Last night on Q & A on the ABC (one of Australia’s public broadcasters) we saw some passion and democracy in action, when a group of university students in Sydney staged a very public and very noisy protest against the Abbott government’s proposed attacks on education and students. The protest was organised by the Education Action Group at Sydney University and focused on Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, who was appearing on the panel. The students sought to highlight the Abbott government’s attack on education and students, including deregulation of universities, cutting of funding and increasing student fees.
Bizarrely enough, Q & A cut broadcasting while the protest was on. However, the ABC News posted the full footage of the protest up on their youtube account soon after.
Even more bizarre was when the program resumed Q & A’s host Tony Jones, told the studio audience and viewers:
“That is not what democracy is all about and those students should understand that.”
Clearly, however, it was Jones who did not “understand” what democracy is about. As quite a few people on social media pointed out, protest and dissent are in fact “democracy in action”. The ability to protest and dissent is an essential part of the democratic functioning. To reduce “democracy” to a tightly managed and staged panel discussion, which consistently privileges elite figures, is not democracy
Overwhelmingly on the ABC News page, the Facebook response to the protest has been positive and supportive of the students actions (Click here to read).
While many rightwingers have criticised the students, so have some on the “left” – claiming as Jones did on the show – that they were not doing their cause any favour. This is, of course, nonsense.
With their action, the students have managed to gain widespread media coverage about the government attacks on students and education. Every single major media outlet in the country – whether print, television or online – has reported on the protest and the education cuts and fee hikes. Many other media sites have also reported on the protest and the government attacks. Many media articles have also promoted the upcoming national day of action on May 21.
The student’s protest and the government attacks on education has also been trending non-stop on twitter for the last 16 hours and gone viral on Facebook. Numerous blogs and articles have been written in support of the students and opposing the attack on education and students.
Melbourne: 2pm State Library of Victoria
Sydney: 2.30pm UTS Tower Building.
Perth: 2.30pm Murray St Mall
Brisbane: 2pm Queens Park
Other cities details to come
The protesting students issued a media release about their protest last night:
University Students protest on Q&A : Tuesday 6th of May, 2014 press release
Students protested in the Q&A audience yesterday in response to the proposed attacks on higher education in the Commission of Audit. The NSW Education Action Network unfurled a banner, which said: More Brains. Not Warplanes. Fund Education. May 21 Rally @ UTS 2.30pm
The banner was dropped as Education Minister Christopher Pyne confirmed his pro-deregulation stance to the higher education sector. Activists caused the national broadcast to censor the protest, diverting cameras and ultimately shutting down the shows live feed.
Ridah Hassan, Sydney University Education Officer demanded answers from Pyne from the audience of Q&A. “They have $24 billion to spend on Joint Strike Fighters but refuse to adequately fund universities, and instead force that debt onto students already studying in poverty.”
Andy Zephyr, President of the UTS Students Association applauds fellow activists in their pro-education protests. “Two thirds of students live below the poverty line. We continue to fund welfare initiatives to assist students with basic student needs: food, textbooks, stationary, affordable housing. Student Unions have continued pick up where the Government has failed too.”
Eleanor Morley, the other Sydney University Education Officer said “Abbot and Pyne have made it clear that the higher education sector is to follow a US style model, where poor and working class students are effectively locked-out of receiving a quality education. The Commission of Audit shows the Liberal Government intends on increasing the already record-levels of student debt.”
The Education Action Network will be hosting a rally on the 21st of May at 2.30pm at the base of the UTS Tower Building 1. This is part of the National Union of Students National Day of Action against the impending budget attacks of public education.
The National Union of Student’s Education Officer, Sarah Garnham (who is also a member of Socialist Alternative) outlined the government attacks on students in the following article which was published in Red Flag:
This time last year, the Labor government was preparing a federal budget with $2.3 billion worth of funding cuts to higher education.
