The political issues in the fight to defend education

The ongoing drive by the Abbott government and the entire Australian ruling elite to slash spending on education poses major issues of political perspective before students and young people.

While students and youth attending today’s rally, called by the National Union of Students, are seeking a way forward in the fight against austerity spending cuts, the organisers of the rally have a very different and entirely unstated agenda. Like previous demonstrations called by the NUS, today’s rally is being used to channel the opposition of students into support for the big-business Labor Party, the very party that imposed decades of cuts to higher education.

The NUS, along with the various pseudo-left political parties such as Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance, are presenting as a “victory” last week’s vote in the Senate, by the Labor Party, Greens and five independents, rejecting the Abbott government’s reactionary university fee deregulation bill. If passed, the legislation would allow universities to set their own prices for courses, as opposed to the current system in which maximum course fees are set by the government. The deregulation would rapidly lead to massive increases in the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) charges for courses. HECS fees can be deferred by students and most do so, paying the debt back after they graduate and enter the workforce.

Typical of the response to the Senate vote is the statement published on March 18 on Socialist Alternative’s website Redflag. Titled, “University deregulation defeated—but the push for a US-style system continues,” it was written by Sarah Garnham, the NUS national education officer.

The article’s purpose was to breathe life into the discredited and tired lie that the Labor Party represents a “lesser evil” to the Liberal-National Coalition government, and that Labor can be pressured by student protests to act in their interests. While making no mention of Labor’s record of ending free tertiary education, gutting spending and paving the way for the Abbott government’s latest bill, Garnham wrote that the NUS campaign has “forced the Labor Party and a number of independents to oppose the legislation.”

In fact, Labor’s opposition to fee deregulation is nothing more than cynical electoral posturing, aided and abetted by the NUS and organisations like Socialist Alternative. If it were in government there is no reason to believe it would not be seeking to impose the same measures as the Coalition Liberal and National parties. Fee deregulation is the logical extension of the deregulation of course places that the Gillard and Rudd governments pushed through between 2009 and 2013. The policy lifted the cap on the number of enrolments that universities could offer each year, while slashing spending. In 2013, the Gillard government announced the largest-ever cuts to tertiary education, $2.3 billion.

Labor’s policies, which have been continued by the Coalition, have had their intended impact. Student numbers have increased, while the lack of funding has led universities to slash costs, cut jobs, eliminate so-called “uncompetitive courses” and lower staff-to-student ratios. This deepening crisis has been used by the university vice-chancellors to demand the freedom to massively increase their fees in order to drive up revenue, and effectively ration access to higher education by excluding those who are not prepared to take on a massive student debt.

The attitude in ruling circles was summed up in an editorial by the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper in January, which denounced universities for “over-educating” students and offering places “to large numbers of young people whose performance at school is, at best, underwhelming.”

The RedFlag article presented the assault on education as a result of the “neo-liberal” ideology of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne. “Students will not be safe as long as Pyne and others are attempting to ‘fix’ things in favour of the market,” Garnham declared. Garnham outlined a perspective of students continuing to protest in order to maintain pressure on Labor and the other Senate parties. In other words, Socialist Alternative insists that students must place their faith in Labor, the very party responsible for decades of attacks on education rights.

While the Senate decision last week is no doubt a setback for the Abbott government, it does not represent a “victory” over austerity in any sense. The Coalition’s failure to push through fee deregulation and other measures has only fuelled big business recriminations against Abbott and demands for political horse-trading in the parliament to ensure that savage cutbacks to public spending are imposed.

The government’s austerity program is not a result of a particular right-wing bent on the part of Abbott and Pyne. It reflects the interests of the Australian financial and corporate elites amid the spiralling economic crisis of world capitalism. To be “internationally competitive” against their rivals, they are demanding financial handouts and reductions in corporate and income taxes, paid for by cuts to public spending. The devastation of social welfare and pricing education out of the reach of thousands of young people is also aimed at creating a climate in which the fear of unemployment can be used to pressure workers to accept savage reductions in their wages and conditions.

The Labor Party, no less than the Coalition parties, represents and serves the Australian ruling class and is committed to this agenda. Under the Gillard and Rudd governments, it imposed the biggest reduction in federal expenditure since 1971, including through harsher eligibility standards for welfare and some 12,000 public sector job cuts. Last June, it passed the Coalition’s appropriation bills in the Senate, which removed $80 billion in federal funding to the state-based public health and school systems.

The fist-pumping and claims of “victory” by the NUS and pseudo-left groups is intended to prevent any discussion among students on the situation they confront. Since Labor abolished free tertiary education in 1989, university fees have steadily climbed from $1,800 to as high as $10,085 per year today. While thousands of students graduate every year with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, more and more confront little prospect of employment in their area of study. Graduate employment is at its lowest level in more than 20 years, even before the onset of recession as the global slump engulfs Australia.

Following the Senate vote, talks are already beginning between various representatives of the university sector on new legislation that would allow fee increases, up to unspecified upper limits, while cutting funding to universities if they exceed the limits.

The determination in ruling class circles to make students pay more and more for education is not going to be prevented by protest appeals to the parliamentary establishment and its parties. The reality is that not a single step forward can be taken today without a struggle directed against the capitalist system.

Any students who retain the illusion that pressure on one or another capitalist parliamentary party is a viable perspective should look to the recent events in Greece. There, the pro-capitalist Syriza government, which came to power by exploiting illusions that it represented an anti-austerity alternative, has rapidly junked its election promises. Opposed to any struggle against the profit system, it abjectly capitulated to threats by the European Union and its creditors, and is now continuing the hated austerity measures that have led to mass impoverishment in Greece and seen official youth unemployment rise to over 50 percent.

The perspective of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) is based on an understanding that the defence of all the basic social rights of the working class is inseparable from the fight for socialism. We seek to turn students to the working class, through building an international, socialist movement based on the perspective of abolishing capitalism and the reorganisation of society along the lines of genuine social need, rather than private profit. We urge students who agree with such a perspective to join the IYSSE, the student and youth movement of the Socialist Equality Party and International Committee of the Fourth International.