The global struggle of students and youth

June 12, 2015
Protest against deregulation of university fees, Sydney, March 26. Photo: Peter Boyle.

For young people today, the international situation can seem hopeless. The world seems increasingly filled with chaos and crisis, as austerity and war impoverish and immiserate increasing numbers of people around the globe.

The situation facing young people today, in Australia and around the world, is difficult to say the least, and it is important to confront such a situation seriously and with determination.

Around the world, the international ruling class, the financiers and speculators who seek to own and control everything, are trying to force working people and especially young people to pay for the crisis they created. The economic woes they brought upon themselves can only be fixed, and a “normal” economy restored off the backs of ordinary people.

In the process of doing this, young people are seeing their futures taken away. We are seeing our social services privatised and commodified, turning once separate spheres of life into one sphere, totally dominated by money and profit.

At the same time we are facing an ecological crisis, which is bringing the way that wealth is created and hoarded by the elites into contradiction with the natural ecosystems of the planet.

Capitalism quite literally jeopardises our future.

Around the world, young people are confronted with the policies of neoliberal regimes that want to privatise and commodify education, destroy the welfare state and undermine democracy.

Universities are being turned into spaces organised for profit, where bureaucracy stifles creativity and self-organisation and everything has a price.

Public places are being sold-off, turned into playgrounds for the rich as poor and working class youth are told to “move-on” or risk fines and imprisonment.

Young workers are unprotected and mostly not unionised, and where they don’t have jobs, they are forced into increasingly controlling welfare regimes designed to humiliate ordinary people.

In the face of this, the spectre of resistance is haunting neoliberalism. Students in Europe have begun to fight, taking to the streets in their thousands, in Italy, Greece and Spain, or occupying their universities, as in the Netherlands and Britain. Here they have sought to carve out political spaces, organise political movements and fight for universities that are for people, not profit.

Across the Atlantic, students in Quebec have stepped back into the role they played in 2012, when they led a movement to destabilise the neoliberal government and overturn tuition fee increases. Now they are leading a fight against austerity measures, which target the public sector and undermine the position of all working people.

However, it is not just students leading the fight in North America. Black youth have been leaders in a campaign of civil resistance and uprisings against police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore. These uprisings are faultlines where race, class and age meet and transform into community resistance to the state authorities and the interests they represent.

The struggle has also exploded in Latin America. Students have battled the Mexican state in the wake of the state abduction of student activists last year. Further south, students have hit the streets of Chile, demanding free education. They have organised occupations, street marches and direct confrontations with the Chilean authorities.

How does this reflect on our situation? Since the election of the Coaltition government last year students have seen some of the worst attacks on higher education since the introduction of HECS. These cuts were presented as part of the federal government’s higher education reform bill, which was first introduced last year’s budget.

Two specific and targeted attacks on young people have been the attacks on higher education and on welfare. There were many nasties in the original bill, but it was amended in the hope of getting the bill passed. However the worst and potentially most damaging element of the reforms — fee deregulation — has not gone away.

Not only does the government want to deregulate university fees, but it also wants to reduce government funding for Commonwealth supported places by 20%. If government funding is reduced and caps on fees are lifted, universities will have no option but to increase fees to keep operating. Meanwhile the government continues to proclaim its faith in the free market and argues that fees would not raise that dramatically.

If a student who had access to a government funded place wanted to study a 3-year Bachelor of Arts degree at Deakin University in Geelong, based on the current fee structure if would cost them $18,500 in fees over the three years. That does not include student amenities fees, textbooks or any other costs. For Australia citizens and permanent residents that $18,500 would become debt.

New Zealand citizens have access to a government supported place, but not to the HECS scheme, and are therefore required to pay just over $6000 a year upfront if they want to study that course. International students wanting to study the same course would not have access to a government supported place. It would cost them $60,500 over the three years for the same degree and they would also have to pay annual fees of more than $20,000 upfront each year.

This legislation was initially backed by most of the nation’s vice chancellors and the sector’s peak lobby group Universities Australia. Coincidentally, Universities Australia was holding a reception in Parliament House as the vote was being taken in the Senate in December last year.

So far, the legislation has passed in the House of Representatives twice, but it has been rejected by the Senate twice. However education minister Christopher Pyne has declared that good legislation takes time and that you couldn’t kill him with an axe. While the legislation has yet to be introduced a third time, the likelihood is fee deregulation will make an appearance soon.

The bill failed in the Senate a second time in March this year, despite the government holding 1700 research jobs to ransom, demanding that the Senate pass the bill or be held responsible for job losses. This is not the first time the federal government has used blackmail to pass legislation.

The ongoing problem of Newstart, Youth Allowance and ABSTUDY payments being below the poverty line makes it hard for students to engage in society and afford the basics of housing, food, equipment for work or books for study. A one-month wait — previously proposed as a 6-month wait — to receive Newstart for people under 30 is on the cards. This poses extreme disadvantages for young people, especially young people living in unemployment hotspots identified in a Brotherhood of St Laurence study, where Cairns, Geelong, Hobart and Adelaide were identified as already having extremely high rates of youth unemployment.

The struggles of students and youth here have clear commonalities with the struggles of people all around the world. In our fight, whether against fee increases, neoliberal reforms or cuts to welfare and wages, students and young people can look for inspiration to all the corners of the world to see people fighting back against neoliberalism and building something new for ordinary people.

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