University fee deregulation: dead buried cremated or just resting its eyes?

October 1, 2015

The new Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham announced on October 1 that he has no plans to reintroduce legislation to deregulate university fees this year: the key words in that statement are “this year”.

In December last year, the then-Abbott government made its first attempt to pass the Higher Education Reform Bill. This bill comprised a plan to deregulate university fees by introducing the magical “free hand of the market” into the tertiary education sector, as well as a proposal to reduce government subsidies and remove restrictions on undergraduate courses at public universities.

Rolled into a neat little bundle, this legislation would have overseen the social engineering of the tertiary education sector by forcing poorer working-class students into underfunded public universities, while the elitist sandstone universities would have become even more out of reach for those on lower incomes.

Luckily for students, this legislation failed to pass in the Senate. However just like a corpse in The Walking Dead, fee-deregulation rose again in an amended Higher Education Reform Bill in March this year. Previously, Christopher Pyne, the education minister at the time, declared himself a “fixer” and that you “could not kill [him] with an axe”.

Students might not have been able to take out Pyne with an axe, but they did successfully take out fee deregulation a second time due to ongoing pressure on cross-bench senators to vote against the bill. Students organised a national day of protest action against the bill as well as a number of smaller actions on campuses involving banner drops and lock-ons. The purpose of these smaller campus-based actions was to push university vice-chancellors to speak against fee deregulation.

In an interview on 3CR radio on September 30, Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance National Co-Convener Mia Sanders credited the student campaign as being the most memorable win for young activists in recent years. “We stormed the Senate, protested in the gallery, locked on at the University of Sydney and dropped banners from buildings […] To see Chris Pyne's disappointed face every time was definitely worth it.”

Birmingham has said that there won't be any changes to university fees until 2017 at the latest. The sceptical student activist in me can't help but think that the Liberal government is just playing nice until after the next federal election when, if elected again, it will reintroduce either fee deregulation or some other new hellish measure for higher education.

Student activists should be vigilant and ready to protest against whatever round of attacks comes next. It is important that student activists across the country seek to foster a grassroots democratic movement that can challenge government policies that attack education and advance the cause of free, accessible education for all.

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