University students across Australia will take to the streets on May 14 to protest the federal Labor government’s $2.8 billion cuts to higher education.
The call by the National Union of Students (NUS) for a “student strike against education cuts” has not only received support from students, but also the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which covers university staff.
On a number of campuses, NTEU members have been resisting cuts that university administrations claim are necessary due to lack of government funding.
At the University of Sydney, where a campaign against cuts has been ongoing in one form or another for more than a year, NTEU and Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) members will go on strike on May 14, and then rally with students at 1pm.
The fact that May 14 builds on anti-cuts campaigns that exist on some campuses, and counts on the support of staff and the Labor student-controlled NUS — previously in hibernation for six years under the ALP government — indicates these will probably be the biggest university protests present students have seen.
But, if on budget night, also May 14, treasurer Wayne Swan decides to ignore these protests and move ahead with the proposed cuts (by far the most likely scenario), what will it take to reverse them?
For starters, the best form of defence is attack.
In responding to these cuts, we must be forthright in denouncing them for what they are. These cuts have little to do with funding shortfalls, and everything to do with the neoliberal agenda of the Gillard government, which wants to pass the burden of funding education onto students.
Why else would it take $2.3 billion out of higher education, while it continues to provide $13 billion in coal industry subsidies, and $4 billion in mining subsidies?
Our response must not simply be limited to saying no to the current cuts.
Students are unlikely to be inspired by a campaign to simply defend the status quo (which we all agree is far from adequate). It leaves the campaign open to being demobilised if the government pretends to back down, only to implement the cuts by other means.
Instead, we need to shift the terrain of public debate by putting forward a clear alternative — a fully funded, free education system.
Campaigning for free education is not only much more likely to inspire students, it would allow the movement to directly challenge the government’s agenda that drives the cuts.
It also allows us to draw out the links between the government and university administrations, which are responsible for implementing the agenda locally.
This focus also allows students to reach out and build broader links in society, with other sectors fighting back against this neoliberal agenda — such as teachers, nurses and public sector workers — rather than pitting one sector against another as Gillard is trying to do by offering the money taken from university funding to school funding.
It gives the campaign the opportunity to raise broader issues. In Chile, students responded to the issue of “where is the funding going to come from” by coming out in solidarity with calls by the mining workers’ union to nationalise the industry and redirect mining profits towards public needs.
Shifting public debate, and challenging the government’s agenda, will require sustained, mass mobilisation. This is another critical issue for the campaign.
Too often, debates in the campaign get bogged down between those that believe in lobbying — collecting petitions to present to the university vice-chancellor — and those that believe “disrupting business as usual” — occupying the VC’s office, for example — will force them to back down.
Ironically, both views fail to see that the only way to win is by convincing greater numbers of students to become actively involved in the campaign.
No amount of petitions or small groups of students causing “disruptions” will win this campaign on their own.
In some cases, they can have the opposite effect, conveying to students the idea that a single passive act on its own will “convince” the VC or government, or that to be involved you must be part of a “militant” minority of students acting on behalf of other students.
Only when these, and many other forms of protest, are deployed with a view to convincing more students to get involved in the campaign, can they be useful towards achieving the campaign’s goals.
And it’s not just about getting students to come to rally after rally; any movement that wants to win must actively involve students in deciding the direction that the movement takes.
General student assemblies open to all students, and ongoing democratic collectives on campuses where decisions are debated out and made by all those present, are key ways for students to take ownership over the campaign.
Collaboration across campuses is also crucial to building a united fightback.
What is important is that any collective or organising body needs to be open to all groups and, more importantly, all students, the overwhelming majority of whom are not aligned with any organisation.
Finally, a perennial question that always arises is: what attitude should student activists take to NUS? For some, NUS must be entrusted with deciding what happens in the campaign. For others, NUS is a bureaucratic rump that should simply be pushed aside.
In the current situation, both approaches are wrong.
Students should strive to make NUS accountable to its members — the students — and ensure elected office bearers take their lead from student-based committees operating on and across campuses.
By not demanding this of our national student union, we let those that run it off the hook.
On the other hand, the campaign should not be beholden to whatever decision NUS takes in the end. If they come on board, great; if they don’t, this does not mean the campaign should stop.
What it does mean is that students will need to organise to win back control of NUS.
This will not be done by getting better office bearers elected, but rather by working to transform NUS into a participatory union in the hands of its members.