By Angela Walker
PERTH — Students from the University of Western Australia Austudy Reform Action Group completed 10 days of protests against cuts to education funding with a demonstration at the Fremantle CES Office on May 30.
Approximately 50 students registered with the CES and then proceeded to the office of John Dawkins, the federal member for employment, education and training, to complain that, for many students, Austudy payments are still less than unemployment benefits.
Students began the campaign on May 20 by erecting a tent city at the University of Western Australia. Despite wet weather, students camped outside the main library for five days.
The tent city received overwhelming support from university staff, local media and students from UWA and other campuses. There were protests, speakers and events every day.
On May 21, a public meeting organised by students in conjunction with the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations (FAUSA) moved from Perth Town Hall to the Hay Street Mall after the caretaker failed to turn up to unlock the hall. Undeterred, speakers addressed students, academics and passers-by about the state of the education system.
Student speakers from Murdoch University and UWA highlighted the growing concern among students that they are being forced out of study by lack of financial support only to join the lengthening dole queues. They pointed out the changes that have occurred under the federal Labor government's education "restructuring" plan and the need for students to form a strong opposition now.
A FAUSA representative told the meeting that academic wages were so low that, by the time a student had attained all the qualifications of a senior lecturer, they would never be able to repay their HECS graduate tax debt.
Ian Alexander, independent Labor member for Perth, spoke at the tent city on May 23, expressing his solidarity with the students and informing them that it appeared the state government, despite wide opposition from Labor Party ranks, would approve the planned land grant for the Notre Dame private university.
John Dawkins also visited the campus during the week. As he arrived to speak at a breakfast for business administration students, he was confronted by students from the tent city. Dawkins briefly attempted to answer their questions but then sought refuge in the restaurant. The students followed with banners, chanting their demands, and staged a sit-in inside the restaurant until police were called.
Spokesperson for the students Rachel Ball said, "Students can't help feeling resentful that their minister can afford expensive breakfasts while they have to struggle to afford basic food for the week. Maybe if politicians like John Dawkins tried to survive off Austudy in these hard economic times, they might have more sympathy for students."
The students plan to continue the campaign, leading up to a large anti-budget action. The Austudy Reform Action Group can be contacted via the UWA Guild, Nedlands 6009.