On March 25 university students and supporters of accessible education participated in National Day of Action rallies against the ongoing attacks on education. There were rallies in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Tasmania and Wollongong.
Across the country about 1500 students mobilised to celebrate the continued fightback against fee deregulation. Despite the win against fee deregulation, students asserted that they will not back down. They will fight the cuts the government did get through the Senate and will continue to protest on the streets if Pyne attempts to push through his education reforms and if there are cuts to education in the May Budget, as students fear.
National Union of Students Education Officer for Western Australia and Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance member, Gavin Scolaro said: “The reason we protested today is not only to celebrate the defeat of deregulation and send the message to Pyne that he will not be fixing anything, now or ever, but also to start the campaign for free education.”
However there was controversy in Perth, due to an eleventh hour decision by the National Union of Students (NUS) to change the venue for the rally. Students have claimed that the protest in front of Parliament House in Perth was a demobilised rally. They said this was because the Perth rally had been promoted on campuses since the start of the semester as being in Murray Street Mall; the last minute change of venue the night before resulted in confusion; students who weren’t on Facebook the night before the rally and had not heard about the change in venue showed up to the wrong location.
It has been reported that between 40 and 50 students gathered at Murray Street Mall with placards, confused about why there was no rally. NUS has been further criticised for making no plans to redirect students from the original location to the new one. Some have further criticised NUS, specifically claiming they were always against having a pre-rally gathering at Murray Street Mall before travelling to Parliament House as a group.
Specific criticisms about the changed location included that the cuts to tertiary education are coming from the federal government and it therefore made no political sense to rally at state Parliament House. As well, state parliament is difficult to get to via public transport, as it is a fair walk from the nearest train station and a significant distance from the original location. Another factor is that there are few people around Parliament House, which meant the rally was taken away from the high population area where students could have promoted the issue to the general public.
NUS have claimed that they did not want to put students at risk by having an unauthorised protest in the Murray Street Mall. They said they were concerned about police violence against student activists.
In response to this students have claimed that NUS is making a soft argument, as peaceful protests have taken place in Murray Street Mall countless times before, even without authorisation from police, and no one who didn’t want to has been arrested. It is not illegal to gather in a public space and voice a political demand, and in one instance where peaceful protestors were taken to court, the charges were dropped as it was found that the police had issued an incorrect order.
Some students have questioned whether this was a deliberate attempt by factions within the NUS to demobilise the student movement. They have claimed that this is yet another reason for students to develop independent education action groups on campus and cross-campus education action networks, free of NUS control.
In Brisbane, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members from the University of Queensland were attempting to do just that, form an independent education action group on campus. They managed to attract enough interest from students that will hopefully eventuate in the formation of a new grassroots, democratic collective on campus.
In Sydney, the New South Wales Education Action Network has had great success in organising at a democratic grassroots level despite attempts from various factions within the NUS to take control of the group and recent attempts to shut the group down. This form of democratic organising has resulted in a whole series of actions from the end of last year through to last week, including a road trip to Canberra and a banner drop inside Parliament House, banner drops at campuses, speak-outs on campuses, locking onto the vice chancellor’s office and range of other activities on campuses in Sydney.
While Pyne’s education reform Bill has now failed twice in the Senate, he has already threatened to introduce it a third time, and it is highly likely there will be more cuts to tertiary education in the May budget. The student movement in Australia is still facing a serious problem of demobilisation, which more and more student activists are concluding is the fault of organisational, tactical and political issues with NUS.
There have been mass student protests in Italy and Quebec, and Germany has recently legislated for free tertiary education, a fight that many student activists in Australia want to take up. It is time for the National Union of Students to start seriously relating to the student activists on the ground, rather than the concerns of the Australian Labor Party.
If NUS are unwilling to do that, they need to step aside and let the independent education action groups and cross campus networks do the work that is seriously needed to achieve a fully mobilised student movement in this country.