Thousands of chanting university students took to the streets of state capitals across Australia in a national day of action against government policies in general, and proposals for a youth allowance that would cap payments to students in particular.
Student leaders said the marches, ahead of next month's budget, were the first in what would be a year-long campaign of protests against the conservative government and any further increases in fees or reductions in spending on higher education.
John Carey, president of the National Union of Students, said students were fighting against an increasingly privatised and elitist education system.
The government had made financial support through the Austudy scheme harder to get and its proposed common youth allowance would further restrict benefits available to students and other young people.
Mr Carey said the rallies were also the first opportunity students had had to express their anger publicly since the Senate passed legislation in December increasing tuition charges, introducing upfront fees for home students and changing the rules for Austudy.
The proposed common allow-ance would combine student grants and unemployment benefits. It is supposed to apply from next January and is expected to affect more than 600,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 20, as well as full-time students up to 25.
In its first budget, last August, the government said a standard allowance would simplify the range of 13 different payments and would offer greater incentives for young people to continue their education. It would also enable the government to introduce parental means testing of young Australians receiving unemployment benefits.
Apart from the planned allowance, the government decided to lift the age of independence for students claiming Austudy benefits from 22 to 25, thereby reducing payments to thousands of recipients. Federal education minister Amanda Vanstone said at the time that details of how the allowance scheme would work would be decided early this year "after community consultation".
It is not clear what consultation has since taken place and the government has not yet released any details, but Mr Carey described the common allowance as an attack on the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the community.
"The changes to Austudy have already seen 20 per cent of those eligible for benefits last year lose some or all of the money they were receiving," Mr Carey said. "The youth allowance will cut more people off - forcing students out of university or into extreme poverty."
The National Tertiary Education Union, representing 25,000 academics and general staff, strongly backed the students' pro-tests. NTEU federal assistant secretary, Kerry Lewis, said adequate financial assistance for low-income students was essential. "We are faced with the possible disintegration of student support altogether through the creation of the proposed common youth allowance," she said.