Students protest the privatisation of education



In some of the largest university student demonstrations in five years, thousands of students rallied across the country on August 27 as part of a national day of action against the government's attempts to accelerate privatisation of the higher education sector.

The largest demonstration was held in Sydney, where 2000 students and staff marched through the streets demanding "education for all, not just the rich".

Contingents from campuses across Sydney converged at the University of Technology (UTS). Buses carried students from the suburban campuses of the University of Western Sydney, University of New South Wales and Macquarie University.

Sydney University students made up the largest proportion of the demonstration. After a lunchtime rally, which included radical street theatre with a mock degree auction and a massive free BBQ, around 1000 students took to the streets. The lively march was joined by a contingent of medicine students in lab coats. The size of the Sydney University contingent reflected the outrage amongst students at the recent decision of the university senate committee to increase HECS fees by 30% in 2004.

The Sydney demonstration was also fuelled by anger at the state government's attacks on TAFE students, with massive increases in fees of up to 300% to be implemented next year.

In Melbourne, 500 students rallied from universities and high schools throughout Victoria. National Union of Students (NUS) education officer Liz Thompson chaired the rally, which marched through the city and then on towards Melbourne University Private. The final target was the house of Melbourne University's vice-chancellor, who was condemned by rally leaders for supporting increases in the number of students paying up-front fees.

Students from Socialist Alternative called for an occupation of the house, urging students to break through the police lines. Protester Zoe Kenny told Green Left Weekly, "most students were not interested, particularly because it was obvious that the police were willing to use horses to forcibly break up the protest. Despite [what happened at] the end, which unfortunately broke the unity of the rally, the protest was a definite success with people chanting energetically throughout the whole long march."

The Adelaide demonstration got national news coverage for taking the protest to foreign minister Alexander Downer, who was speaking at a Liberal Club-organised meeting at the University of Adelaide. Amy McMurtrie told GLW that, with 250 students overflowing into the aisles, Downer was heckled as he slammed church leaders and the ABC for criticising Australia's role in the war on Iraq.

As this was happening, 150 campus and high school students marched from the city onto the university, chanting as they reached the room Downer was in "Hey Downer! You're selling our Uni — fuck off!" — forcing Downer to stop speaking a number of times, and inspiring students inside to clap and take up the chant. At the end of his speech, Downer fled the room, followed by angry students.

From Perth, Fred Fuentes reports that more than 120 students rallied at Forrest Place. This was the biggest education rally in a number of years. The protesters marched on to the Australian Tax Office, where a speakout was held. Demonstrations were also held in Brisbane of 500, and Newcastle of 400.

Grant Coleman reports that more than 100 students attended a "Free education — you know it makes sense" speakout at the University of Wollongong. Twenty students from the Illawarra TAFE colleges also attended.

Describing Brendan Nelson and former ALP education minister John Dawkins (who introduced HECS) as the "same bugger", Rob Long of the NSW Teachers Federation told students that they were now facing the thick edge of the student fees wedge.

Forty students then caught a bus to the Australian Tax Office to pay 50 cents off their existing HECS debt. However, upon arriving at the ATO, students discovered that the building had been closed for the afternoon. Some students slid their 50-cent coins under the doors, while others formed them into a giant "No fees!" Students discussed actions to further the campaign, including a champagne lunch on the university lawns for full-fee payers only, a tent embassy and a protest outside the October university council meeting.

NUS has called on students to mobilise again the day that the legislation goes to parliament, which is likely to occur in the next two weeks.

From Green Left Weekly, September 3, 2003.

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