Students from multiple NSW universities gathered at Sydney Uni to protest against the string of government attacks on higher education. Credit: Tallulah Thompson

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BY DYLAN CRISMALE and TALLULAH THOMPSON

Students from Sydney universities joined together as part of a nationwide protest against the Turnbull government’s move to limit the accessibility and quality of higher education.

Around 150 protesters gathered at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 22 March to rally under the slogan, ‘Make Education Free Again’, before taking to the streets in a march to UTS.

April Holcombe, the education officer of the student representative council at USYD, said, “We’ve got a budget in a few months, so if we don’t send out a clear message here and around the country today that young people are willing to stand up and won’t take this s**t anymore, then we’ll get more of it.”

According to a press release by the National Union of Students, the demonstrations were organised in response to the Turnbull government’s move to cut 20 per cent of core university funding and to partially deregulate certain ‘flagship courses’.

A Higher Education Reform Options Paper published by the Australian Government in May 2016, stated: “the Government is committed to providing universities with additional flexibility to innovate, differentiate themselves and offer students more choice and higher quality offerings … institutions could be given the freedom to set fees for a small cohort of their students enrolled in identified high quality, innovative courses.”

But protesters, including Ms Holcombe, said university deregulation of any kind was a step in the wrong direction.

“[Flagship course are] kind of a foot in the door for fee deregulation…rather than trying to bring in the whole thing at once, they think a better strategy…is just to start with certain flagship courses … and then basically they can use that as an excuse to extend it slowly into every course,” she said.

In a submission to the Higher Education Reform Options Paper, the University of Sydney recommended the Government halt its plan as it would cause accessibility problems for lower socioeconomic status students and would create tensions with other courses that are funded normally.

Joshua Lees, a postgraduate student at USYD said, “We have a bigger picture demand which is that education should be free like it was in the 70s and 80s, and clearly that our government could afford if they wanted to.

“They’re spending 50 billion on tax cuts for the rich, 50 billion on submarines, 17 billion on fighter jets that don’t even work, so yeah, this is a question of political priority; education should be a right, not a privilege.”

Many protesters on the day also spoke about the trajectory of privatising higher education, as it moves towards a focus on profit making.

One such student is Sarah Garnham, from the University of New South Wales, where a trimester system will be implemented from 2019.

“It’s not just a technical change, moving to three terms rather than two, it’s actually being used to organise a massive restructure that will see 400 staff members lose their jobs and will see thousands more students pushed through the university at a quicker pace, which makes a lot more money for those at the top … I think it’s a real attack and puts students and staff under enormous pressure,” she said.

Addressing the crowd at USYD, NSW Greens MP, David Shoebridge, expressed his support for the the concerns of students and teachers.

“As a Greens MP in the NSW Parliament, I work closely with my Federal colleagues. We’re putting it on the agenda, we can’t do it alone. Gatherings like this is how we will do it.

“This is a struggle for equity, a struggle for identity, but fundamentally it’s a struggle for universal free public education, and we’re going to do it together,” he said.

Anneke Demanuele, the National Union of Students Education Officer, said, “We’re not going to stop at just one protest, we want to have more demonstrations throughout the year, whether that be responding to specific budget attacks or just making the case for free education.”

The last of the national student-led protests was held in Perth yesterday, Wednesday 29 March.