For their biggest campaign of 2017, the peak representative body of student unions around Australia, the National Union of Students (NUS), have started a campaign called Make Education Free Again. The campaign will defend the rights of students to accessible education and liveable welfare, fight against the tertiary fee, and demand an end to the enormous debt students are saddled with.
Once upon a sweet time, tertiary education in Australia was completely free (say whaaat). This lasted until 1987 – but it means the very people who are forcing us to pay higher fees and scrape by on poorly funded welfare went to university without paying a cent. Since entering politics, these people have pushed heavily to deregulate university fees. The average annual student contribution rose to $1,800 in 1989, then to $5,183 in 1997, and further to $7,600 in 2014. At the moment, universities can only legally increase fees by a very minor percentage. Deregulation means that Vice Chancellors at Australian universities can make degrees as expensive as they like. This cruelly takes advantage of the limited options many students have in regards to their university course, and a working class that increasingly relies on a tertiary qualification simply to live within ones own means.
While deregulation was first introduced as an idea in 2014, it came after a long history of our government slowly dismantling public funding to education. Recent years have shown scholarship cuts, major cuts to student welfare, and a fee structure that makes university increasingly difficult to access. It is no wonder new research shows that approximately two thirds of university students live below the poverty line. Financial stress is not only a huge deterrent from academic success, but it disproportionately affects indigenous students and students from low-socio economic backgrounds. This issue is simply becoming more devastating for students and families by the day. A tertiary qualification is almost the requisite standard for a job that pays a living wage in Australia. Living in such a world begs the question: why is the cost of a qualification so financially crippling?
While much of the deregulation bill was blocked by Parliament, the idea still remains on the table as some university courses are already being deregulated without much public scrutiny. In 2014 when we were on the brink of a complete fee restructure that would be absolutely devastating for students across the board, NUS along with many other groups of students, launched into action by protesting in the streets. NUS President at the time Rose Steele arranged meetings that successfully convinced a number of independent senators to vote down on the bill. Fee deregulation was turned into a poisonous issue and was defeated in the senate three times. While smaller, lesser-known attacks on education have come into place then, the success student activists had with beating the main fee deregulation bill emphasises the importance of student unionism, political engagement and the effectiveness of taking action.
The Australian Government consistently implements cuts to education every year, often far from public scrutiny. Being deliberately subtle, they take advantage of an increasingly disengaged and clueless the middle class. This means that there’s seemingly no reason to protest anything – and IT’S A TRAP. Fighting back to this in the form of protesting and activism not only pressures the government, but it spreads the message far and wide that the current government does not stand for us: not for workers, not for families, and certainly not for students.
The Australian Government is also cracking into welfare. Recently, in what has been mostly labelled as a ‘scam’, thousands of dollars of false debt have been added onto Centrelink recipients. Debt notices calculated on faulty algorithms have changed the lives of thousands of people already, forcing them into the stressful task of scrambling through old payslips to prove they don’t owe money. It has been alleged that approximately 20% of the debt notices are inaccurate. There are reports of people paying of debts they don’t owe, just to stop the government hounding them. This illustrates the government’s tactful approach to welfare: make it measly, hard to access, and push as many people off as possible.
In 1974, Gough Whitlam abolished university fees with the belief that “a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education” (from his 1972 pre-election speech). These sentiments still ring true, and that’s why instead of just reacting, we are pushing for positive change.
The National Day of Action is an annual protest organised by NUS that happens on the same day, at the same time, in all major cites around the country. This is what helped students in their major win against fee regulation in 2014, and 2017’s objective is the Make Education Free Again campaign. When thousands hit the streets of cities around the country to fight for our right to affordable and accessible education, we are heard. It is absolutely vital that big numbers of students inform themselves of the completely unacceptable education inequity that this government is getting away with, and get involved with NUS campaigns.
The protest to Make Education Free Again will kick of with a bang on March 22nd at 2pm, at the State Library. There will be a barbeque held on the Menzies lawn at 12pm and a contingent from Monash will be leaving together at 1pm. All are welcome to join – and even if it’s you’re first protest, you will be apart of a large and friendly group who are keen to answer any questions.
To join student activists around the country in fighting for this right for accessible and affordable education, contact your student union about how you can get involved with NUS campaigns at events. At a more local level, the Education Public Affairs Officers or the Environment and Social Justice Officers at the Monash Student Association (MSA), located upstairs in the campus centre, are always willing to speak to students who want to know more about their campaigns or how they can get more involved.