By Grant Coleman
In Orientation Weeks, student activists around the country are launching the campaign to stop the privatisation of higher education. The National Union of Students has called a national day of action on March 22 and numerous activist groups are building "log of claims" campaigns on their campuses.
Log of claims campaigns — which make demands on university administrations to stop or reverse cuts to courses, staff and student services — can win improvements in campus conditions and help to expose the cause of the problems: federal government funding cuts.
Resistance believes that the campaign has a lot of potential. The effects of funding cuts are obvious: overworked and underpaid staff, more student charges and declining education quality.
There is broad public sentiment in favour of public education. Even the government knows this, as was revealed in its rapid backdown after a leaked cabinet briefing paper in October outlined the next steps in privatisation. There is a general public sentiment that education is a right, not a privilege to be reserved only for those who can afford to pay.
However, the two questions that arise are: Where is the money going to come from? How are we going to change government policy?
The money should come from those who profit most from higher education and skills levels: big business. A progressive income tax, and cutting defence spending, would also create a lot of extra funds for public education.
At the moment, social priorities are set by what helps business profit levels. The fight for free education is an important part of the fight for a society that puts people's needs first, not profits.
As part of a more general drive to cut public spending, successive governments have pushed a "user-pays" agenda for education. Only student protest and public sentiment have prevented user-pays from going ahead faster. Indeed, it was the pressure of public opinion and a strong student movement that prompted the Labor federal government to introduce free education in 1974.
The only way to win back free education is to convince the majority of people that it is both necessary and possible. The campaigns this year must therefore work to involve and convince as many people as possible — students and staff on the campuses, and as many others as can be reached.