Nation-wide protests fight Gillard’s university cuts

The $2.3 billion cuts to universities have unleashed a wave of anger across the country. A national day of protest on budget day organised by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) along with student groups drew 1500 people in Melbourne and 500 in Sydney. Hundreds more protested in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and across regional campuses.

NTEU national president Jeannie Rea told the Sydney crowd that, “More than $4 billion has been slashed from higher education federal budget allocations since 2011”. She highlighted how Labor’s cuts target the poorest students, who “are the ones that are having the start-up scholarships ripped from them”.

The demonstration was also supported by a number of other unions, with speakers including Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron, Unions NSW Secretary Mark Lennon, Public Service Association General Secretary Anne Gardiner as well as Greens Senate candidate Cate Faehrmann. This shows the fight for higher education has potential to connect with broader layers of society also feeling the pressure of Gillard’s neo-liberal agenda.

But the student movement still has a big task ahead of it. With the cuts going through in the budget, the focus will shift to fighting the implementation of the cuts on individual campuses. These will begin at the start of next year as university management are faced with a 2 per cent “efficiency dividend”, code for a funding cut across the board.

Sydney University has already told students and staff that the cuts mean a $45 million hole in its budget across the next two years. But university managements are not allies in the fight against cuts. They will be the ones implementing them, and paying themselves bonuses for the trouble.

We won’t have to wait until next year to see the impact on campuses. Cuts are already being forced through even before the new funding cuts hit.

This year Architecture students at Sydney Uni have been fighting cutbacks to contact hours in Studio classes, and Education and Social Work has been told it will merged into the Arts Faculty in order to cut costs. Last year LaTrobe Uni’s Humanities Department lost 25 per cent of its staff, and around half of the 24 teaching jobs at ANU’s School of Music were cut.

But these cuts can be stopped if there are activists on the campus able to make contact with students in affected departments, and to build a campaign. By holding stalls, leafleting lectures and holding even small rallies on campus, education campaign groups can begin to build up face-to-face networks of students prepared to fight.

Last year at Sydney Uni a concerted campaign through first semester saved at least half of the 100 academic jobs management wanted to axe. Even over smaller cuts protest action can make a difference. Geosciences students at Sydney Uni in 2010 saved a number of subjects from being cut in their department after organising department meetings and a rally in protest.

If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister we can expect more cuts, and a push for the re-introduction of up-front fees for domestic students. Getting organised to strengthen the education activist groupings on campuses now will see us better placed to meet these threats.


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