Where Did Foundation Day Go?

Did you hear about the time that UNSW students kidnapped an alligator from Taronga Zoo in 1964, and stuffed it into a cricket bag to be later collected from Kensington campus for a ransom? Or how, in 1961, a team of 20 UNSW students broke a world record by pushing a scooter non-stop from Melbourne to Sydney? Or how, in ’62, a group of UNSW undergrads snuck onto an American Battle Cruiser and activated the Chemical Warfare alarm?

Ever Heard of Foundation Day?

These shenanigans were all associated with one old-school UNSW tradition; Foundation Day. While most current students will have never heard of it, Foundation Day was an integral way for a young UNSW to set itself apart from other universities and establish an identity of its own. So, what better way for students to establish a reputation, than to run around causing chaos and pulling attention-grabbing stunts? The atmosphere was cheeky and irreverent, and often effective in getting attention.

In its golden age, Foundation Day was rife with alcohol-fuelled scavenger hunts, flour fights, games, races and daring pranks. Students held annual Foundation Day parades, parodying contemporary issues such as the sluggish construction of the then-unfinished opera house with their parade floats. Alongside the annual festivities, Tharunka published special Foundation Day editions and students would sell them to the public, with profits given to a chosen charity. They allowed the student body to have a sense of autonomy and purpose outside of their studies, hoping not just to get attention, but to make it for a good cause.

These special editions were nothing short of raunchy. A read of the old Foundation Day Tharunka issues finds pieces dripping with sexual overtones and radicalism, nudity splashed across the pages haphazardly; things which would make university officials clutch their pearls. Pure, uncensored student profanity. And so, Foundation Day and Tharunka were tied with the identity of a burgeoning university that had nothing to lose, and everything to prove. Foundation day celebrations began in 1961, with a slate of ways to garner the public’s attention. UNSW’s Vice Chancellor from 1992 to 2002, John Niland, was the director of these first Foundation Day celebrations as a student; “We had a sense of needing to demonstrate we were a real university, that’s not something that worries the student body these days.”

Vice Chancellor John Niland participating in Foundation Day festivities (1994)

Horror at the Harbour Bridge

As part of the celebrations, students draped a 3-story tall banner from the Sydney Morning Herald building advertising the ‘Sydney Moaning Tharunka’ edition; the front-page story exclaiming that the Harbour Bridge had been stolen overnight. Niland reminisces: “Students got up early, went over to the North Shore – just the highway leading up to the Harbour Bridge, and handed the newspaper through car windows, saying “there’s a real problem down the road!” You only needed a small group of motorists for there to be a reaction, and there was!”.

One of the most attention-grabbing Foundation Day pranks from that year was when students kidnapped Brian Henderson, an Australian TV and radio personality, on live television show Bandstand. As recounted by Tharunka editor, Richard Neville, “The Bandstand stunt was to promote Foundation Day and it achieved that because it got front page story status in the Sunday Mirror [a tabloid in the 60’s]. I managed to get myself interviewed on Bandstand about Foundation Day.” As he described, “halfway through the interview I gave a signal and these burly Commerce students all came up, grabbed Brian Henderson, and a couple of the Channel 9 bodyguards were pushed aside. He was put into a car and driven to Terrigal where a metallurgist friend had a fibro shack.

It was about seven or eight [in the evening], there were kegs of beer and a lot of uni students, and Henderson was having a ball. I think it was the most fun he had ever had. To him it’s his 60’s, the whole of the 60’s rolled into a three-hour party. We rang around the newspapers and ransomed him off for charity. We didn’t have any problems with the police because Henderson didn’t file a complaint. He was a complete gentleman. It was fun, but more than that we demonstrated that it could be done.”

The Sydney Moaning Tharunka (1961)

An Alligator?

