For over a decade now, Australian universities have been under attack. PM John Howard's whittling away at the public funding of tertiary education came to a head in 2005, with the implementation of the Nelson Review. The review promoted a shift away from government funding of universities, which meant that they had to seek funding elsewhere — fee-paying students and big business.
Two years later, the 2007 Good Universities Guide showed that there were 96 full-fee paying degrees at public universities that cost upwards of $100,000, and five degrees at public universities that cost over $200,000. This increasing expense is being pushed onto students — many of whom must work long hours to support their studies — and their families. The financial pressures of university life also mean that many families cannot afford to send their children to university, and students without support from their family are left to live in poverty.
University funding has become a victim of neoliberal economics — the push of governments to deregulate, privatise and promote "user pays" systems. Both universities' independence and students have suffered as a result.
A July 27 University of Queensland media release proudly announced a $2 million "partnership" with Rio Tinto. This raises a series of questions, such as what impact mining company funding will have on research focused on renewable alternatives to the coal industry.
Australia isn't an exception. Around the world other neoliberal governments are pursuing a similar agenda of shifting from public to private funding of universities. However in some cases students and academics are fighting back.
Since November 8, French students have been involved in militant demonstrations, including blockades at half of the country's universities. The students are demonstrating against education "reforms" being pushed by the government that will open universities up to partial privatisation.
The right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a wave of attacks on workers and students. The economic reform that the attack on universities is part of will affect many areas of French life. The Law on the Autonomy of the Universities (LRU) will introduce the market into university management. It will give university faculties the right to raise money from private companies. Students are not only protesting against the LRU, but are also calling for increased university funding and an increase in student housing.
The militant protests by French students should be a source of inspiration for Australian students. At a protest against the introduction of "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) April 2006, a chant broke out: "If the French can do it, we can too! We wont stop 'til we stop VSU!" The chant was a reference to the struggle by French students and young workers against the 2006 attempt to introduce the First Employment Contract (CPE) — which would have eroded the rights of young workers. With the support of the trade union movement, the anti-CPE struggle was victorious.
In Australia the struggle against VSU hasn't been successful, and the legislation has had a major impact on students' associations. But this doesn't mean the fight is over. The French examples show that it's possible for students and other young people to successfully take on neoliberal governments and win. If they can do it, we can too!