THE campaigners rove the circular lawn's perimeter slapping small wads of paper in their palms. They're lurking in the cool, dusty shadows by the concrete stairs, poised to shove a campaign leaflet into your hands. One pamphlet promises to fight for a bulk-billing medical centre. Another commits to setting up a radio station.
This is the ferociously competitive and often dirty world of student elections. This year more is at stake than ever. The reason? La Trobe University's proposed restructure of its humanities and social sciences faculty.
University management sparked a student revolt when it announced plans to cut a host of humanities subjects - including gender, sexuality and diversity studies and Indonesian - earlier this year.
The university has since relented to a degree. It will retain Indonesian, and gender studies might be taught only as a minor stream. Yet the cuts have still dominated the elections.
Student council president Clare Keyes-Liley is contesting her third election, this time as a National Union of Students delegate. She says this campaign has been the most competitive, which she attributes to the humanities restructure. ''We've never had three tickets running before,'' she says.
La Trobe vice-chancellor John Dewar is yet to sign off on the restructure, but according to some estimates, up to 370 subjects, such as religion and spirituality, will be lost. The university argues it will still offer about 560 subject choices - comparable to many other humanities faculties at universities in Victoria - but says it must reconcile a $4.3 million gap in the faculty's budget.
Keyes-Liley says students across the political spectrum, from Sex Party members to Liberals, are united in their opposition to the cuts. But they disagree about how students should respond.
''I think it's made people realise that what is happening in higher education is in their backyard. Unfortunately it's really hard to get people engaged in stuff unless it's actually happening to them.''
According to La Trobe's website, the gender course examines the relationship between sexuality, ethnicity, class, disability, age and identity.
Program convener Carolyn D'Cruz says women's studies was formally introduced at La Trobe in the late '80s. However, feminist academics had been incorporating women's studies in their classes informally since the '70s. Keyes-Liley fears she may be among the last students to undertake gender studies as the major field of study within an arts degree if the current proposal proceeds. ''There is no other major of its kind in Australia … There's a huge focus on indigenous Australians and a huge focus on queer theory.''
She believes courses such as art history may be headed for the same fate as gender studies.
The National Tertiary Education Union has challenged the university's plan to make 41 jobs redundant. A hearing at Fair Work Australia is scheduled for next week. University management declined to comment because the matter is before the courts.
La Trobe Institute for Human Security director Dennis Altman, one of the university's most prominent academics, says it is no surprise students vehemently oppose the cuts. ''They won't just do any arts degree. They want certain things that La Trobe has built a reputation in.''
Altman believes the humanities controversy at La Trobe reflects the pressures facing universities across Australia. A recent decline in enrolments from international students, whose fees prop up universities' finances, has added to the tertiary sector's budgetary strain.
Sydney University and the Australian National University have recently revealed plans to cut staff in some departments.
''Universities are in a very difficult position in a country where there's increasingly this belief that higher education is training for a profession rather than giving people a set of general skills they can use in all sorts of ways through their lives,'' Altman says. ''That, to me, is the biggest problem.''
The university argues dwindling enrolments and sliding retention rates have made some subjects unsustainable.
Altman rejects suggestions that La Trobe's management is motivated by a malicious disregard for humanities. ''What looks like savage cuts is also an attempt by them to save the faculty going into a period of uncertainty. It's not mean, nasty people who want to destroy critical thinking.''
Melbourne University English professor Ken Gelder has been among the vocal critics of La Trobe's intention to scale back its humanities faculty. He is suspicious of the university's assertion that student numbers are declining. Gelder believes universities are encroaching on TAFE territory by focusing on vocational qualifications at the expense of the arts. He argues humanities students learn about ethics, critical thinking and how to build relationships, which are important skills in the workplace. Teaching gender studies is crucial if Australian workplaces are to eradicate sexism, he says.
Out in the Agora - the centre of La Trobe's Bundoora campus - Keyes-Liley blends into the campaigning tribes.
Pollen mixes with the constant waft of cigarette smoke. Banners with handpainted slogans hang from rails, screaming ''no arts cuts''. Campaigners take turns manning the entrance to a small cafeteria, the last chance to influence voters before they wander inside to cast their ballots in purple and white cardboard booths.
This year more than 2000 students are expected to vote in La Trobe's student elections. Beneath the veneer of civility, Keyes-Liley says campaigners engage in subtle tactics of intimidation.
''If a campaigner is identified as being a good campaigner they generally have someone following them around from another ticket,'' she says. ''They like to do men on women to psych them out a little bit.''
Keyes-Liley, who belongs to the left-leaning Standup! ticket, admits all the groups engage in ''following'' to some degree. But the politicking also gets personal.
Some students have used Facebook to pressure Keyes-Liley to resign because they believe she is not representing them fairly against the humanities cuts. She has also been threatened with sexual violence online. She accepts hurt feelings come with the job, but points out the previous president, a man, was never threatened in such violent manner.
Christopher James McKay, presidential candidate for the Action! ticket, maintains a cool veneer amid the circling campaigners. With blond hair and a deep voice, McKay has the air of an actor who stepped off a surf movie set and stayed in laid-back character. His ticket is a peculiar conglomerate of seemingly irreconcilable political views. ''I'm a Greens voter and I'm in the Sex Party at La Trobe. Half the ticket's basically Sex Party. We've got a few Liberals … We've got independents from overseas as well,'' he says.
He agrees that students generally oppose the university's plans for humanities. But he believes the opposition has been too disruptive - particularly the open day protest last month in which students cornered the vice-chancellor, who was forced to escape through an underground tunnel.
Stop the HUSS Cuts presidential candidate Danica Cheesley says the faculty restructure has attracted many first-time candidates. ''Opposition to these cuts and involvement in the campaign against them is really what's brought a lot of the members on our ticket together,'' she says.
But Altman believes humanities are under threat at many Australian universities because of financial pressure. ''The rich, established universities, which have considerable investments and resources, can obviously weather the storm more easily,'' he says. ''The rest of us are struggling.''
Benjamin Preiss is Higher Education Reporter.