From July 1 the Howard Government will hold a majority in both Houses of Parliament, giving the Liberals an unhindered position to implement their right-wing policy agenda. Brendan Nelson, the Federal Education Minister who brought us tertiary fee increases of up to 35% last year, is looking to complete his plan of neoliberalising universities and TAFEs into a money making ‘user pays’ system.
But to do this, Nelson needs to crush the first line of defence for student services – the student organisations that provide them. This anti-student legislation has been euphemistically entitled ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ (VSU). Despite its rhetoric of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom of association’, it aims to strip such bodies of their funding, leaving those who rely on support services on campus (such as counseling, childcare, employment and legal services) to foot the bills.
The Liberals are playing on the poverty of many students by indicating that VSU would drop the current level of Amenity Fees, because such money would no longer be going to the student associations. However, at the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee that met with Nelson on November 10, 2004, many VCs showed a concerned understanding that it is the student unions that provide the services on campus, and that such an attack might leave these costs with the university and TAFE administrations as opposed to the unions. Nelson responded that the Government would be willing to allow the imposition of new mandatory fees, so long as they did not go to student organisations.
Nelson’s aim is to take control of higher education away from State Governments, and place them into a Federal ‘deregulation’ (privatisation) scheme. He plans to remove the $50,000 cap on loans to encourage more upfront fee places, shifting the right of further education for all, into a system for those who can afford it. Since the implementation of the HECS increases last year, university applications fell by 8% in Western Australia, 4% in South Australia and Queensland, and 3% in New South Wales.
Under the Howard Government there has been a 26% decrease in real funding for university students, and they will not hesitate to impose fresh layers of fees to pay for the privatisation of our student services. VSU is not about choice for students, it is about removing the right of education for all, and about removing the right of students to have an organised political voice outside their campus.
Student unions have a long history of progressive activism in Australia, such as with their leading role against the Vietnam War. This attack will leave student organisations castrated and powerless, not only against cuts in student services, but also as the voice of students in the community at large.
To fight the VSU we must begin organising in a united front with all those who oppose the attacks on our services and our unions. This includes the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) who are also under attack from the Howard Government’s reactionary politics.
We must defend and extend the student services provided by our student organisations, but we must also realise that the VSU is a political attack against students. Student unions – where we can actively participate in and democratically debate and discuss the issues that affect our lives – are the most important bodies for all students. Crucially, they provide the structures for us to be able to defend our rights and services, and enable us to play an organised, active and progressive role in the community at large.
– Hands off our Unions!
– For democratic, fighting unions that provide quality services and represent all students
– Free education for all – opposition to all privatisation of education, HECS and full fee paying places
– For a 24 university strike of students and staff to oppose Federal Government attacks on student and trade unions
By Greg Bradshaw