The National Union of Students (NUS) education conference was held at the University of Adelaide from July 10-12.
This year’s conference occurred in the context of the most serious attack on university funding in many years. In April, the federal government announced it was cutting $2.8 billion from higher education.
Students responded to these proposed cuts by holding protests in cities across the country on May 14, the biggest student protests in years.
But these protests alone cannot stop the proposed cuts. Only a serious mass campaign of students, university staff and their supporters can hope to overturn the cuts and reverse the trend of neoliberal policies in universities.
The campaign has to be active and democratic. Its strength is based on mobilising and inspiring people to fight for their rights.
However, some sections of the movement pressure students to turn away from this kind of campaigning.
Student bureaucrats argue for a direction that fundamentally differs from this sort of grassroots movement because their focus is on future careers rather than creating lasting social change.
Instead of a mass campaign of protest, they argue that the campaign should direct its energies into lobbying politicians campaigning in marginal seats or petitioning wavering conservatives.
The annual NUS education conference has often been the battleground for debate between these two ideas.
Nominally, the conference is the forum for student activists around Australia to come together to discuss education campaigning and plan a way forward. In practice, recent conferences have resembled little more than get-togethers for student Labor factions.
This year was different. The conference included a range of activists involved in the education campaign who wanted to organise a real fightback to the cuts.
Despite the best efforts of the NUS leadership, led by Labor students, the left was able to force the conference to discuss the campaign. The official program left all discussion about the anti-cuts campaign until the final day, and tried to limit it to a campaign to “unlock your vote”.
Left students – from Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity and independent activists — opened discussion on the anti-cuts campaign by creating workshop spaces, holding plenary sessions over lunch, proposed dates and demands for a national day of action and held discussions on how campus activists can organise a united movement to win the campaign.
Because of the intervention of the left, the conference voted to hold another national day of action on August 20 with the demands: No cuts to funding, staff or course; more funding; and education for all.
In the wake of the conference there are important lessons that education activists need to remember.
Fighting for our education rights means we are fighting the system. The cuts aren't happening because Liberal and Labor governments are made up of nasty people. The economic and ideological pressures of capitalism are forcing these cuts.
Some students accept that education cuts are just “common sense” or have illusions in the ruling elites (maybe hoping to be elite themselves one day).
The left needs to convince these students that there is an alternative to constant cuts to our education. But to fight for this alternative means fighting ideology that expects universities to be run like businesses, for profit.
In this fight we can't leave our student unions to the bureaucrats. These people are elected to represent students, they administer our money and they speak on our behalf — but in the absence of a vibrant, democratic and accountable student movement they can give in to the pressure put on them by the university.
The conference showed that a vibrant movement can create a counter-pressure that keeps student unions accountable to the students they are meant to represent. The bigger, better and more vibrant the campaign, the better placed grassroots activists will be to reclaim our student unions and put them to better use.