Campus protests turn to violence

April 20, 2001

Nationwide student protests over cuts to higher education spending in Australia descended into violence at the University of Melbourne last week.

The National Union of Students had called for the day of action in the lead-up to federal elections.

Seventy students were arrested after they had used axes and crowbars to break into administration buildings at Melbourne. Security guards escorted 150 frightened staff to safety as the students trashed the ninth-floor office of vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert. They opened files and scattered papers to other students below.

During the six-hour occupation, the students issued a set of demands that included a call for Professor Gilbert to resign. They said the university must agree to an industrial agreement for staff, that covered salary rises and improved conditions, and abolish Melbourne University Private and the global network Universitas 21 and make their resources available to all students.

Students also occupied university buildings at the Australian National University in Canberra and set up blockades at two universities in Brisbane.

At the University of Western Sydney, students dug up lawns in an attempt to locate old library books that had been used as landfill. They also "buried in disgust" the university's plans for faculty and campus restructures.

In Melbourne, a police spokesman said the students who had occupied the building would be charged. Professor Gilbert said they also faced a damages bill of more than A$100,000 (£35,000). Those enrolled at the university would be subject to disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion, he added.

Professor Gilbert said the university was "very comfortable with protests" but that it would not tolerate violent, unlawful conduct.

NUS president David Henderson refused to condone or condemn the Melbourne protesters. He said staff, students and the wider community were angry at the higher education crisis inflicted by Labor and Liberal governments.

"The time has come for action on this issue," Mr Henderson said. "Australia is already slipping well behind the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's average growth for public investment in higher education. Australians will not tolerate this shameful treatment of our future ability to prosper."

Australian prime minster John Howard condemned the Melbourne protest and said he could not understand how the students thought they gain anything by this action. "It only hardens attitudes in the community against providing more resources."

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