Labor’s $2.8 billion of cuts to university education provoked student demonstrations around the country on federal budget day – May 14. The demonstrations were the best held by students in many years and showed the potential to rebuild a fighting student movement.
By Kirk Leonard, Socialist Party
Almost three decades of education counter-reforms by both major parties underpin the Gillard government’s latest attack on education. Labor abolished free tertiary education in 1989 and since then all of the changes made to higher education have been about transforming it from a public service into a commodity. Both Labor and the Liberals are pushing the same agenda of marketisation, albeit with some minor stylistic differences, as they seek to represent their big business backers.
Labor is giving the university chiefs all the excuses they need to raise course fees. University management lobby group, Universities Australia, says funding will be down $17 billion over the next ten years as a result of Labor’s plans. Labor is also converting part of student Centrelink payments from grants into loans and scrapping the ability to receive a discount on course fees paid early. The results will be students being forced to pay more. At the same time jobs will be put at risk and there will be a decrease in the quality and quantity of teaching time.
In response the National Union of Students (NUS) called the May 14 ‘national day of action’ under pressure from student activists. The NUS did not explicitly endorse a student strike, though many protests across the country were billed as strikes. Rallies of several hundred took place in Sydney and Perth and some smaller protests took place in other cities. By far the biggest protest was held in Melbourne where more than 3000 people participated in a central protest rally and march. High school students also joined this demonstration on the initiative of the Socialist Party.
While these protests were modest they were definitely a good step forward. The potential to redevelop a dynamic, combative student movement was proven to exist. Student activists should register this in a positive and enthusiastic way.
Unfortunately though, indications are that the potential around this struggle will not be fully seized upon. Key figures in the NUS are already attempting to de-escalate the campaign. The NUS at the moment is dominated by the ALP and these people are putting what see as the electoral prosects of their party ahead of the movement.
Labor domination of student politics needs to be challenged at every opportunity and ultimately replaced by students organised around democratic socialist ideas.
Disappointingly, though not unexpectedly, the leadership of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) have also failed to show a real lead in the fight against the cuts. They refused to make a serious appeal to their members to participate in the May 14 protests. Industrial action that coincided with the student action would have been a powerful step forward, but it wasn’t taken up.
All that was mustered was an attempt to funnel anger toward the Greens’ electoral campaign. The Greens for their part have mouthed some opposition to the cuts but have in reality propped up the ALP government for the past 3 years. They have no alternative to the capitalist market and have voted for every ALP budget in this parliament, cuts and all.
NTEU members should reject their leadership’s timid approach. University staff must fight for much bolder strategies including stop work action and the building of a political alternative to the pro-cuts parties.
Defeating these cuts whether they are implemented by Gillard or Abbott is entirely possible if a fighting strategy is adopted. A nationwide 24-hour strike of students and staff, with the aim of shutting down the universities, should be the next step – anything less will be a step back for the campaign. At the same time student and staff unions need to campaign for a socialist model of education that is well funded, free and fully accessible to all.
Come along to the next action in Melbourne:
High School student strike – Our education is not for profit!
$2.8 billion cut from universities, $300 million cut from TAFE, 223 public schools closed since 2000. Its time to fight back! Education is a right, not a privilege.
Meet at 2pm June 28 outside the State Library, Swanston Street Melbourne CBD.