AUSTRALIAN education unions have swung behind the opposition Labor Party, following a decision by Labor's national conference last week to boost spending on universities, technical colleges and schools if the party wins the next election later this year.
In an unprecedented move, the biggest education union, the Australian Education Union, has decided to campaign for the defeat of the conservative government led by prime minister John Howard.
The anti-Howard move by the AEU has been backed by the National Tertiary Education Union, which is collaborating with the National Union of Students to have all eligible students put on the electoral roll this year.
AEU president Sharan Burrow said that prime minister John Howard and his party must be defeated. She said that the re-election of a conservative government would mean further dismantling "of the things we value''.
Labor's national conference adopted a policy committing the next Labor government to:
* expand student places in universities and technical colleges
* abolish full fees for undergraduates (which were introduced by the conservatives this year)
* reform the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
With opinion polls showing that Labor has taken the lead over the conservatives, the unions have become increasingly hopeful of a change of government.
Mr Howard has given strong indications that he will call a double dissolution of both houses of parliament, possibly by mid-year, after the senate has amended legislation on Aboriginal land rights.
Addressing the national conference, Labor education spokesman Mark Latham said the Howard government was the first in Australia's history to wind back the scale of public education, research and training. Australia was now the only nation in the western world with an increasing ratio of military to education spending.
He accused the government of slashing university grants by more than Aus$800 million (Pounds 400 million) and abolishing 21,000 student places while cutting spending on technical and further education. Some 60,000 were missing out on TAFE courses each year.
"This policy commits a Labor government to re-growing university and TAFE places (and) we will support the expansion of adult and community education through a new system of learning accounts.'' The policy says university education should be open to all. It says Labor opposes student-centred funding systems, including vouchers, but that there is benefit in greater funding flexibility in labour market programmes and adult education.