Where to now for education campaign?
By Wendy Robertson
In the last two weeks of May, some of the largest national mobilisations against cuts to higher education since the 1980s free education campaign took place. Up to 27,000 people participated in rallies organised by the National Tertiary Education and Industry Union (NTEU) and the National Union of Students (NUS).
The whole higher education sector, including academics, general staff, students and the vice chancellors (VCs) took action, offering the prospect of a common campaign. The mobilisations demanded no cuts to higher education, no HECS increases and a 15% pay raise for academics and general staff.
Since then, however, the VCs have broken ranks. While opposing some funding cuts, many VCs agree with increases in HECS and fees. The VCs of the "group of eight" universities (Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Queensland, Western Australia, NSW, the Australian National University and Monash) see increases in fees as an answer to the funding cuts.
However, the alliance between the students and the NTEU has continued. The NTEU has called a national strike on August 1, which is being supported by student organisations, and NUS has called for actions on August 14, before the budget is bought down.
At a June 4 public meeting, organised by NUS and Resistance, general secretary of the NSW NTEU branch Adrian Ryan, president of NUS NSW John Noland-Neylan and Sarah Peart, a Resistance activist at Sydney University, discussed where to now for the education campaign.
Ryan explained that the NTEU's 15% pay claim started last October under a federal Labor government. The current federal education minister, Amanda Vanstone, wants to chop 12% of funds from education, a sector, he said, which has already had to deal with steadily decreasing funding levels.
"We had a short time to develop a strategy. The May 30 actions were the outcome of this. We were delighted at the participation of the students and NUS and the huge success exceeded our expectations. With NUS's assistance, we managed to close down every campus in the state. In some of the regional centres, where the closure of the universities would have a devastating effect on the local economy, the actions were tremendous. In Armidale, for example, 2000 people or 10% of the population attended the meeting."
According to Peart, there were two major reasons for the large mobilisations. "People are not convinced that we need to cut education because of the 'black hole' budget deficit." She cited AGB McNair polls which show that 80% of people are against the cuts. "It is this type of broad opposition, which includes anyone who agrees to the demands of no cuts, which gives us the best chance of winning.
"We have not yet won back the ground against user-pays education. The same poll showed that although 68% of respondents were against increasing HECS, only 12% were for a reduction in HECS. This comes as no surprise after 13 years of federal Labor chipping away at education funding with the introduction of full fees for overseas students and HECS."
Resistance believes it is important to win the ideological debate that education should be free by campaigning against HECS. "Governments should pay for education by taxing big business and the rich rather than putting the onus on those who can't afford it", Peart said. Labor before it and now the Coalition are dramatically decreasing the tax burden on big business.
Noland-Neylan agreed. "We have to be clear about who should pay. There is a responsibility for the Commonwealth to pay for education ... and business should contribute. 'User-pays' means that the average worker, the students, the person at the bottom of the line, has to pay. If we look at where the profits go, it's not to the graduates. The reason we didn't stop Labor is because economic rationalism is the most accepted analysis at the moment."
The size of the May 30 actions, Noland-Neylan said, were related to the fact that for the first time in a very long time all the education-related unions worked constructively together. "This is where the strength of the campaign will come from: not from students just working as students against fees, nor the NTEU working to gain pay rises as academics, nor the general staff doing the same."
Peart said that while the May 30 mobilisation was very successful, "It does not equal a movement. The campaign in the 1980s had hundreds of activists on the ground. Thursday's action demonstrated there is huge potential for this campaign, but as yet there is not the same level of organisation.
"Our key task today is to build the campaign into a movement. Resistance is willing to work with all forces, including academics, student groups, NUS and others who are campaigning against the cuts. We need to consolidate the campaign in order to convince people that we can defeat the Liberals."
According to Noland-Neylan, "There is still a need for the campaign to go out into the community and to build the opposition there. We have used the media, to some effect recently, to get our message through but ... it will not be that long before that gets distorted. We need to use the Parents and Citizens groups to get our message out directly. We need to make sure that were are drawing more and more people in all the time to build the campaign."
Ryan suggested that as well as lobbying the ALP, Democrats and Greens, holding public meetings and organising committees, the campaign would also "need to formulate policies, both industrial and otherwise, that will allow us to keep pressure on the government in the six to eight weeks that we still have to influence the budget. Our action needs the support of students because it will affect students. We have to realise that we are in this for the long haul."