This time round, as budget day approaches, the Coalition not only remains committed to the cuts but is also indicating that there will be many more attacks on students.
A recent speech by education minister Christopher Pyne, “Freeing universities to compete in a global education market”, set out precisely how the government views education.
“Education policy is, in many ways, economic policy”, he said. “There are enormous spinoff benefits for our domestic economy – in travel, housing, retail and investment … [W]e have expanded education to become our fourth-largest export industry after iron ore, coal and gold.”
For Pyne and the Liberals, there’s no real difference between students and minerals. Both are a source of profit; any red tape strangling its extraction must be removed. They want to find ways to both cut government funding and transfer costs to individual students.
The government recently commissioned a review of the “demand driven system” (the current semi-deregulated system) which found that while privatisation is increasing the profitability of education, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough.
The review – conducted by former Liberal federal education minister David Kemp and his closest adviser Andrew Norton – recommends the introduction of a 10 percent loan fee on HECS. It also recommends that HECS support be lowered in general and that HELP support for most postgraduate degrees be removed.
When HECS was first introduced 25 years ago, students repaid a flat fee of $5,400. Today, most students graduate with a debt upwards of $20,000.
This debt is a deterrent for many working class people, especially when coupled with cost of living increases and attacks on student welfare. Today two-thirds of students live below the poverty line.
There are also indications that the government will go further in deregulating and raising fees than recommended in the review.
The vice-chancellors from the richest universities, the Group of Eight (Go8), recently proposed an opt-out system that would allow universities to forego government funding for some courses and charge full fees.
Such a move would amount to the wholesale privatisation of courses and would lead to fee increases of up to 56 percent.
Entrenching a two-tier system
For the Go8 universities, full fees are an opportunity to further distance themselves from the poorer universities and their working class students.
They have the agreement of the education minister. “My view is that … several of our universities [must be] ranked among the very best in the world. The others are thriving in other ways”, said Pyne.
The “other ways” appear to be savage course cuts, staff cuts and, in the case of La Trobe University in Melbourne this year, the abolition of whole faculties. The “demand-driven system” introduced by Labor has already resulted in less competitive universities cutting costs and running down their institutions.
This trend was furthered by the announcement of the $2.3 billion in federal funding cuts and will be accelerated by the introduction of an unregulated fee system: a market mechanism to encourage poorer students to “choose” cheaper degrees at less resourced institutions.
Added to this, Pyne has enthusiastically endorsed another recommendation from the Kemp-Norton review: that private and non-university institutions be incorporated into the Commonwealth scheme. This will mean something very different for Bond University than it will for the majority of TAFEs.
In pursuit of this two-tier system, Pyne is openly drawing inspiration from the notorious US education system. Quoting Adelaide University vice chancellor Warren Bebbington, he said, “[Australia] could have the rich variety of the US university landscape where nearly half of all students … attend teaching-only undergraduate colleges offering only Bachelor degrees … Students have an unforgettable, utterly life-changing educational experience.”
This about a country with an enormous gulf between Ivy League colleges and community colleges; where hundreds of thousands of graduates from community colleges are working for the minimum wage or nothing at all; where only 61 percent of students are able to go to the college of their choice; where students are frequently turned away from study because private companies refuse to extend loans to them; and where student debt has recently surpassed US$1 trillion.
Students need to resist
While working class students will be most disadvantaged by deregulation, the reality is that raising fees and further reducing government funding will affect all students.
The main beneficiaries will be students from wealthy backgrounds and the bank balances of the large institutions.
Students from sandstone universities, 1970s brown brick universities, and corrugated iron/plastic pastiche universities and TAFEs need to work together to fight these attacks.
The government has made it clear that the axe will fall on budget day. Students need to respond immediately.
[The National Union of Students has called demonstrations in every major city for Wednesday 21 May and will be organising protest actions across campuses in the lead-up to those demonstrations. For more information contact your student union or education action group or the National Union of Students.]