The Menzies Institute opened on Thursday November 18 at the University of Melbourne despite student unions protesting against it.
According to the ‘Stop the Liberals’ Facebook page, the “Liberal Party thinktank was christened with a recorded speech from Prime Minister Scott Morrison” and “an in-person homage to Menzies by Education Minister, Alan Tudge”.
Five student unions and some staff members at the University of Melbourne were against the Commonwealth-funded Menzies Institute opening at the Parkville campus this month. Earlier, a September 15 rally organised by student unions was cancelled. The rally was supposed to be replaced with a political debate between the Socialist Alternative Club and the University of Melbourne’s Liberal Club. But the Liberal students, according to the union’s ‘Stop the Liberals’ Facebook page, didn’t attend the scheduled debate.
The Menzies Institute is directly linked to a rightwing thinktank, The Menzies Research Centre, and has also received donations from public figures like former Sky News commentator, Alan Jones.
The Coalition gave the University of Melbourne $7 million in December 2017. And $500,000 in donations was given to refurbish a section of the Old Quad Building where the institute is now housed.
The Socialist Alternative created an online open letter to be signed by anyone who opposed the Menzies Institute’s opening.
It not only had signatures from University of Melbourne students and staff, but also from students and union members at other universities, including the University of Sydney and RMIT.
Chris Giddings, a general representative for RMIT University Student Union (RUSU) is one of the signatories on the online open letter.
“At RMIT, we’ve been able to pass a motion [that] condemns the Menzies Institute on RUSU, but I think there’s a long fight to go, and I think that the next step is actually to involve more students in that campaign against the Menzies [Research] Centre, to be able to get the word out, and to be able to do the groundwork,” they said. Mr Giddings said it was difficult to spread the word about the Menzies Institute to RMIT students due to the campuses having been closed. They said those who do know about it are outraged. Their plan is to possibly announce in class why students should oppose the institute as well as email them about it.
“These are just think tanks buying their way onto campuses. It sets a precedent that universities will sell off education to the highest bidder,” Mr Giddings said.
The president of the University of Melbourne’s Liberal Club, Henry Kerr said an institute named after a “white man from the 1960s who was very pro-Britain” mightn’t align with the unions’ views.
“What I would like those student unions to understand is that currently there are no centre-right or conservative thinktanks or institutes at [the University of] Melbourne at all,” Mr Kerr said.
“Secondly, I would like them to realise that Menzies is worthy of respect and admiration, and an honest account of his legacy, and that means the good and the bad.”
He said there needs to be a “more civil and open discourse” between the student unions and the pro-Menzies Institute students, and that’s only possible when free speech is allowed.
“I don’t think students [will] pay that much attention to academic pieces that will come out from a university institute that’s staffed by Alan Jones and Peta Credlin. I don’t think that they’ll have that much sway,” he said.
Zoe Ranganathan, the president of the National Union of Students said the opening of the institute is an “ill-timed move”.
She would’ve liked the university to have used the $7 million funding to instead save jobs and courses that were cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think having an institute that is specifically called ‘the Menzies Institute’ will change the nature of Melbourne University as being seen where we can, where students and staff can freely critique political ideas and whatever’s going on in current politics,” she said.
University of Queensland Professor of Politics and Public Policy, Katharine Gelber wrote about the Menzies Institute for The Conversation back in July.
She said students are opposing the institute because the federal government who’s funded it has increased fees for university courses such as degrees in the humanities and social sciences.
“It is entirely unsurprising that student unions are suspicious of the Liberal Party wanting to fund endeavours with universities that are couched in a particular ideological viewpoint in the face of this broader series of attacks on universities’ independence,” she said.
“This kind of side deal where an institute is set up. This isn’t the core role of the universities, this is a distraction from the broader funding problems that universities are facing.”
She, however, welcomes any new libraries, museums or research hubs on university campuses that the Menzies Institute features.
“The only time that influence might become negative is if the Menzies Institute were to ‘overstep’, and by that, I mean encroach on academic freedom. So, if they’re not encroaching on academic freedom, then they will be of benefit.”
Photo: Chris Samuel