Universities across Australia faced their worst collective disruption in memory last week as thousands of staff and students went on strike for 24 hours over the prospect of savage cuts in federal spending on higher education.
Classes were cancelled, libraries shut and many campuses were deserted as academics, general staff and students attended mass rallies and protest marches. At the University of Sydney, according to one source, "you could fire a cannon in the grounds and only the gargoyles would hear it".
Striking academics set up picket lines outside all main campuses and asked colleagues not to cross but did not prevent those wanting to enter from going ahead. "They were audible but courteous," a senior official at Monash University in Melbourne said.
The strike was part of a national week of action called by the National Tertiary Education Union to protest at likely cuts and the government's failure to respond to a 15 per cent pay claim.
The NTEU warned that even a 3 per cent cut in university operating grants would mean the loss of nearly 8,000 student places and 2,700 jobs. A spokesman said a 12 per cent cut - as suggested by federal education minister Amanda Vanstone during talks with the vice chancellors - would mean that 48,000 students would miss out on a place or that 19,000 positions would have to be eliminated.
In an unprecedented move, seven groups formed a "Higher Education Alliance" to defend universities against the cuts. The alliance includes the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, the NTEU, the two national student organisations, the main scholarly academies of science, humanities, social sciences and technological sciences and the federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies.
At a launch of the alliance in Parliament House in Canberra last week, NTEU president Carolyn Allport said a forum would be held shortly to expose the "folly of what the government is doing".
Deputy president of the AVCC, Geoff Wilson, said that in country regions of Australia - where there is growing concern at the possible impact of cuts on the survival of some universities - it had been estimated that for every one job lost in higher education, three other jobs would disappear.
Vice chancellors are deeply worried that the government is intent on cutting federal grants to universities, but the size of the cuts will not be known until the annual budget in August. They claim that if the cuts are applied immediately - as seems the government's intention - it leaves no time for appropriate action for the new academic year early in 1997.
The extraordinary response from the higher education community, and the widespread media coverage of academic concerns, is having an impact on the conservative government of prime minister John Howard. Mr Howard told parliament he would meet with vice chancellors to discuss their fears and that he recognised the importance of universities to the national well-being.
Senator Vanstone has also made herself available for interviews and meetings with lobby groups and has stopped referring to universities as "places of privilege". But she continues to insist that higher education must share the burden of government cost-cutting as it tries to fill a "fiscal black hole" left by the former Labor government.
In a statement to parliament, Senator Vanstone said that under Labor, Commonwealth spending on universities between 1983 and 1996 had increased by 67 per cent. Yet in the same period, road funding - "another vital area of national infrastructure" - was halved while money allocated to the nation's principal research organisation remained stagnant.
She called on vice chancellors to cooperate with the government by suggesting where cuts could best be made. But the AVCC remains adamant that it cannot assist in taking action that will damage the sector. It has suggested a working party be established where government plans could be developed.