What Ever Happened to Tharunka?

On a stroll through campus, I passed by a stand holding copies of Tharunka. They were sitting there modestly, half taken. A spiderweb had literally formed across them. No more are the days where copies of Tharunka are flying off the racks, causing a stir with university administrators and students.

The docility of today’s Tharunka stands in direct contrast to its blisteringly anti-establishment and countercultural gusto of the ‘70s. As I picked a copy off the stand, I couldn’t help but wonder… what ever happened to Tharunka? I trawled through the archives, spoke with former editors and those who had known Tharunka throughout the years, and realised that it was a lot more complicated than I first thought.

All Work and No Play

One of those complications is how young people live now. Current students inhabit an entirely different university experience to that of previous generations. Inflation is at record-levels (7.3%) and renting for students is increasingly unaffordable. Cost of living issues form a significant part of most student’s lives, with many needing to stay with their parents to cope. In 2022 alone, rent jumped around 8%, electricity bills 20% and food prices 9%.

These cost-of-living pressures are doubly crippling for students, two-thirds of whom live below the poverty line – their mean annual income being only $18,634 according to Universities Australia. These numbers are an increase from previous generations of students. Students now have a cloud of financial stress that overshadows their time at university; they’re working more hours to pay for living expenses, and consequently reducing their time on campus. The reduced time at campus hasn’t been helped by a move towards ‘online-learning’ – a more cost-effective way for universities to run classes at the expense of in-person engagement and teaching quality.

University isn’t about being part of a learning environment anymore or trying new things like running a student newspaper. Now it’s about getting through it in one piece. A report on the First Year Experience in Australian Universities across two decades found that students were ‘less socially engaged in the university community, spent less time on campus, and more students tended to keep to themselves’. “Cost of living pressures have been significant for the students for the past ten years.

The way that students interact with university, student life and campus has changed. It’s increased the pressure on students”, Arc CEO Shelley Valentine says. “With every year that goes by, the need for students to get industry experience or internships, for exposure to external organisations happens earlier and earlier. The pressures for students to get that experience, coupled with delivering on their degree has meant that it’s changed the student experience.”

“We’ve seen a real contraction of the time that students are able to spend on campus. Students are pummeling all their classes into 1-2 days and then needing to work not just for money, but for experience too. That’s changed the way students engage.” In contrast, editors of student press during the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t need to face those pressures. Former Tharunka editor and activist Wendy Bacon touched on this, “We didn’t really have to work very much to be able to survive. That’s been a huge change. I don’t expect people to be doing what I did 50 years ago.” Former Honi Soit editor and Oz cofounder Richard Walsh also commented, “It didn’t weigh on us what we were going to do with our lives. There were fewer universities, if you were in a university, you were in a very privileged position, you were coming out into a world that needed graduates.”

“We knew that having a degree meant having a meal ticket.” Cost-of-living pressures have impacted Tharunka two-fold: engagement with campus-life is reduced, thereby diminishing interest in on campus news, and fewer students being able to afford the opportunity to be student editors because of the measly pay. But rising financial stresses aren’t the only thing that has affected Tharunka and its relevance. The rise in corporatisation within the university sector has also meant a shift in the way students engage with the university administration, seeing it more as a sanitised service provider and training ground for industry, rather than a means to participate in a community of education.


Corporate Bleed-Out

For many, university isn’t simply about getting in, getting the degree, and getting out. It’s about the rich student and campus life, the ability to meet people who share similar interests, and to have a wide range of experiences. However, the rise of middle-management at universities, use of business practices and the disregard for academic staff is reflective of an increasingly corporate attitude within the sector. Universities are now pumping in as many students as possible through a stripped-bare university system whilst still trying to maintain the façade of outputting ‘qualified’, workplace-ready graduates.

With this concentration on student workplace development, extra-curricular engagement has lost its priority. “[University] culture has become even more corporate” says Anthony Levin, former editor of Tharunka in 2002. “I don’t think it’s at the feat of university administrations… it’s a phenomenon that’s national. There’s been increasing pressure on tertiary education. Governments defunding universities and universities feeling pressured to identify other income streams. Pressures in the sector have forced universities to look for other ways to become self-sufficient.”