The Foundation Day kidnappings weren’t limited to the human species– after all, it wouldn’t be a Foundation Day article without mentioning the time that students kidnapped a live alligator from Taronga zoo and proceeded to dump it into the swamp that formerly occupied the library lawn. According to the UNSW Archives, “Eighty students from a Biology class were used as a screen around the alligator pen, while the kidnappers scaled the fence. Most of the alligators responded by diving into their pool, but the slowest was left behind.”

Bernard D’Abrera, one of the kidnappers, described the scene; “Quick as a flash, one of us, John Kazis, sat on his head and tied a rope about his mouth before stuffing him into a cricket bag with tail and mouth poking out one end and half a chicken still locked between its jaws.” “The large group of students was able to provide camouflage for the one holding the bag – taking it through the turnstiles and back to the university. The kidnappers then called the Zoo to demand a ransom.” Foundation Day continued as a tradition with students taking the day off, parades and pranks right through the ‘70s. 1983 was the final year that a Foundation Day parade was held, and it went out with the typical foundation day chaos. Students unleashed themselves onto the city, throwing flour at each-other, and members of the public unlucky enough to be in the path of the procession.

The Alligator Prank (1964)


A student described the day, “We all assembled in Barker Street… and the flour fight started in earnest. Someone broke out the hose on the roof of Warrane College and drenched the procession as it turned the corner into Anzac Parade. .. As the procession moved into the built-up areas around Surry Hills and Paddington, rumours began flying around that the cops would step in and stop the rampage… every gay joint in Oxford Street got flour hurled through their front door. Angry shopkeepers with raised fists would advance upon the parade, then fall back puzzled. They couldn’t tell who threw the flour.” As part of Foundation Day 1987, UNSW students faked a chemical spill at Town Hall station. The stunt involved “44 gallons of coloured water and dry ice [spilled] down the tunnel of Town Hall station, complete with students posing as commuters gasping for breath and collapsing. Students outside then sold copies of Tharunka to panicked pedestrians who wanted to find out what had happened.”

In 1991, enterprising UNSW engineering students inadvertently cost emergency services $20 000 after they faked alien craters at La Perouse Beach using ‘shovels, sand and a kerosene compound.’ Authorities woke up to see these huge craters on the beach with a mysterious, unidentified material sitting in the middle of them. And of course, they freaked out about it. The area was sealed off, flood-lit and examined by bomb-squad and ballistic experts, with ambulance and fire squads on standby. The prank succeeded on making it onto the news stations, and the front page of the Telegraph. More good publicity for UNSW!

The Toxic Chemical Prank (1987)

The next year they toned it down by projecting a porno on George St. More recently, in 2012 Tharunka announced that UNSW SRC intended to buy the decommissioned Sydney Monorail, for student use on-campus. The perplexing and entirely false story was picked up as front page news by an unwitting Mx, and also made it onto ABC News Radio’s Drive with Sandy Aloisi.

To the news outlets’ credit, they did call up the SRC President Tim Kaliyanda to verify the story – and he lied, telling them that the bid was real. In 2014, Tharunka raised the alarm that students had stormed the UNSW Max Brenner store to protest the Israeli blockade of Gaza, due to the chocolate shop chain’s Israeli origins. Clearly, media outlets hadn’t learned their lesson from last time, because the Daily Telegraph published an article about the non-existent protest, whilst multiple reporters descended onto the scene in pursuit of clues, only to find an empty shop. But as the decade continued things felt… different.

“Mono…d’oh!” The Great Monorail Prank (2012)

Changing Culture

Foundation day appeared to possess less of the hallmark Foundation Day mischief, and more ‘Structured Fun™ organised by Arc, transformed into an affair largely contained in safe, on-campus events such as “free food, milkshakes, bungee jumping, obstacle course and games.” When Tharunka asked Arc CEO Shelley Valentine what happened to Foundation Day, she told us “2017 or 2018 was probably the last time we did quite a large activity [for Foundation Day] … We had amusement rides, live music, food trucks.” However, she recalled, ‘[student] engagement was so low.’ Shelley recalled that the culture had changed a lot in relation to big events on campus.

