Hundreds of students today rallied in the CBD against the Coalition’s proposed cuts to university education, which would be the biggest in 18 years.
The march in Melbourne was part of a nation-wide demonstration organised by the National Union of Students, with protests occurring in every major city.
RMIT students met on Bowen Street before marching to the State Library, joining students from other Victorian universities.
A number of speakers addressed the gathered crowd, including Greens Senator elect Janet Rice, who spoke about the need to support public education, and her history as an activist.
“Since I left university I have been an activist, campaigner and rabble-rouser all those years,” Rice said. “I know that we suffer setbacks from time to time, and this government is one of those setbacks.
“I take my place in the Senate in July, and I am taking you with me. Get angry, get determined, and together we can turf them out in two and a half years time.”
The rally marched down Swanston Street before turning up Bourke Street towards the steps of Parliament House, where they were met by a wall of police.
Police estimate around 200-300 people were involved in the rally.
National Union of Students Education Officer Sarah Garnham, who organised the rally, says the protest is in response to the Coalition government “attacking” various aspects of education.
“The main reason we’re protesting today is the massive funding cuts which the government are attempting to put through,” Garnham says. “The government made it crystal clear when they took office that they want to attack students.
“We’re looking at, in financial terms, millions and millions of dollars per university as a result of these funding cuts.”
Garnham says students do not get enough of an influence in education debates, and today’s rally is about giving them a voice.
“The government sets up all these reviews and puts all these hatchet men and women to task, and students have been given no voice in these forums,” Garnham says. “Today is about saying that we actually have something to say about these proposals, it’s about getting as many students together as possible to reject the government’s agenda and to kick start a campaign that will hopefully see many more actions like this”.
The cuts were originally introduced to Parliament by the Labor Government in April last year to give more funding to schools. However, now in opposition, Labor is rejecting its own legislation. Higher education spokesman Kim Carr saying it was because the Coalition had not adopted the Gonski reform model in full.
As Labor and the Greens currently hold power in the Senate, the funding cuts were blocked late last year – however the Government plans to reintroduce them to the new Senate which takes office in July.
The cuts are part of an amendment to the Higher Education Support Act 2003, and feature three measures to save money: the removal of a discount of 10% offered to students enrolled in Commonwealth-supported places who pay their student contribution upfront, the removal of HELP repayment bonuses of 5% and the introduction of an efficiency dividend of 2% in 2014 and 1.25% in 2015 to Commonwealth contribution amounts under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.
These measures are estimated to save $1.3 billion over a four year period.
“The two main things they’re pursuing is the funding cuts and also privatisation,” Garnham says. “They’re looking at privatising the HECS debt, which I think will lead to higher feeds and higher interest rates in the future.”
The proposed tertiary funding cuts were rejected by the Senate, but Garnham says universities are already reacting to them.
“We’re already seeing the effects of the cuts,” she says. “We’re seeing massive restructuring projects at places like La Trobe and also Curtin University. They include job cuts, course cuts and so on.”
La Trobe University recently announced the loss of 350 jobs and the merging of five faculties into two, and Garnham says this is a sign of things to come. Staff at La Trobe are taking part in a strike today against the job losses.
“This is one case study of a university that has responded to these funding cuts, and I think we’re going to see similar things at every university,” she says.
Today’s protest comes after the Victorian upper house passed new protest laws earlier this month, which will greatly expand police power to move on protesters. The amendments have been met with concern from legal experts and activists, who say they may impact on freedoms of expression and speech.
By Denham Sadler