Students protest Nelson Review

April 16, 2003

Two-and-a-half-thousand university students from campuses around Australia took to the streets on April 10 in opposition to the governments proposed "reforms" to higher education. The actions were part of a national day of action organised by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Brendan Nelson, the federal education minister, is due to release his "blueprint for higher education" as part of the government's May budget. The package is expected to deliver a minimal increase in public funding to divert attention from the main thrust of the proposed reforms. These include further fee deregulation, increases in the number of places for full-fee-paying students, market interest rates on student loans and a generalised shift towards a two-tier tertiary education system in which the students that can afford to pay will have all the options while those that can't will have none.

At many of the protests, students and speakers condemned the government's decision to fund an immoral and unjust invasion of Iraq, while pushing the financial burden for higher education further onto the shoulders of students.

The biggest rally was in Melbourne, where 1000 students chanted "You say cut, we say fight. You say warfare, we say welfare!" as they marched from the state library to education department offices in Casseldon Place. Students from RMIT made up the bulk of the crowd, and were joined by contingents from Melbourne University and La Trobe University.

Bill Deller, representing the Victorian Peace Network and the La Trobe branch of the National Tertiary Education Industry Union, told the crowd that they must remain activists as long as they lived in a society that prioritised spending on war over education.

Camille Barbagallo from the Young Unionists Network told the crowd "What we say is that you don't fund the war on Iraq, you don't fund bombing of innocent people. What you fund is higher education and health services and decent wages and conditions for all working-class people in this country."

More than 600 students attended the rally in Sydney, coming from Sydney University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University and the University of Western Sydney. The largest contingent came from Sydney University, at which 300 students rallied on campus before marching to Hyde Park.

While protests in Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide were all fairly small, some protests in smaller towns and cities were reasonably successful.

In Wollongong, 100 students attended an on-campus rally organised by Books Not Bombs (BNB). Federal opposition leader Simon Crean was heckled and jeered while speaking to the crowd, after he refused to speak about the war on a day of education protest. He said that the ALP would oppose Nelson's proposals.

Resistance and BNB activist Amy Parish described the ALP position on the war as "piss weak". She asked the crowd, "How can we trust the party that first tried to introduce upfront fees? How can we trust the party that introduced HECS? How can we trust the party that still refuses to take a consistent position on the war?"

Protest organisers focused the politics of the demonstration on the right of students to accessible and affordable education and opposition to the Nelson Review. Little attempt was made to link the question of government funding for education to the funding for the inhumane war on Iraq.

Liz Thompson, national education officer for NUS, attributes the varied success of the protests to how clearly the link between war and education was made.

"NUS could have done a lot more to draw the links between war and education and to attract the anti-war students on campus. It is ridiculous to take any particular attack outside of its political context. The context for this attack on education is a war drive and a military focused budget. We have to be talking about the issue that the majority of students and the broader community are talking about — the war."

[Additional reporting by Rjurick Davidson and Simon Butler.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 16, 2003.
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