Students are demonstrating against Australia’s latest higher education funding reforms, castigating the government for unleashing “the biggest cut to university funding in Australian history” while it spends money to expand arms exports.
The National Union of Students was set to hold rallies on 21 March in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney, in the wake of a protest on 20 March in Newcastle. Rallies were also scheduled over the next few days in Wollongong and Perth.
The campaign follows the unveiling of A$2.2 billion (£1.2 billion) in cuts in December’s mid-year budget statement. The government did not need legislation to implement the major measure, a two-year freeze on university teaching grants, and has already rejected university calls for the freeze to be reversed.
However, it needs parliamentary approval to enforce the other main changes: a lifetime borrowing limit for student loans, and a A$10,000 reduction in the salary threshold at which graduates must start repaying their loans.
Labor and the Greens oppose both measures, which means they would need the backing of at least nine of the 11 minor party senators. The senate has so far blocked every attempt by the current Coalition government to cut university funding, and the bill must pass parliament’s lower house before the senate even considers it.
NUS president Mark Pace said it was important for students to raise awareness about the cuts, despite the difficulties the government faced in enforcing them. He said the NUS could claim credit for the defeat of former education minister Christopher Pyne’s 2014 attempt to deregulate fees, with “mass demonstrations” by students prompting cross-bench senators to reject the idea.
“It’s become clear that students play a pivotal role in changing public perception on a whole range of higher education issues,” he said.
The students are also demanding free education and “fair pay and job security” for university staff, in a campaign backed by the academics’ union.
“Students have a right to feel under attack and short-changed, particularly when the funding cuts to their educations are being used to help bankroll corporate tax cuts,” said Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union.
Some of the rallies also oppose the government’s unrelated decision to establish a $3.8 billion fund to bankroll loans for local arms manufacturers. “The Liberals remain on the warpath against students, intent on cutting A$2.2 billion from universities at the same time the government has announced a A$3.8 billion handout to weapons manufacturers,” a Facebook notice advertising the Sydney rally says.
“[Prime Minister Malcolm] Turnbull wants Australia to become a major exporter of death and destruction.”
Mr Pace defended the union’s description of the December cuts as the biggest in Australian history. He said that while other proposals had involved more savings, the funding freeze had been the largest “that the government actually got away with”.
Education minister Simon Birmingham said the passage of the current legislation was vital. “This bill will ensure Australia can maintain a sustainable, accessible and fair higher education loan system into the future,” he said.