Massive protests attack Oz policy

April 10, 1998

They marched and sang, they listened to rousing speeches, and they chanted for hours outside state and federal parliaments across the nation's capitals.

It may have been April 1, but the thousands of Australian academics and students who joined protest rallies and marches last week were not fooling.

In the mass demonstrations against the federal government's higher education policies, protesters warned politicians that this was just the beginning of a long campaign.

In one of the largest higher education walkouts in Australia's history, university staff and students deserted their campuses. They were joined by thousands of teachers from technical and further education colleges. Together they marched and rallied in every major city and regional centre.

Students occupied the administration building of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In Canberra protesters surrounded Parliament House and called for federal education minister David Kemp to be sacked.

Inside the house of representatives, Dr Kemp was telling parliamentarians that universities were better funded than ever, and the government, he said, had created 10,000 more student places over the past two years. The protesters dismissed these claims as laughable and called on Dr Kemp to engage in public debate over the government's record.

This first national day of action for 1998 is unlikely to be the last. It was called by academic, teacher and student unions to highlight the education community's concerns about the effects that funding cuts and higher student fees are having on the quality and accessibility of tertiary education.

Although not endorsing the academics' decision to stop work, vice-chancellors expressed support for the protesters' goal of arousing public opinion against the government's budget cuts to higher education and its raising tuition fees.

John Niland, president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, said that public funding of universities had fallen to unsafe levels and needed to be rectified as a matter of national priority. "The amber lights are flashing, and we have been given warning that we have a precious commodity that is in danger of being compromised." He added that vice-chancellors understood the sense of anger among academics and students.

Carolyn Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said higher education will be a crucial issue at the next federal election, which is widely expected to be held in the second half of this year. "The public has shown its support for accessible, high-quality public education over recent years," she said. "Any political party that fails to recognise this does so at its own peril."

Professor Niland said that everyone involved in universities had to work to ensure that higher education is a key element in the election debate.

"In Britain, both major parties retired hurt on education before last year's election and stayed behind the parapets when there was talk of higher education issues," he said. "I would not like to see that happen here. The conservative parties and Labor need to be out on the policy playing fields on higher education."

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