On Wednesday 25th March, university students at the ANU and across the country united in protest for another National Day of Action (NDA) against deregulation of Australian universities.
Union Court was once again flooded with a sea of t-shirts emblazoned with “Stop the Cuts” and signs begging Abbott and Pyne to resign, a familiar sight to those who were there to witness the multiple rallies against deregulation that were held last year.
However, while last year’s rallies were preceded by strong build-ups and were swathed in media attention, the lead up to Wednesday’s rally was more one of confusion. The success of previous NDAs, held last year in March and August was clear – the bill proposing deregulation failing to get through the senate twice is evidence of that. So when students were once again called upon to rally against proposed deregulation less than a week after it had been defeated the second time, more than a few were left asking why.
However as students gathered in Union Square for the ANUSA-organised event, the multiple speakers presented their message very clearly: as long as Pyne is vowing to never give up on deregulation, students won’t give up on fighting it.
ANUSA Education Officer Jock Webb emphasised that student actions over 2014 and 2015 should be celebrated, remarking that “the crossbenchers have listened to students”.
But Webb also foreshadowed the need to continue protesting. “The ‘fixer’ is still trying to destroy the system and he will never give up, and neither will we.”
Jack Bowers from the National Tertiary Education Union and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon also addressed the students, presenting similar messages of congratulations on the success of the previous protests against deregulation, and the need to keep going to ensure the tertiary education is accessible, equitable, of a high quality and open to any student who wishes to access it.
Students of the ANU were more than willing to respond to that call. Undergraduate students, Elinor and Gemma, said they were concerned by the prospect of financial barriers to accessibility of education.
They emphasised that “the benefit of education to society outweighs the cost, an educated nation is a strong nation”.
They, like other students, were fearful that deregulation would present problems for their younger siblings who also wished to attend university. Others still said that they were taking part in the rally because they were angry and felt the government doesn’t “value the right of education for all”.
The National Union of Student’s ACT Education Officer Vishnupriya De took the stage last, amping up the crowd with her high levels of energy and passion. She too thanked those who participated in previous rallies, saying: “cheers to everybody who hit the streets in 2014, thanks to you, Pyne now cannot step foot on university campuses without being reminded that he is a scumbag.”
But De also got straight to the point of why there was still a need to take to the streets in protest: “two thirds of students are living below the poverty line while Vice-Chancellors are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
“We have to keep protesting, this is not the last time we will rally in 2015.”
De then lead the group in a march through ANU towards the chancellery chanting “no cuts, no fees, no corporate universities”, making it clear that as long as Pyne is still trying to “fix” the system, they will be standing ready to fight it for the benefit of tertiary education for all in Australia.
Attention must also be paid to the amount of work that goes into hosting an event such as the NDA. ANUSA Education Officer Jock Webb revealed that “this year there has been a team of dedicated students on the ground doing this work. Considerable time is also spent building for the event, using smaller events such as direct actions and stunts to get the word out”.
On this note, Webb brought up that for this particular NDA, the ANUSA Education Committee hosted a ‘Education Circus’ themed Universal Lunch Hour to “show the deregulation package of reforms for what a circus it is”.
However Webb was clearly happy with how the rally went, considering the 25th March National Day of Action as very successful. “Proportionate to undergrad population size, we had by far one of the largest turnouts in the country.”
Webb also stated that “the opportunity for students to speak their minds on these issues is absolutely invaluable and when those voices can be heard and praised in a national arena, as this action allowed, that action has achieved its desired outcomes”.
While the Government’s Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 was defeated in the Senate on 17th March, it is clear that Webb has all intentions of holding further rallies in the future. While Webb considers the defeat of the bill as “a huge win for students and the community and a great testament to all of the work done by student activists and advocates”, he also said that “the threat of the deregulation of university fees is by no means gone”.
“The Prime Minister and Minister for Education have both unequivocally stated that some iteration of this policy will resurface and a number of university sector voices have been speaking of deregulation as though it were inevitable for some time.”
Webb stated that is was for this reason that this is a “particularly critical juncture in the discourse”.
“We must not think that this issue has disappeared simply because it’s not currently tabled in the Houses of Parliament. Doing so would make the entire higher education sector vulnerable. We are acting in favour of a more accessible, quality system of higher education.”