Students declare victory

2 December 2014
Sarah Garnham

Students have just had a major victory over the Abbott government.

Seven months ago Christopher Pyne smirked maliciously down at us and announced the higher education section of the federal budget. It included a 20 percent cut to the government contribution to fees, a massive escalation on the interest rates for student loans, and millions of dollars of funding cuts. The centrepiece was the total deregulation of fees which would have seen them double or even treble. Most economic modelling predicted that $100,000 fees would become standard.

Pyne’s dream was for the Australian university system to become a carbon copy of the notorious US education model, where inequality is writ large; where there are universities exclusively for the rich and those exclusively for the poor; where poor people rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for degrees that are virtually useless on the job market.

Every last aspect of Pyne’s reform package has been defeated in the Senate this evening. This is the most significant victory for the student movement in many years. It is a product of the tenacious student and staff campaign that has raged since the budget was released in May. The campaign has involved the biggest student protests in almost a decade and the constant hounding of the Liberal ministers by mobs of angry students.

Throughout the year, many Liberal ministers were forced to cancel visits to our campuses. For those appearances that they kept, bodyguards became compulsory. Students have had them running scared for months.

If anything, the Senate is well behind the times. This debate was lost months ago with the public. As early as June fee deregulation was opposed by a majority of the population and was seen as one of the top three worst budget reforms. This represented a massive turnaround in public opinion since the budget was released. Initially fee deregulation was one of the least opposed and least understood measures in the budget. The persistent media images of students marching through the streets and heckling Liberal ministers was crucial in changing that.

The other thing that steadily changed was the position of the opposition parties and independents in Parliament. When Pyne’s reforms were first announced, only the Greens came out against them. It was the student campaign and the corresponding shift in public opinion that pushed Labor, PUP and the cross-benchers into opposing the reforms.

This victory is a glaring confirmation of the fact that protests and militancy are the way forward for the student movement, and for campaigns against the Liberals more generally.

Students should relish this victory and take a moment to watch the speeches made by dishevelled Liberal senators in the final moments of life for their reform bill, but we also need to remember that one vote will not save students from these attacks.

Just half an hour after his bill was defeated, Pyne announced on Facebook that he will be working on a new bill for tomorrow. But even if the Liberals are unable to move anything this year, the Abbott government will be out for revenge going into next year, and they will have months between now and the next parliamentary sitting to dream up deregulation 2.0, as well as a raft of other attacks on students.

Apart from the Liberals wanting revenge, the full scale privatisation of the university sector is something that the ruling class have been demanding for some time. Students need to be ready to battle any reforms suggested by any party that push in this direction.

The victory we have had today and the campaign that led to it should be the template for our future struggles.

Sarah Garnham is the National Education Officer in the National Union of Students.

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