Over the past 50 years, successive governments have squeezed the education sector. The seeming exponential growth of university enrolment has been met with declining public investment in proportion of GDP expenditure. In 1975 the government provided 1.5% of Australia’s GDP towards investment in the tertiary sector, now it’s less than half of that at 0.65% (the OECD average is 0.9%). This defunding of the university sector has taken place against the backdrop of a boom in student numbers through the introduction of HECS fees implemented during the Dawkins Reforms in higher education (a ‘Thatcher-like commodification of the tertiary education system’ as academic Michael Pusey calls them).

Because of this, universities needed to look towards other sources of revenue, like international students’ fees (which on average constitute 26.2% of all universities’ revenue), to cover their funding shortfalls. Now their objectives have become muddied – they focus on metrics of student satisfaction, collaboration with businesses and research output, in the aims of making them more appealing in the market of universities towards prospective consumers/students. Marketing budgets for universities have also ballooned, especially so for an image-obsessed UNSW having spent $14.4 million on marketing and advertising in 2021.

In an era where universities are so concerned with their public perception, Tharunka will naturally have difficulty being heard as a voice against the institution of UNSW. Vice-chancellors especially are responsible for maintaining that image. Academic Rebecca Boden argues that “Professional management functions have come to the fore in the pursuit of business objectives and VCs both see themselves and are seen by others, including governments… as chief executive officers.” This shift towards a corporate perception of Vice-Chancellors is clear in their disproportionate salaries; now around double what a prime minister makes, and easily surpassing the income of other tertiary staff.

The salaries are edging closer to those of CEOs rather than public servants. James Guthrie of the Macquarie Business School found that 12 VCs were paid over a million dollars in 2021, and this is even amidst University Chancellors Council last year pushing a voluntary code for greater transparency. Considering the growing casualisation and job insecurity of university staff, it’s difficult to justify increasing salaries of Vice-Chancellors. Research has shown that there is little connection between salaries and performance of Australian Vice-Chancellors.

Providing higher salaries to top administrators reveals a greater focus on middle-management and administration of university. Vice-Chancellors aren’t much different from the CEOs and executives that their salaries parallel who, as Benjamin Ginsberg points out are “engaged in constant spin designed to hide any shortcomings that they or their institution might have”. The move towards a more corporatised university sector has gone hand-in-hand with concerted efforts by previous Liberal governments to erode unions, as they did with Voluntary Student Unionism in 2005.

Farewell Unions, Hello Arc

Voluntary Student Unionism was a policy enacted by the Australian government in 2005, after years of rallying from the Liberal party to prohibit compulsory fees for student unions. What it meant was the end of a system of mandatory fees upon enrolment, all of which had gone to student unions for providing services, and instead, a system in which unions would need to market membership. It’s undeniably a bleed-over from corporate rationality that resulted in the defunding of their parent university administrations, and it necessitated student unions to become self-sufficient. Amongst this drive for self-sufficiency, priorities of unions changed – they needed to be more marketable for students and an effective service-provider, rather than provide a space for student autonomy.

The 1960s and 1970s flagged an opening up of tertiary education to a broader class stratum, with many more young people being afforded the opportunity to attend universities. This went hand in-hand with a growing movement in popular student unionism and political activity amongst younger generations. Student publications thrived on this, broadening their reach, and making a legitimate societal impact through challenges to obscenity and censorship laws. However, VSU reflected a part of the continuing movement by the Howard government to diminish the power of unions – this time in universities and under the guise of ‘freedom of association’.

Dominic Perrotet, NSW’s former Premier was a strong proponent of VSU during its implementation, arguing “through VSU, student organisations won’t be able to go their merry way and splurge money on protests”. The results? Student unionism was crippled, breeding political apathy amongst students. Nationwide, many student unions which had previously thrived no longer exist. For UNSW, VSU meant the consolidation of several student organisations like the Student Guild, UNSW Union, UNSW Sports Association, and the College of Fine Arts Students Association, into an entity called ‘Arc @UNSW Ltd’ (Arc).

