The article below is an extract from Resistance’s Education zine, which was released on campuses this week.
In every state and territory, at many tertiary educational institutions, students are resisting a tide of cuts, commodification and privatisation.
Universities face staff, subject and department cuts, rising fees and costs, casualisation of staff, bigger classes, less class time and less face-to-face contact.
At some universities and TAFEs, students are organising, rallying and occupying to stop the attacks on education. These students are only the latest in a long history of education activism that has helped win huge gains in the availability of education.
Education is not the only sector under attack, and it is not only in Australia that people are being made to pay for the losses of corporations and governments. More and more, costs are being shifted to individuals. Education, when run for profit, puts money above students, and the expansion of capital above the expansion of learning.
Neoliberal doctrines have been pushed around the world and, through the war on terror, sharpened and militarised. The globalisation project pushes this “consensus” to all corners of the world.
Everywhere the neoliberal ideologues try to force the world to fit their vision. We are pressured to accept capital as supreme, regardless of the impact on society, cultures and the environment.
The global financial crisis and the ecological crisis of climate change show this system is failing but governments and corporations remain committed to the neoliberal project.
In universities, this manifests itself in the drive to restructure the university into the “edufactory”. While universities have always been places designed to serve the capitalist system, this process is being pushed faster and further.
Humanities and social sciences, whose research is not as profitable as engineering or sciences is, are in the firing line and face increasing cuts and underfunding. This is on top of ever-rising student fees and the erosion of welfare and student allowances, forcing students to work as well as study.
The world needs a new alternative for education.
In defending education against these cuts, students and teachers will need to go beyond resistance to these global trends. They will need to articulate a message that extends beyond defending a narrow student interest and explain what they are fighting for, rather than just what they’re against.
In universities, the disciplines under attack are often also the very areas of study that critique neoliberalism and the capitalist system. This critique can cover not just universities but society as a whole. These areas of study give students skills to articulate an alternative — a new political vision for the world — and can put the attacks they face in a global context.
Students must fight not just to defend their degrees, but to extend education to serve society, that takes up international development or the challenges of overcoming discrimination of gender, race and class.
It is this vision that can be a guiding plan in the fight for a new university.
Student activists fight austerity and restructuring not because they feel entitled to study, but because society benefits from spaces for free thought. The university can and should be a place that drives social knowledge and development, not just train cogs for the economy. Everyone should benefit from every new vaccine that is researched, every groundbreaking novel, or revolutionary idea that helps lead to a new more sustainable and democratic society.
Despite what vice-chancellors or advertising executives might say, the university is not a brand. The university is the space for society’s critical consciousness.
It’s a place to look at society and challenge its problems, and to train people to deal with them. Thus the content of the university is the structures that lead to these outcomes. It is the student body, those doing research and postgraduate study, it is the lecturers and faculty.
Socialist youth organisation Resistance seeks to energise the university, and fight to reclaim it as an institution of the common good. The primary audience for the education movement’s actions is the university itself. The university cannot function without its students, its faculty and staff.
It can, however, continue its day-to-day functions without a VC or advertising staff. Campaigners can develop the cultures of involvement in students, and focus outward to involving more in the fight, not on “escalating” actions amongst those already in the movement.
This perspective leads those in the movement to a critical position to existing student institutions.
For most students, the student unions are a distant bureaucratic fossil with no impact on their campus life. While they do continue to hold important resources and infrastructure, and while it important to fight to maintain and extend their limited democracy, if students limit their vision to “beating the right” in student elections it will hold back building the kind of student movement they want to see.
The student movement needs to look to those outside the bubble, beyond the narrow confines of existing “student politics”, to build bases in the broader student population, and to grow support in wider layers of society at large.
Energies must be first and foremost directed at building the organisational and political strength of the campaign, and finding ways to involve student supporters in campaigns all year round.
Student activists need to distinguish themselves in action, not just words. It is not enough to think like a progressive, but to organise like one. Activists that only run in student elections would always be limited in what they can achieve. But periodic election campaigns can be an extension of year-round activism. This requires a radically different vision for how student democracy can work.
Only through the creative application of the movement’s politics can students hope to achieve its aims. The aim of the movement is not the respond to the university, but force the university to respond to it. It seeks not to take over the leadership of an existing union, but build organisations that can provide real fighting leadership, whether activists run a student representative council or union.
Student campaigners will also need to coordinate these plans across campuses. They will fight against different cuts, but in a common struggle, and towards a shared endpoint.
Gatherings such as grassroots education conference Edufactory gives students a great opportunity to network, and open channels of coordination and communication to strengthen the struggles, which can lead to strong bonds of struggle in times to come.
Resistance believes that together we can win. We face many attacks, and there are many more in the pipeline, but we have already seen that we can fight back. If we can draw the links between these attacks on education and broader acts of austerity that we see around the world, our movements can come to stand for much more than the defence of our education.