University management was bombarded by parents—especially fathers protective of their student daughters—concerned about sexual and blasphemous content.
With increasing student activism centred on the Vietnam War, apartheid, women’s liberation, gay rights, Aboriginal land rights, nuclear energy, the environment and Watergate, many student newspapers were radicalised. On 14 March 1968, On Dit brought out a special orientation issue supporting a large student demonstration against the Playford Coalition government’s gerrymander. The editorial on 22 March, flanked by an article by Professor W.G.K. Duncan on ‘Democracy’, was devoted to the alleged torture of a Vietnamese girl. Another special issue, on 17 June, centred on Australia’s treatment of Aborigines.
In Melbourne, ASIO spies were said to congregate around the office of Lot’s Wife. The newspaper’s radical influence spread beyond Monash University. In 1970, conservative Catholic and other Christian students at Monash countered with Wot’s Wife.
That year, the Australian Union of Students (AUS) was formed, signalling a greater commitment to unified student representation and activism. During this period, as student newspapers increased in size and therefore workload, editors were paid a small allowance or honorarium. By the early 1970s, this meant a tabloid size publication for most student publications, with an active print run of 4000 to 8000 copies. The shift from hot-metal typesetting to web offset transformed student publications and opened the floodgates to last-minute paste-ups to fool censors.
At Flinders University the Empire Times, the only student newspaper in the country to own its own printing press, was launched in 1969. Extracts were read out in parliament, with politicians describing it as ‘pure pornography’, part of ‘an evil in our society’.
As the 1970s advanced, however, some of the fervour of Australia’s student newspapers subsided. By May 1976, Semper Floreat was inviting contributions and reminiscences from the heroic student radicals of the earlier years, under the heading ‘The Rise and Fall of Student Consciousness’.
In the 1980s, many university campuses saw the student left under assault from the right, with some student politicians and universities looking to minimise unfavourable coverage of student-run and university-run ventures. The AUS collapsed in 1984 and was replaced by the National Union of Students (NUS).
The 1990s saw a change in production with the introduction of desktop publishing. The technology was evolving from the arduous process of Stanley-knife layout stuck together with a waxing machine to Macintosh publishing. Layout and graphic design gained momentum and student media shifted once more, visually, into a do-it-yourself collage style. The uptake of desktop publishing and all that it promised did not slow the values of student publications.
A prime example occurred at the University of Adelaide. In March 1991, Maria O’Brien wrote a controversial piece for On Dit about the severe misogyny she had experienced during two years at St Mark’s College. In September, a 21-year-old female student at the residential college was assaulted and murdered by one of the male students. The tragic episode pointed to the forthrightness of both the author and publisher of the On Dit article.
Perhaps the most referenced controversy in recent years occurred in 1995, when Rabelais published an article entitled ‘The Art of Shoplifting’. There was a public outcry, with representatives of major retail chains and local police condemning the publication. The editors defended and explained the article in terms of raising issues about the pattern of wealth distribution in Australian society, questioning the sanctity of private property, and highlighting the inadequacy of financial support for students. The Rabelais editors were prosecuted for ignoring a ban on publication issued by Victoria’s Chief Censor. In a show of solidarity, seven other student publications reprinted the article: Arena, Honi Soit, Semper Floreat, Vertigo (University of Technology, Sydney), Catalyst (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), No Name (Victoria University of Technology) and Metior (Murdoch University). The authorities did not target the editors of these newspapers, and charges against the editors of Rabelais were ultimately dropped.
Notable editors of student newspapers after the war included Bob Ellis, Clive James, Richard Walsh and Laurie Oakes (Honi Soit); Geoffrey Blainey, Lindsay Tanner and Christos Tsiolkas (Farrago); Michael Leunig (Lot’s Wife); Humphrey McQueen and Julianne Schultz (Semper Floreat); John Bannon, Julian Disney, David Penberthy and Nick Xenophon (On Dit); and Kate Ellis (Empire Times).
As the 20th century drew to a close, the internet made production faster and easier, but also created a more chaotic environment. Technological changes enabled some publications to move online and abandon publishing in print.
When Voluntary Student Unionism was introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2006, student publications were starved of funding from student fees. In 2007, Express Media, designed to provide opportunities for young people in writing and media, began to host an annual conference, NEWS (National Editors Workshop and Skillshare), in Melbourne. It continues to provide the only sustained support for student editors.
BRIDGET GRIFFEN-FOLEY and STEPHANIE WALKER