Australian students join world in fight for higher education

Issue 
Christopher Pyne is preparing mass education spending cuts in the budget.

Rallies have been called in response to the federal government’s attack on education funding in the upcoming budget, and a big one is planned for Sydney on budget day, May 12.

Although Christopher Pyne’s education policies have been repeatedly defeated in the Senate, he is determined to continue to try to “fix” the education system by reducing governmental funding and pushing for fee deregulation. The next chance he will have to do this is with mass education spending cutbacks in the budget.

Pyne has again proposed that the budget cut higher education spending by $3 billion: $1 billion as efficiency dividends on top of $1.9 billion in course funding cuts.

This time the cuts are being put through as part of the budget rather than in a separate education bill like those that have been previously rejected by the Senate. This means that although the same amount of funding cuts has been proposed, it now does not come with Pyne’s suggested fee-deregulation system for universities, meaning that universities will not be able to charge higher fees to make up for the funding cuts.

Although this means no fee increases, it will leave universities underfunded, which will inevitably hurt students’ quality of education. Universities are already feeling the strain due to the government continuing to restrict funding until the issue over the proposed cuts is resolved. The only alternative that the government puts forward to this is their proposed university fee changes, which would see students paying around $100,000 for a university degree, an amount that is higher than the national average income for a year.

These proposed cutbacks are accompanied by ongoing reductions and restrictions on welfare programs desperately needed by students, two-thirds of whom are already living below the poverty line. This would see far greater restrictions on the ability of students from lower income backgrounds to be able to attend university, leading to a possible scenario in which only the rich or well-off can attend university.

These funding cuts would also affect regional universities to a staggering degree because they already receive very limited funding. This, accompanied by national cuts to funding in regional communities, will disproportionately affect those communities with already far lower attendance rates and high Aboriginal populations.

The ongoing series of rallies to oppose these cuts are being seen as Australia’s contribution to the many demonstrations that have occurred around the world in the past few years as part of an ever-increasing international student movement.

The most prominent of these demonstrations were seen in Canada with the 2012 Montreal protests against education fee increases and Bill 78 (a bill restricting students’ right to protest). At one point in these protests about 200,000 people took to the streets, resulting in major clashes with police, who were seen to engage in questionable intimidation tactics and police brutality.

In these protests, the Collectif pour un Québec Sans Pauvreté (Collective for a Quebec Without Poverty) was credited with the first use of a red square as a symbol for the protests. This sparked the movement to display red felt squares on pins and large red square designs on banners as a sign of their opposition to the education fees, police brutality, restrictions on rights and ultimately to capitalism as a whole, as the movement began to concentrate more broadly on the impacts of austerity measures and neoliberalism.

Many Australian student activists are looking to this movement for inspiration to further the Australian student movement, including the possibility of popularising the use of the red square symbols

As the need for a stronger student movement in Australia increases, the ability to re-energise protests despite a dwindling sense of need after the last defeat of Pyne’s Education Bill, becomes more important. Student action groups are being steadily built in major universities and as state-wide initiatives, such as the NSW Education Action Network which has organised the May 12 Sydney Rally.

Unlike previous rallies for education in Australia, the rally on May 12 has not been called as part of the National Days of Action by the National Union of Students but as a separate response to cutbacks. Further rallies will be held later in the month as National Days of Action. The Sydney rally will be at 2pm in the Sydney Town Hall.

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