The different nuances and overlapping functions were streamlined, but in the process, something was lost. Where Arc may still offer students opportunities to be on the Student Representative Council, or be editors of student newspapers, the previous student guild had “felt like a home for students, a place where students could have autonomy and be masters of their own destinies without interference from the university” comments Anthony Levin.

Although Arc’s Board of Directors now predominantly consists of elected students who are involved its ‘strategic direction’, former editor Kylar Loussikian, remarked the association still had “a structure to it, where it wasn’t really that student run, even though the chairperson of the organisation was a student… It was really just run in conjunction with the university” Since the introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) in 2011, issues relating to funding have slowly ameliorated, albeit, with Arc never quite operating at the same level of funding as previous unions had before it.

Of the $17,223,000 accumulated by UNSW through SSAF in 2021, only 32% went to Arc UNSW – this is in comparison University of Sydney, which collected $17,787,621, and 89% of that went to its multiple student associations. It’s telling of UNSW’s corporate rationality that it keeps such a large proportion of the SSAF for its own administration to carry out student services. The challenge of Arc’s funding agreement is that it is placed in a unique position in which it is a student organisation that is guaranteed funding by the university, whilst providing funds to a publication that is critical of that university – the danger of ‘biting the hand that feeds it’ looming behind decision-making.

The lingering effect of VSU however was in its depoliticisation of student life. Across the country we’ve seen various unions evolve into so-called ‘student’ organisations. But it’s a game of semantics. A student organisation no longer means an organisation run by students, for students. Now it means an organisation run by ‘adults’ who consult students. Counselled, rather than steered by students. These new student organisations seem to be more concerned with student ‘development’ opportunities than with giving students the opportunities to be masters of their own destinies. Arc itself eschews the label of ‘union’ out of concern of the unfavourable or even adversarial connotations of the word.

It more broadly reflects a concession to the Liberal Party’s movement to depoliticise universities and young people. Accepting that for some reason there are negative connotations with the label of ‘union’, is emblematic of the broader weariness towards trade unionism, evinced by declining participation rates over the decades. This carries over to Arc’s custodianship of Tharunka.

After VSU, Tharunka was published by Arc, incorporated under its Marketing section. Arc now has editorial control in its back-pocket and historically had added sections to the Tharunka Charter and Arc Regulations which stifled coverage of student politics unless “curated” by Arc Marketing, as reported by Honi Soit in 2018. Over the years it has reduced the budgets of the publication and moved from editorial elections to appointments, illustrating a move towards removing the political element from Tharunka.

On Arc

In 1985 Tharunka had an operating budget of $76,467. In 1990 it hit a peak of $192,761. In 2003 it reduced to $59,438. And as of 2022, the Tharunka team’s budget was $36,972. The figures speak for themselves, even without accounting for inflation. With Arc as Tharunka’s publisher post-VSU, the publications’ funding has diminished to be the lowest it has been since the ‘80s, with only three editions published a year and a smaller editorial team of four. It’s plain to see that Tharunka has lost its priority amidst the varying functions of Arc – comparing it even against the budgets of other university student newspapers, like Honi Soit and Woroni, Tharunka has substantially less money to work with. Alongside this, in 2015 Arc proposed to move Tharunka from elections to appointments for their editors.

The Managing Editor is now chosen by a selection panel which includes the SRC President, previous Managing Editor, Arc Chair and a Member of Arc. Applications are screened by Arc who also draft the questions and administrate the process. The 2015 Arc Annual Report outlined that “governance behind UNSW’s student newspaper Tharunka was adjusted to deliver greater alignment with Arc’s strategy”. This was likely in response to a controversy earlier that year which saw a co-editor, Brendan Byron deleting several articles from 2012 that were critical of him and his political affiliations. The reasons for the move were clear, Arc saw it as a way to relieve in-fighting and limit tension between editorial teams. But a consequence of it was that the political and democratic position held by student editors became depoliticised.

