New education minister Christopher Pyne has given a revealing interview outlining some of the Coalition’s intentions regarding higher education in Australia. They are not good news.

They involve scrapping Labor’s plan to increase university places for working class and disadvantaged students, an inquiry into the quality of higher education (read: further cuts imminent) and attacks on student unions.

While Pyne backed away from his remarks almost immediately, his loose lips clearly show that behind the well-crafted wall of silence, the Abbott government has public education clearly in its sights.

After 11 years of the Howard Liberal government and a further six of Labor, it’s hard to believe that conditions on campuses could get worse. Staff are already overworked and underpaid, students unions are reduced to a shadow of what they were prior to voluntary student unionism, and university funding has been cut to the bone. But this will not deter the Liberals from stepping up the attack.

To stop Abbott and Pyne, we will need a determined fight back from students and staff. Student unions will need to throw all the resources at their disposal into resisting the government. Students will need to mobilise in significant numbers. And the radical politics the Liberals are so intent on stamping out will need to inspire a new generation not prepared to stand idle while odious silvertails like Christopher Pyne turn our universities into right wing profit-driven playgrounds for the children of the elite.

Higher education under Howard

Although there was no mention of it during the 1996 election campaign, attacks on the higher education sector were high on Howard’s order of business when he came to power 17 years ago.

More than $5 billion was cut from higher education during his first two terms, with overall cuts amounting to 5 percent of the sector’s budget. During these years, the proportion of university funding provided by the federal government dropped to 40 percent (down from 85 percent in 1987), forcing universities to rely increasingly on corporate sponsorship and fees from students.

The Howard government also passed special laws, known as the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRRs), which allowed direct ministerial intervention into workplace agreements on campuses. HEWRRs made university funding contingent on the stripping of staff wages and conditions, and undermined academic freedom by giving the government greater scope to influence university management, research funding and the hiring of staff.

For students, there was no shortage of reasons to despise Howard. The Liberal government increased HECS by up to 168 percent, axed 20,000 government funded student places, introduced domestic up-front fees (with some degrees costing up to $100,000), slashed student income support, lowered the income level at which HECS must be repaid and attempted to smash student unions.

Voluntary student unionism (VSU) was for Howard as much about undermining a sense of collective consciousness and identification with unions as it was about financially crippling student unions and crushing the left. VSU banned the collection of student union fees. This affected not only the democratic right of students to political representation and to engage in activism, but also the functioning of chess clubs, sporting groups and a myriad of other associations and service providers.

The threat of VSU produced some of the largest student mobilisations in many years, including 15,000 nationally in 2005. The government showed characteristic contempt for mass opinion and passed the laws anyway. Students unions and campus culture are yet to fully recover from this assault.

Labor in power

The election of a Labor government in 2007 did little to reverse the legacy of Howard, instead ushering in a new wave of attacks. The release of the Bradley Review of Higher Education in 2008, which recommended wide ranging funding changes for universities, was the catalyst for Labor’s deregulation of university places and move towards a demand driven funding model.

Under this model, universities receive funding according to how many students they can attract to their courses.

At one level, this was a positive development. Insofar as increasing the number of university places means more students who want to can access higher education, and not just those from well-off backgrounds with private school credentials, it was something worthy of support. There is no argument for or reason that entry to university should be restricted.

However, without adequate funding for the increased places, it meant a heavier workload for staff, poorer quality courses and fewer learning resources for students. It also created pressure on universities to treat students as customers and courses as products to be marketed. The aim became more about maximising sales than providing a critical and stimulating educational experience for all.

So the expansion of university education needed to be accompanied by corresponding funding increases. Unfortunately, this is not what we got from Labor. Instead we got cuts that rivalled Howard’s in their viciousness. In April 2013 Gillard slashed $2.3 billion from university funding, scrapped the discount on up-front HECS and converted the badly needed student start-up scholarships into loans students will be forced to repay.

These changes made a mockery of Labor’s rhetoric about encouraging more working class and poor people to enrol in university. They have also strengthened the hand of administrations to force down the conditions of staff, will lead to substantial course cuts and can only compromise the quality of university teaching and research.

Student unions

Expectations were dashed in relation to student unions. Where many hoped Labor would restore democratic rights on campus and reverse VSU, they instead capitulated to the idea that it is the role of governments to stifle political organising and activity on campuses.

The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), Labor’s answer to VSU, is collected and controlled by university administrations and can be spent only on a highly restricted list of activities and purposes. Political organising is not one of them.

Prior to VSU, student unions, subject to some limitations, controlled the money collected from students for their unions. They were able to spend this according to the democratic will of student organisations.

“Student control of student affairs” (the demand that student unions should be free from interference from university administrations and governments) was a key rallying cry during the campaign against VSU.

That Labor refused to reinstate this basic democratic right was an insult to students and evidence that they have as much to gain as the conservatives from stamping out left wing organising on campuses.

What we can expect today

Despite its shortcomings, it is imperative that student unions fight to defend the SSAF from the Liberals’ threats to repeal it. The scrapping of SSAF would drastically affect the funding and operation of student unions. For this reason, all stops should be pulled out to defend the unions. Pyne wants to use such a move as a general anti-union ideological offensive that must also be resisted. Students need to stand up for their right to organise, not retreat to defending services, football teams or whatever else they hope will seem inoffensive to conservatives. Cowering and capitulating will not stop the Liberals or save our student unions.

Scrapping the SSAF will not be the only line of attack. The Liberals want student unions eradicated partly so that they face less resistance. The review into the “quality” of higher education that Pyne has announced is about gearing up for such attacks.

Already, university participation targets for disadvantaged students have been abandoned. Pyne has sent a strong message that, in his view, universities are not primarily places of learning, but a key export that has to be better marketed to those who can pay.

Education-related exports have been declining in absolute terms over the last three years, and Pyne sees lifting universities’ prestige in the international market as key to reversing the trend. Whether this translates into greater corporatisation of universities, higher fees for domestic and international students or a shift towards more marketable, business-oriented courses remains to be seen. But whatever form it takes, education under the Liberal government is in jeopardy.

A final aspect of the government’s assault on critical thought is its intention to interfere in academic freedom and the content of research undertaken in universities. As education minister during the Howard years, Brendan Nelson was known for vetoing decisions of the Australian Research Council that didn’t fit in with his business-oriented view. In 2012, opposition spokesperson for finance Andrew Robb ridiculed that year’s ARC grants.

The Liberals have again flagged a more interventionist role. High schools have already had a taste of this, with Pyne attempting to restart the history wars. He thinks that the school curriculum doesn’t pay enough attention to the glorious history of the Liberal Party in government or to the heroic deeds of its filthy rich and privileged constituency.

Students and staff have a fight on their hands under Abbott. In order to defend the idea of properly resourced universities open to all students, we will need to be prepared to raise hell. We will need properly funded student unions not afraid to speak out against the government. We will need to be openly defiant, mobilise students and stand in solidarity with staff. To be successful, we will need to start organising the fight back today.