The student movement in this country knows defeat. Despite every rally and action against government policy, few results are gained. Little attention is given to the biannual student protests in Australia’s capital cities.
The movement has had its wins, though. While the entirety of the fight and win against fee deregulation in 2014–2015 cannot be attributed to the student movement, it was certainly instrumental.
We have also had victories on a more local level. In 2016, the combined efforts of student guilds in Western Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union successfully fought to retain student and staff representatives on the governing boards of our universities, and protected the share of the student services and amenities fee that is allocated to the guilds.
But with the benefit of hindsight (and a bit more campaign experience), these victories seem to be more accidental than ours to own entirely . By no means should this discount the efforts of those who took part in any movement. Instead, it should alert us to the fact that students, and our interests, can be better defended. I am firmly of the belief that the conditions are ripe for a successful student-led push for change.
Australia suffers from a hope deficit. The most politically disaffected members of our society are the ones with the unbridled expectations born out of thirty years of neoliberalist economics. They are confused by how hard things are for themselves and their children. They are moved by new stories because, frankly, no one really reaches out to talk politics with them outside of major elections—and even then, it is just the two major parties. They want the opportunities that they, or their parents, had. And, in the case of higher education policy, consecutive governments have been saying “no, I’m not interested in helping your children. It is not a part of our plan”.
And yet, these same people vote overwhelmingly in a manner that is against their interest (and ours). The discussions of policy, and the campaigns led by the major political parties, are either a protection of the status quo, or an outright assault on our generation. They are defining the subject and the issue. They have the newspapers, the television advertisements, and the presence in the political vacuum that is the suburbs. Even the most moderate and simple demands from the student movement barely permeates into these people’s homes. They control this space without contest.
A good campaign gets to define itself first, and a great campaign gets to define itself and its opposition. The emotional appeal of the student movement’s demands is incredible. Nearly every student in this country has a perfect narrative. It involves one of hard work in high school and success in enrolling at university. It has the perfect villain—the enemy of opportunity—the government (be that Labor or Liberal) and their attacks on a fair go for hard working students. A good campaign would define the students as victims and worthy of sympathy (something that was achieved in 2014–2015), and a better campaign moves into the homes of the general public, and defines the Government and its stance on higher education as unmistakably negative.
This narrative will never be heard as loudly as it should be at biannual marches. A conversation with just five people about why you’re campaigning is worth more politically than a thousand sideward glances from people going about their business. There you can make an ask, and you can remind them of their political options. You can inspire their emotions and expectations—because we know that people vote based upon emotions, not statistics. And when those conversations are had, and peoples expectation for change rise, only then will politicians take notice.
If we find new allies and challenge spaces that are uncontested bastions of old power, we can achieve great things. By no means should this be read as a dis-endorsement of petitions and protests, but rather a proposal that our movement has not reached its full potential. That we can do more. And I don’t think that we, as students, have ever really been given an opportunity to ask for something better—something more than consecutive cuts to higher education, something more than Centrelink allowances below the poverty line, or something more than a life as a graduate with few job prospects and even less chance of owning a home.
To the student leaders of now, make a considered response and think about how you can lead change today—the conditions are ideal. And to the student reading this who feels that things can be better, who has hopes for a better future, reach out to your student association. Get involved and make big asks. Things can only get better if you do.