It was only three years ago that the Liberals last tried to wage war on university students. Prime minister Tony Abbott and his weasel-faced education minister Christopher Pyne set out to deregulate university fees – a measure that was predicted to saddle students with as much as $100,000 of debt and entrench a two-tier, US-style education system. Instead, deregulation is dead and buried, and its two champions, Abbott and Pyne, banned from the adults’ table.
But like a goldfish forgetting its last lap around the bowl, the Liberals are again targeting students in the 2017 federal budget. Abbott’s dismissal and Pyne’s demotion from the education portfolio have not changed the intent of the government to turn higher education into a user-pays system.
In 2014, I was involved in the campaign against deregulation at the University of Sydney. It kicked off in May, when a crowd of student activists crashed a live broadcast of the ABC’s Q&A featuring Christopher Pyne.
In the middle of Pyne lying through his teeth in response to audience questions, we brought the tightly stage-managed show to a halt as we unfurled a banner and began chanting.
A horrified Tony Jones told us in his best schoolmasterly voice that we were disrupting “democracy in action” (by which he meant his TV show). But in spite of a torrent of outrage from Jones and the right wing commentariat, our protest instantly gained widespread support on social media and in online polls. The Liberals’ policy was deeply unpopular, and we were on our way to making it toxic.
Over the next few weeks at the University of Sydney, we had more than our fair share of sport – chasing Liberal politicians off campus whenever they were spotted. Our first target was Julie Bishop, who was mobbed by an outraged crowd of students we had gathered by running into lecture theatres and calling everyone out.
Next was George Brandis and – once again – Christopher Pyne, who had to listen to loud, angry chants as they adjudicated the Howard Debating Cup (yes this is a real thing – dedicated to “celebrating the legacy of the Howard government”) in one of the university’s posh colleges.
Both these actions made the evening news and became a popular topic of discussion for students across the campus.
But our biggest show of force came a week after fee deregulation was announced in the federal budget. The National Union of Students held a student day of protest that attracted thousands across the country. In Sydney, 4,000 students mobilised for the biggest student demo in a decade, carrying home-made placards with creative insults about Chris “the fixer” Pyne, and cheering when a copy of the horror budget was burned mid-rally.
The student fightback succeeded in making fee deregulation one of the most hated aspects of Abbott’s budget. While the Liberals argued that higher education is a privilege that should be paid for, most people remained convinced that it is a right that should be accessible to all.
Our campaign succeeded in making the policy toxic – politicians outside the Liberal Party were terrified that touching it would seriously hinder their chances of re-election, and thus voted it down all three times it was put to the Senate.
The Liberals have clearly not learned their lesson about the political risk of taking on young people. Luckily, there is an entire student population ready to teach them.