Who is Gillard’s education revolution for?

Sydney university picket line, June 1. Photo: Peter Boyle

Like most sectors of society, the education system in Australia is under attack. For decades, education has been underfunded, so when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she intended to fund the Gonski reforms, many people were temporarily relieved.

Then she said that, to pay for primary and high school education reforms, the government would cut funding to universities. Private schools won’t lose funding and, in some cases, will get more. Yet the ailing TAFE system would get nothing.

So much for an education revolution.

Education at all levels fights desperately just to hold on to what funding it now has, let alone trying to win better funding and conditions. Schools, universities and TAFEs face staff cuts and more casualisation, subject and course cuts, larger class sizes, unpaid overtime, and less face-to-face contact between staff and students. More and more, universities transform from well-rounded institutions for ideas and progress into mundane factories for the production of qualified workers and their future ruling class.

But students don’t have to just accept this. Students still have the potential to be a radical element and lead major social struggles. The protest response to the cuts so far has been small, but important. A look around the world throughout history shows the potential for what could be done.

The student rebellion in France in 1968 is the most obvious example of the role of students in leading social struggles, for their own interests and broader societies. In recent years, student strikes in Quebec and Chile began with education demands and drew in broader sections of society. Austerity-stricken Europe and the Arab Spring have had big contingents of unemployed youth and graduates leading the struggles.

Socialists aim to build a movement for the liberation of humanity. They seek to convince people that a better world is possible, and organise the fight to make that a reality. Universities are fertile places for these ideas.

Despite neoliberal attacks, universities remain an important area where young people come to learn about the world. Young people are more open to a radical analysis, and students aren’t yet tied down with careers that they might be afraid to lose by supporting social struggles.

Students are, generally, more open to radical ideas and more willing and able to take action.

The recent history of the student movement in Australia has not been on the same scale as elsewhere, and there are reasons for this. The onslaught of neoliberalism has created a generally depoliticised society, and young people have not escaped that. Many students have to work while studying and have less time than in the past to devote to activism.

But as the global economic crisis has worsened, the government response of austerity will worsen conditions and spark resistance. The bad education policies that the Labor and Liberal parties put forward will make people open to look for rational solutions, and socialists need to provide ideas.

The challenge is to find ways to translate anger into action. Clear demands are important. Fighting for reforms under capitalism isn’t a bad thing to do. But to spread socialist ideas, socialist activists need to put forward clear demands that will help people to see the true nature of society.

These must be sensible ideas that people can relate to in their present situation, at their level of political consciousness. The demands should also inspire people.

This task is made quite easy when we have the government and opposition coming up with policies that cause suffering and hardship for people.

An example of a clear demand is free education. This country once had free tertiary education. Things have changed significantly since then with the continuing rollout of neoliberalism since the 1980s.

The political struggle to make education free would be a huge fight that would politicise people and open their eyes to the reality of capitalist society.

A demand like free education doesn’t just provide links between students’ immediate demands and a broader understanding of society. It is also an offensive strategy that targets the root cause of the immediate demands, that is, free education is an assault on the neoliberal agenda itself.

It allows the movement to build links with broader society.

Free education would require an overhaul of government priorities. The government says there isn’t enough money to properly fund even the immediate demands to stop cuts. It says the same for many other sectors including health, welfare and the public service.

Resistance believes that, in order to achieve free and accessible education for all who want it, society would have to nationalise the banks and mines, and raise taxes on corporations and the rich. Part of this wealth could then be redirected to public schools, universities and TAFEs.

To win such a demand requires a fundamental break from the powerful and vested interests that exist in governments and corporations. It would need more than just students, but citizens from all sectors and backgrounds to take part in a movement to challenge corporate rule.

Resistance believes students have the potential to spark such a movement, if they are organised, open and committed.