Howard attacks student unions

July 24, 1996

By Marina Cameron

On July 8, Howard announced plans to cut funding provided by the previous government to universities in Victoria, WA and Tasmania when Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation is introduced by state Liberal governments.

There is also speculation that the Liberals' planned federal industrial relations legislation may override legislation in states where compulsory student unionism still prevails.

These attacks are part of the government's overall strategy for cutting higher education. The Liberals intend to go further and faster than the ALP, and forms of student organisation which would aid the fight back are in the firing line.

Widespread public opinion against education cuts (62% according to an AGB McNair poll), and the strong response by students and staff, create problems for the government in implementing its cuts.

Although defence of student unions has tended to focus on service provision, their function as political bodies is the real target. The Liberals argue against universal membership on the basis of freedom of association. However, VSU legislation in Victoria did not end collection of a compulsory fee from students, it simply ended automatic membership of the student union on payment of the fee and stopped any student control over funding allocation. The legislation stops universities funding student newspapers, student union elections and affiliation to national bodies; anything deemed political can be de-funded.

In WA and Tasmania, the fee is no longer compulsory and unions are responsible for their own recruiting. Most Guilds have evolved into service organisations and small businesses, rather than organisations to represent and campaign for the interests of all students.

John Nolan-Neylan, NSW state president of the National Union of Students, told Green Left, "These moves would remove the right of students to their own democratically elected organisations which, in the past, have allowed them to protest and organise against regressive changes in fees and AUSTUDY.

"It will help the government's agenda of massively attacking the higher education system and other areas of welfare funding that students have traditionally stood up for by stifling criticism of the government and stopping student unions from representing the interests of all students."

The link between attacks on student unions and education cuts will be highlighted by students in the lead up the budget. It looks likely that cuts to university operating grants may be lower than first expected (between 4-10%). However, this is little respite since the government is looking at other big areas of revenue or savings.

Under consideration are large increases in HECS and in the repayment rate, and the replacement of AUSTUDY by a loans scheme. Universities may also be allowed to charge full fees for second degrees and some undergraduate courses.

The National Tertiary Education and Industry Union (NTEU) is holding a national strike on August 7 to protest education cuts and continue its demand for a 15% pay rise. Students are organising to support pickets and rallies on the day.

A student conference on education in Perth on July 13-14 voted to support the NTEU strike. It also discussed supporting actions on August 19 by maximising participation of high school, university and TAFE students in the cavalcade to Canberra and in the rallies in other centres.

Resistance activist, Sarah Peart, told Green Left, "We need to take up the Liberals' lies and expose the fundamentally discriminatory nature of user-pays education. Despite acceptance by some that user-pays is here to stay, free education is still a right we should demand. Education should be funded by those who benefit from it most — big business — through a progressive taxation system."