If students couldn’t pick the editors who represented their interests in Tharunka, why care about Tharunka at all? Osman Faruqi, Tharunka editor during 2013 spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the change and commented that being elected ‘‘gives editors and reporters a lot of freedom to dig in and look for juicy stories that students will really enjoy reading… If editors are appointed, it becomes a marketing exercise by the university, and students can smell a rat”.

An election-based system for editorships provided an accountability mechanism for the editors – that they bear the responsibility to hold the university accountable and write about what interested students. If they weren’t up to the task, they’d be booted the following year. In an appointment system, an editor can essentially continue to run as long as they ingratiate themselves with Arc and the selection panel.

Alongside imposing structural changes to Tharunka, Arc also has control of the publications’ student politics coverage, and often its approval process for articles delays their release. Any content that bears risk of ‘defamation, reputational damage or strategic harm’ needs to be approved not only by a publications co-ordinator, but Arc Marketing, Arc Legal and possibly even Arc’s CEO. With these restraints, timely coverage on university affairs is often stifled. With political reporting, in 2016 Arc pulled an article from Tharunka’s website and social media because it had reported on an SRC candidate who ran independently but was known to have Liberal Party affiliations.

Editor at the time Alicia D’Arcy commented on a post on social media in a personal capacity – however both the comment and the article were temporarily taken down for “concerns about the independence of the article”. D’Arcy wrote in response to this, “In an attempt to be apolitical and conflict averse, Arc has in fact made the very political decision to disallow honest reporting and its accompanying discourse”.

One wonders whether in the shuffle of things Arc often struggles to differentiate between impartiality and apoliticism. The editorial team successfully fought for the sections of the charter relating to political coverage to be changed following this incident, but Arc still retains final editorial control on student election coverage per s 2.5(iv) of the charter,” Arc reserves the right withhold approval for any reason”. Each successive year, Tharunka falls by the wayside, with any potential slip-ups making Arc tighten their editorial control over the publication.

I Still Remember You, Tharunka

After all is said and done, it’s clear why Tharunka’s legacy overshadows where it stands today. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Student publications are an incredibly powerful tool and training ground for young people to make an impact and have their voices heard, something that they can carry through for the rest of their lives. So, what can Tharunka do to change? There are a lot of ways that Tharunka can regain its relevance, but a clear path would be in asserting its independence as a publication.

ANU’s Woroni undertook a similar process over a decade ago, incorporating itself as ANU Student Media. Speaking to Honi Soit, Osman Faruqi suggested such a change: “The issue to me seems to be, the [SRC] pay your wages, as shit as they are, and that they are technically able to swipe your stories” “You’re never going to be able to create an entirely distinct community of student media people from the student politics people. As much as you can structurally separate the two, that seems to make sense to me.” The structure of having a student organisation or SRC controlling a publication fundamentally causes issues that will frustrate editors, like the imposition of prohibitive charters or risk averse publishers.

It’s a matter of differing priorities – an SRC and student organisation will have priorities apart from funding journalism that may be critical of them. With an independent student association committed to media and journalism, SSAF funding would be directly provided to a publication like Tharunka, not lost amongst the competing functions of a large student association. Tharunka wouldn’t need to have articles delayed endlessly by Marketing and Legal departments. Looking towards Woroni – the shift has clearly worked – they have 8 leading editors with dozens of sub-editors and designers able to distribute a larger amount of work more equally.

Their full budget for 2022 was $218,896. Tharunka doesn’t need to follow in Woroni’s footsteps, but the move shows the potential for student publications to achieve independence and really do something. A lot of journalists get their start in student media, but experience isn’t all its about. It’s about being able to be independent and make a change however small it may be. It’s about creating a space where you can be a master of your own destiny. To be stupid, to take risks, to be irreverent and be provocative. That’s what the spirit of Tharunka was and why it was able to tap into the counterculture of the ‘60s. So, now isn’t the time for Tharunka to rest on the laurels of its legacy but to make a change.

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives