Austerity almost seems like the defining feature of politics today. Across Europe and the US, crippling cuts to education, health care and welfare budgets are driving millions further into poverty.
Even in Australia, where our economy has been spared the worst of the financial crisis, both big parties are raising taxes on ordinary people and applying cuts to welfare and education.
Last year, cuts to courses and staff at several universities, including Sydney University and La Trobe University, led to strong campaigns by staff and students to defend their education and jobs.
The plan proposed by education minister Craig Emerson to strip $2.3 billion from universities means these cuts are becoming national. The government’s plan to cut university funding can be defeated, but only if there is a prolonged and determined fight against it.
There have already been a series of actions in different cities and campuses in response. The radical Edufactory conference held in Sydney over April 25-28 was a space for students around Australia to discuss the next steps in building a stronger campaign for education.
The conference agreed to support the National Union of Students call for a national “student strike” on May 14.
This strike is an important part of building a campaign to stop cuts to education. Students are encouraged to skip classes and attend the rallies planned in all capital cities. Resistance will have contingents at these rallies, and be actively building them in the lead up.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has also agreed to support it, and will hold national protests in capital cities and regional areas.
NTEU National President Jeannie Rea said: “University staff and students have borne the brunt of the government’s broken promises to increase university funding to cover the costs of educating the new generation of students and, specifically, to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve a university degree. Since 2011, the government has slashed $4 billion from higher education federal budget allocations.”
The potential power of a student strike is unquestionable. There are multiple international examples for student activists to draw from. In Quebec, last year’s general student strike stopped an increase in student fees and led to the electoral defeat of the government. This year in Chile student strikes have shut down the entire country in a campaign for free education.
In these countries there are cultures of resistance and organisational strength that doesn't yet exist in Australia. The challenge for student activists in Australia is to build a movement which refuses to accept bumbling excuses from politicians and can stand up to administrations that cry poor.
The student movement in Australia is small compared with movements overseas. But there is enormous space for the student movement in Australia to grow again. So how can a strong student movement be built?
First, it cannot simply be declared into existence. Writing a perfect political platform in and of itself will not automatically lead to a stronger movement.
Likewise, setting up a network will not automatically lead to more people protesting in the streets.
There is no shortcut to building a strong organisation.
The student movement needs to be focused on the vast majority of students who today might be angry about the cuts, but don’t feel that there is anything that they can do about it. Those students need to be won to the fightback, through sound arguments and long, hard effort building a base on campus.
It is this hard work that underpins the strong campaigns overseas. In Quebec, the student federation CLASSE has been an inspiration in the role they played in the student strikes which mobilised up to 200,000 students during its peak.
Much has been said of their work in this period, but much less on the time that preceded it.
CLASSE was formed in 2001, and for over a decade activists worked hard to build the political level and confidence in the student body, which exploded in fights against attacks on education last year.
The movement in Australia needs to unite the resistance at all campuses because cuts at any university or TAFE help to create justifications for cuts everywhere else.
Likewise, a successful campaign that defeats local cuts puts pressure on administrations at other campuses to not implement cuts.
The alternative we are fighting for is a free and independent education system, where a critical education is more important than filling holes in the economy. Student activists have an obligation to build the fightback among students, but the fight for education has another key component — university staff.
The corporatisation of universities, which is continued with the latest round of education cuts, directly undercuts the pay and conditions of staff. When staff are part of the fightback, such as in an enterprise bargaining process like the one at Sydney University, it is part of the education struggle. The student movement has to be part of these struggles too.
Campaigns against cuts last year, although isolated and short, have shown that students are willing to fight to protect their rights. It will be a long and rocky road to stop these attacks, but this is a challenge that activists should relish.
There is an opportunity to creatively respond to attacks, and be part of a new generation of protest, if activists are willing to do the work to make it happen.