Students around the country rally to protest cuts to uni funding

May 04, 2017
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Simon Birmingham was 15 minutes into his speech when Vanamali Hermans and her friends rushed the stage. She and three of her fellow students had bought tickets to the event at the National Press Club in Canberra, and slipped into the crowd undetected in order to stage a protest against the government’s proposed cuts to higher education. As they yelled “No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities”, one of them threw a napkin in the minister’s face.

A few hours earlier, more than 20 students from University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, and University of Western Sydney attempted to occupy Malcolm Turnbull’s office, but were stopped by police just outside the doors.

Around the same time in Adelaide, 15 students protested outside Minister Birmingham’s office in the heart of his electorate.

The demonstrations come after this week’s announcement that the government plans to screw students over once again by cutting university funding.

On Monday, Minister Birmingham unveiled a budgetary proposal that would see 2.8 billion dollars cut from university funding, fees increased by 7.5 per cent by 2021, and students forced to pay back their HECS the moment they earn over $42,000 per year. The proposal has been slammed by Universities Australia, as well as by student unions and publications across the country.

Calling bull

April Holcombe, who was at the Sydney protest, says the actions demonstrate just how angry Australia’s students are. “Students will not accept a single cut to our education,” she tells Hijacked. "We're going to make life miserable for the Liberal government until they stop doing the same to us." April is an Education Officer of USYD’s Student Representative Council.

After the attempted occupation, the Sydney protest was moved to the intersection outside Turnbull’s Edgecliff office, where the students blocked traffic and chanted: “When education is under attack what do we do? Stand up fight back!” One student was removed by police after drawing devil horns over an image of Malcolm Turnbull, but was released shortly after.

ANU student Vanamali says she felt “assaulted” by security as they removed her from the Canberra protest.

“I had my arm pinned behind my back when I was being dragged out,” she tells Hijacked. “When I was outside the press club after everyone had been released, I was still held with my arm behind my back, and I was pushed against a van until the security guard let me go.”

But Vanamali is adamant that it was all worth it. “Education should be a right, not a privilege,” she says. “It’s not just for the rich, it should be free for everybody.”

Birmingham responded to the protests, brushing off the disruption.

"I think there has probably not been a year in the last few decades when we haven't seen university students protesting at some stage," he said.

"It is part of the rite of passage of university students nowadays."

Isabella Brook, president of USYD SRC, is just as angry as Vanamali. “The Liberal government has declared war on students,” she says, “and we're not going to take these cuts lying down.”

Locked out

The term “war on students” may not be much of a stretch. The same day the proposed cuts were announced, every student publication that applied to attend the annual May Budget lockup was informed that they would not be allowed to attend. The Budget lockup is a media-embargoed event in which journalists are walked through the Federal Budget by members of the Treasury Department.

Attendance by student journalists has been a matter of course since at least 2014, but this year, a spokesperson for ScoMo cited “space concerns” for refusing student publications entry. An open letter signed by a number of student newspapers called the space justification “suspect,” and condemned the refusal to admit student journalists as “a concerted move to avoid scrutiny and criticism”.

Fed up

All in all, it seems like the government is happy to make university more expensive, but unwilling to offer transparency to the people who actually attend it. April Holcombe thinks this makes protesting even more important. “Our voices are only heard when we bring them together in the thousands,” she says.

Further protests will be held on Wednesday May 17, with the National Union of Students calling for demonstrations across the country. Isabella Brook says today’s action is just a taste of what’s to come.

“Today, students made it clear to Malcolm Turnbull that we are angry and we are ready to fight. On May 17, students will be protesting in a national day of action all across the country."

The Facebook event for the nationwide protest can be found here, and the University of Sydney protest here.

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University.

Image credits: April Holcome