Within days of the government announcing its raft of new attacks on higher education, students were striking back with protest actions targeting politicians in the lead-up to the budget.
On 1 May, education minister Simon Birmingham met with vice-chancellors at the five-star Hotel Realm in Canberra. His plans for an intimate hobnob away from the unwashed masses were upset when the event was crashed by more than a dozen students, whose protest was splashed across breakfast television the next morning.
On Wednesday, it was Julie Bishop’s turn, as she turned up to Adelaide University to receive an honorary doctorate. Protesters, who had been called to the venue by student union education officer Daniel Neser, yelled and chanted as she entered the sandstone Bonython Hall.
On Thursday, it was Malcolm Turnbull’s turn. His office in Sydney, in the wealthy inner east suburb of Edgecliff, was beset by student activists from UNSW, the University of Sydney, UTS and Western Sydney University. The protest was followed by a march through the streets.
On the same day, students outside Simon Birmingham’s office in Adelaide posted enlarged posters of Birmingham’s election material from when he ran for student president in the 1990s – and promised to campaign against government attacks on students.
But the Canberra students who went to meet the man himself garnered the most media attention. One of them described the scene for Red Flag:
“Four of us bought tickets to Birmingham’s Press Club event. We got up and rushed the stage when he started talking about higher education reforms, chanting, ‘No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities!’ and holding a banner and posters supporting free education.”
Another contingent, organised by the ANU student association, protested outside.
Con Karavias, whose face was plastered all over the news for the admirable achievement of managing to throw a napkin in Birmingham’s face during the protest, commented to Red Flag: “Birmingham tried to brush off the protest as a rite of passage, which reveals how long students have had to be fighting against a regressive education agenda”.
There will be more protests in the coming week, culminating in marches in cities across the country on Wednesday 17 May.