By Kerryn Williams
MELBOURNE — More than 200 activists from campuses around the country gathered here on December 5-6 to plan a national campaign in opposition to fees.
The conference, held at Melbourne University, was initiated in Canberra at a national meeting of student activists in October. That meeting was called following the successful nine-day student occupation of the Australian National University Chancellery and reflected the felt need for national coordination in resisting the ALP government's agenda of full up-front fees.
The conference attracted students from all over the country who have been involved in campaigning against attacks on students' rights including fees, voluntary student unionism and illegal charges for materials.
Two national days of action were planned, one for March 23 and another in May around the time of the federal budget. Information campaigns to inform and educate students about free education issues, as well as a national petition campaign, were also decided on. The slogan for the national campaign is "No Fees For Degrees". More effective national networking between different campuses was planned, so that activists can keep in touch and develop a more coordinated campaign.
Throughout the conference, varying approaches towards an independent student campaign arose, and debates took place in relation to the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Labor Party, and how the campaign should relate to them.
Adam Bandt from Left Alliance presented a talk on "The role of NUS", arguing that the student movement must attempt to win control of NUS. He claimed that it was a "question of principle" and a "question of unionism". Members of the International Socialist Organisation backed this position, stating in a leaflet that the "authority of NUS in calling National Days of Action is crucial, particularly in terms of gaining trade union support" and that "NUS involvement in the campaign is often the key to whether ordinary students will see the campaign as real and will get involved in building the rallies and meetings".
Activists from ANU refuted this claim, pointing out that they had managed to build an extremely successful campaign against fees involving many students, as well as establishing strong links with trade unions, despite the fact that ANU is not an affiliated campus and that NUS contributed nothing to the campaign.
Members of Resistance also argued (as exemplified by the ANU experience) that NUS is not critical to the success of a campaign, and that building an effective, mass based campaign should not be sacrificed to trying to win control of NUS.
Resistance activists also took issue with an assertion that NUS endorsement of the largest anti-VSU rally in Melbourne proves that NUS's involvement is vital. They pointed out that the building of mass rallies and involving of broad layers of students by campus-based activists left NUS with little choice but to attempt to relate to the campaign: NUS's involvement in the VSU rallies was a result of a strong campaign, not the other way around.
Resistance members maintained that the question of NUS is a tactical one which may be reassessed at any point of the campaign. Right now, they argued, the most urgent issue facing students is up-front fees, and activists' time should therefore be spent building a grassroots national campaign capable of fighting them.
Another point of debate was how to relate to the Labor Party, given that it is responsible for cutting funding to education and paving the way for fees.
Some activists stressed that in order to mount a serious campaign against fees, it is vital to build a movement which not only is independent from the ALP and ALP-dominated organisations, but also directly challenges the ALP's attacks on education.
Students from the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS) felt that this isolated them from the campaign and argued that the campaign should not be explicitly anti-Labor. ISO students supported this argument, while Left Alliance argued that NOLS had to prove in practice its left credentials. Resistance maintained that, while it was important to involve progressive Labor students in the campaign, this should not be achieved at the expense of challenging Labor's attacks on education.
A major theme of discussion over the two days was the importance of building alliances with trade unions, and of gaining workers' support for student campaigns. One highlight of the panel on the ANU No Fees Campaign was Greg Adamson, an official of the ACT branch of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), who discussed the role of unions in the campaign at ANU.
Adamson told activists of the early involvement of the CPSU in the campaign, well before the occupation which heightened the profile of the students' struggle against fees. He explained that the introduction of fees is an issue that affects workers as well as students, either through their children or because they themselves may want to study. Seeing a successful campaign such as the one at ANU also gives workers confidence to fight against the attacks they are facing.
Adamson outlined the different forms of support and solidarity given throughout the campaign by the CPSU, particularly during the more difficult moments of the campaign, such as when the university administration called in the police to remove students. He pointed out how important it is for unions to be independent from the ALP, and described how certain progressive members of some not so progressive unions were silenced when they tried to offer support to the student campaign. The CPSU was able to give such effective solidarity only because of the explicitly anti-ALP stance of the current leadership, PSU Challenge.
Many students were pleased to have the opportunity to hear the union representative speak, after attempts by some members of Left Alliance and the ISO to take Adamson off the panel were rejected by a Sunday night organising meeting.
The student from ANU speaking on the No Fees panel, however, disappointed a lot of activists when he presented a one-sided analysis of what had taken place at ANU. This was described by one activist as "an advertisement for one group in the campaign" — the Socialist Worker Student Club. During the discussion, a motion from the floor was passed to allow the other planned speaker from ANU to present her talk. This talk had been cancelled by the Sunday night meeting.
A motion to support candidates in federal and state elections running on free education platforms was narrowly lost. The students who proposed the motion argued that election campaigns can be a useful way to build student campaigns, and to reach out to wider sections of the community. They pointed to the example of Alison Dellit, a leading activist in the No Fees Campaign at ANU who is running as a Democratic Socialist candidate in the ACT elections in February.
Another point of contention was a claim by some members of Left Alliance that free education is impossible, because if fees are not introduced, workers' taxes will simply be increased.
Overall the conference produced much healthy debate. Having made specific plans for action, activists were able to return to their campuses to prepare for a nationwide mass campaign against fees in 1995.