Impact Blog

Examining the impact of Australian university student protest

August 2022

La Trobe University PhD candidate Portia Dilena is tracing the Australian university student movement from 1950 to 1975. In doing so, she is hoping to show the continuity within the movement extending outside the radical 1960s but also examine the impact it had on national and international developments.

Portia’s research documents the developments within the broad movement including examining the issues covered by students, their protest methods, and their ideology. Its research with a particular focus on the role of emotions and oral history.

While the Australian student movement is relatively well-documented, according to Portia much of that material is authored by ex-activists in memoirs or their own writing. Her PhD thesis ‘Australian university student protest, 1950-1975’ draws on these sources but also involves interviews with the activists themselves.

Portia’s primary sources include more than 20 interviews conducted across Australia with student activists from the period. This focus on oral records affords different analytical dimensions to the research while also performing an important archival function.

“As an outsider I am able to apply a more critical lens to the history and explore avenues that the ex-participants themselves may not be willing or able to do,” she says. “For example, the role of emotions, and the continuity within the movement dating back to the early 1950s.”

Examining and sharing these stories plays an important role in helping understand the present-day operation of Australian universities and student protest. “For example, [they help us understand] why universities have continuous examination throughout the semester, and why the student movement focuses on the issues that it does,” Portia says.

“I am lucky in that the protagonists of this history are still alive, active, and are willing to share their story. It is important to record their stories so that they are not lost over time.”

Oral records are a rich form, one offering an important counterbalance to other archival sources. “These oral histories can then be used to complement or challenge the written archive, uncover untold aspects of this history, and provide a new resource for future researchers and projects,” Portia says.

The interview process also offers an innate flexibility. “Oral history is also useful in that I can cater the questions to suit my research; for example, if I have an interest in emotions theory, I can ask questions that focus on that,” she says.

Portia’s PhD research aims to contribute to a greater understanding of the longer history of student activism outside of the peak, and much documented, ‘radical sixties’ (1966-1972). “This contribution will add to our histories on Australian society post-war, showing the impact of cultural and political change on individuals and their actions,” she says.

The interviews recorded and complied by Portia will be donated to an archive at the completion of her PhD project. “I hope that the impact of this research will be for people outside of academia to become more interested in our shared national history, but also the impacts and the importance of an active political engagement – whether that be through protest or not,” she says.

Portia’s research journey has also diverged into the professional sphere. In 2019, she took time out from her PhD to work as a Primary Research Officer for the Charles Sturt University project ‘Securing the Historical Landscape’ in Albury-Wodonga.

For Portia, the project involved extensive archival research on the history of the Albury-Wodonga Study Centre of the Riverina College of Advanced Education (now Charles Sturt University) as well as conducting interviews with past students.

Her first experience as a professional historian provided many useful insights. “I learnt a range of new skills related not only to working in a professional environment, but also in archiving and working with outside stakeholders. These are skills that I can add to my resume and will help me in future roles,” she says.

While related, the history she researched was not directly linked to her PhD. This reality had both pros and cons according to Portia. On the upside, it allowed her to expand her area of expertise. Countering that was the fact that she can’t directly use the research to further the completion her PhD.

The research she undertook during that time has certainly generated public interest. Since returning to Melbourne, Portia has continued to engage with the project through the publication of an academic article, a piece for The Conversation on how higher education paved the way for the women of Albury-Wodonga, as well as a couple of radio interviews.

The experience and exposure have been a positive according to Portia. “This has extended my academic profile and given me experience in public engagement which are all tools that I can then use for my PhD research and future career,” she says.

The experience of publishing during her candidature, which for Portia has also included a book Achieving Higher Education in Albury-Wodonga, has been a mixed one.

“I am still not sure whether it is important to do during your candidature. On the one hand it gets your name out there, shows your ability to produce academic work, and public engagement. Yet on the other hand, it takes time and energy away from your PhD, which can be detrimental when you have time restrictions on candidature and scholarships,” she says.

“I do no regret publishing at all, they are some of my proudest moments and definitely make my research seem more real, concrete and lasting.”

In addition to her research and publishing activity, Portia also teaches into a few history subjects at LaTrobe. It’s an experience that brings many benefits.

“Undergraduates challenge you in ways that academics don’t necessarily do. They force you translate complex ideas and theories into non-academic language, expand your knowledge outside of your research area, and give you experience working for the university,” she says.

As to the challenging elements of the experience, Portia cites time management and maintaining confidence. On the first point, the duration and magnitude of a PhD and the need to self-direct time and effort has required a big shift in mindset and constantly trying different strategies.

With regards to confidence, the sense of imposter syndrome often emerges, “Even when you spend years researching a topic and have published on it, I still feel that I am not worthy or qualified enough to speak on it. However, the more I publicly engage with my research through conferences, publishing and teaching I realise that I actually do know A LOT and that my insights are valid,” she says.

Portia’s advice for those considering PhD study changes constantly, “One day I will be praising the PhD experience arguing that it was the best decision of my life, yet the next day I could be warning against it, saying how hard it is, how a lot of the work you do goes un-paid or under-paid and that the benefits are not plentiful.”

Despite that, undertaking a PhD is not a decision she regrets. She has found the greatest reward to be able to continually and actively learn. “You do not have to be doing a PhD or Masters to continue learning, but a PhD provides you the dedicated time to actively learn, and if you’re lucky enough to have a scholarship, they pay you to do it! This is such a privilege, and I am so lucky and grateful that I got this experience,” she says.

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