Apparently, when Foundation Day was in its heyday, ‘there was a lot of focus on alcohol.’ “I think if you’re gonna go and steal a crocodile, it’s probably [got something to do with being under the influence]”. She added, “the other challenge we had [was with timing] when we moved to Trimesters.” So, what else changed? How did we get here? Throughout the 80’s, government cuts to university funding forced unis to find alternative streams of income and begin to ‘operate like private businesses,’ according to Professor Richard Hil.

This focus on profit generation has led to things such as widespread casualisation of university staff, job cuts and wage theft, the merging of the ADA faculty, as well as the introduction of the widely unpopular trimester scheme. Hil also believes that this corporatisation is partly to blame for transforming today’s university campuses into barren wastelands of culture; “Venture onto any campus — even before the pandemic — and you’ll get a sense of what this means. There’s the appearance of hustle and bustle, of connection, but it’s all an illusion designed to mimic the hallowed halls of yesteryear, even though most campuses now resemble shopping malls rather than centres of learning.”

Unfortunately, if we look at online student experience polls, this musing likely isn’t far from reality. In 2019, after the introduction of Trimesters, only 63% of UNSW students rated their experience as ‘positive.’ In 2021, it still remained a discouragingly low 66.9%. Loneliness is a recurring theme discussed on popular UNSW social media pages, such as the UNSW Love Letters Facebook page. One student lamented that “UNSW is a profoundly lonely school. A familiar face here, an acquaintance there, but no ‘friends.’”

In 2006, voluntary student union (VSU) legislation gutted another cornerstone of university culture; Student Unions. These unions were pretty much in charge for running the social atmosphere at universities, as well as student services. Instead of SSAF, students would pay Union dues. However, VSU legislation made it optional for students to pay these union dues, essentially gutting the funding of the student unions and leading to their demise.

Foundation Day Pram Races (1968)

University Identity

The point is, Foundation Day was largely a student-owned and run affair, and strongly linked to the student union. The appeal of Foundation Day – other than being an excuse to run around causing chaos – was the ownership and control students had over the event. There was a sense of camaraderie… community, of making themselves and the university heard, and raising money for a good cause. This sense of ownership doesn’t really extend to the Foundation Days of recent times. This shift wasn’t just limited to Foundation Day festivities, but Tharunka as well.

Under the former Student Union, Tharunka had more freedom in terms of what it could publish. Historian Patrick James O’Farrell’s book ‘UNSW: a portrait,’ recalls how Tharunka was prone to publishing content so ‘sexual and blasphemous’ that it was met with ‘outraged parent protests.’ O’Farrell lamented, “The vice-chancellors were stuck with a public identification of Tharunka with the university’s name and image,” whether they liked it or not.

It was clear that, in terms of Tharunka content moderation, students largely had the final say – often to the despair of university officials. As a mouthpiece for student art, culture and political activism, this was yet another way the student body used to have direct control and ownership over the image that UNSW put out into the world. However, if you read the recent Foundation Day editions, there is a lacklustre sense of attempted irreverence; safe, socially palatable, nothing like its over-the-top predecessors.

It would seem as though sexual debauchery and radicalist views- while debatably truer to students’ natures- doesn’t make good PR. Today, UNSW has a well-established reputation. There isn’t really a need for students to run around pulling stunts to garner publicity. It’s the second largest university in NSW, and consistently places within the top 50 for international university rankings. With a reputation to uphold, UNSW has more to lose when they get marked with negative media attention. So, the ‘any publicity is good publicity’ approach of Foundation Day doesn’t really fly these days. The same goes for Tharunka.

It’s easy to say that Foundation Day died out simply because it became obsolete as UNSW’s reputation grew. But together with Tharunka’s decline, one might be left with the feeling that their slow, quiet demise has marked the death of something else – the student spirit, and a sense of control over our own university’s social atmosphere.

Photographic Material Courtesy of UNSW Archives