Student speaks: Why we ‘hijacked’ Q&A for education rights
Eliza Scarpellino, one of the students who took part in the Education Action Group protest during the ABC’s political panel show Q&A on May 5, is pumped by the response to the action. The protest targetted education minster Christopher Pyne, a guest on the panel, over the Coalition government's plans to slash education funding.
“Education cuts have been largely hidden from the mainstream media," she told Green Left Weekly. "So it’s great that our action has made it to front-page news.
“We achieved what a lot of actions have been failing to do — get into the mainstream media and stimulate huge amounts of discussion [on education cuts]."
Scarpellino is a second-year student at UWS Bankstown who has to work overnight shifts on weekends. “It's the only way I can fit in my studies and be able to look after myself financially,” she said.
As well as cuts, Pyne is looking to deregulate university fees, which will lead to higher education costs for students. “We believe that tertiary education should be free,” Scarpellino said. “It's the only fair and just way to achieve equality.
“The Abbott government’s proposed cuts ... will make tertiary education only accessible for the elites. User pays is unacceptable as it ensures education is only for those who can afford it.”
The recently released Commission of Audit recommends a rise in fees of 34%. It also wants students to start paying back the fees when they earn the minimum wage, which is $32,000 a year. Debt repayments kick in now at $51,000.
Pyne made no secret of the Abbott government’s intention to deregulate the university sector. In response to several questioners asking how he could justify cutting billions from university funding, Pyne smugly replied that only 20% of the population would get to university anyway and that students could easily take out loans to repay their debt.
Pyne was fully backed by fellow panelist John Roskam from the conservative Institute of Public Affairs. Labor’s Anna Burke, while conceding that she had benefited from gaining one degree for free, said that fees were needed now.
Fee increases will simply mean less Australian students can attend university.
The World Bank says in 2010 Australia spent 5.6% of GDP on education, only slightly higher than the US figure of 5.4%. In Cuba, it was 12.8%. In Sweden, it was 7%.
Pouring more public money into private institutions is also part of the government’s agenda. It is another factor that will mean poorer students will be priced out quality tertiary education.
Activists have been struggling to get their opposition to the bi-partisan two-tiered education system heard, and their stunt on Q&A — which has increasingly become a platform for conservatives to chat and laugh — worked a treat.
Scarpellino said: “Last night wasn't about making Pyne change his mind. It was never about Pyne. We've asked nicely hundreds of times. We’ve also heard canned responses hundreds of times. The action was about stimulating discussion and getting it onto the news.”
[A National Day of Action has been planned by the National Union of Students for May 21. The March in May protests in Sydney, Perth and Adelaide on May 18 will also be another opportunity to highlight education.]