When I first worked professionally for a Uni Sydney student organisation over twenty years ago, student involvement in national policy debates was still lively, prominent, and much more effective than people realise.

Yet if you look at this year’s Federal election, not only were higher education issues marginal at best but substantial student protest against mid-pandemic fee rises and attacks against the humanities did not materialise. Some might suspect a certain complacency amongst current students.

I think that’s substantially wrong.

Having been professionally employed by elected student representatives for nearly two decades I believe students remain concerned about such things. I also suspect that student concerns had an impact on last weekend’s federal election result. To more fully understand why requires a jump back in time. John Howard’s so-called voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005 institutionally weakened even those student associations that were strong enough to survive the starvation of funds. But underneath the institutional shrivelling students didn’t change so radically.

Over the years, and from working directly with generations of elected student representatives, I have seen just as much passion, hunger for democracy, and reaching for justice amongst more recent students as those of two decades ago. But when they try to translate that into effective and democratic university, state, or national voices they have often found themselves hamstrung, even if their underlying concerns remain similar. Sadly, the Job Ready debate and accompanying overall rise in fees offers a perfect example of what I mean.

On June 19 2020 the then federal education minister, Dan Tehan, styled himself as a new Robert Menzies, on the basis that his job-focused reforms were supposed to expand higher education places. It’s true that Menzies achieved a huge expansion in higher education places in the 1950s and 1960s, though one should remember it was allied with lower fees and expanded income support, later reaching a zenith when Gough Whitlam introduced free university education and further expanded support in the 1970s.

By contrast, any ultimate student number increases from Minister Tehan’s changes will be modest. He overall increased fees that were already amongst the highest in the developed world. His targeted income assistance was too little and applied to too few. And he virtually de-funded the humanities to provide cuts in some discipline areas plus a funding drip-feed to the regions. One might say it was anti-Menzies let alone anti-Whitlam. Despite some energetic student protest at the time the submission record for the Job Ready legislative process helps to quantify an underlying shrivelling of student democratic capacity.

Original exposure draft legislation was opened for comment for a week and garnered 56 submissions at departmental review stage, all from various industry and interest groups. None were from students or their student organisations. When it came to the Senate review, submissions were once again open for a week, meaning only those with substantial background resources could have real impact. This time there were 280 submissions. Of those only seven were from student organisations or their peak bodies.

There was also a smattering of individual and groups of students who made submissions. But they were over-run by a tidal wave of interests from other directions. Students did their best, but to say they were out-resourced would be to wildly understate the situation. As a rough approximation, the National Union of Students and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, respectively the peak bodies for undergraduate and postgraduate students in Australia, only have about two full time equivalent staff between them.

The Universities Australia website indicates about 30 staff, whilst the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and all the various industry subgroups and organisations are similarly better resourced. A rollcall of such groups made submissions and lobbied over Job Ready. The result is that overall students pay even more fees than ever, including a Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) that can be used to part-fund student advocacy services and representative infrastructure. But in today’s day and age such taxation does not equal full and effective representation.

SSAF was the compromise solution brought into force by the Rudd-Gillard government in 2012 to partially wind back the worst excesses of voluntary student unionism. It gave universities the power to allocate fees back to student organisations, though under restrictive conditions and under no obligation to do so in any genuinely meaningful way. To be fair about SSAF, it probably went as far as it could at the time and did go some way towards advocacy and representative restoration in some places. My own analysis and long-term experience when working for the University of Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association made as much clear.

But even there and occasional exceptions notwithstanding, radically over-worked local student organisation staff no longer have the resources to fully and properly support the kind of student democratic broader involvement that should be at the heart of a fair and functioning modern democracy. Quite aside from the national picture, on too many campuses local student representative bodies that did survive are shells of their former selves. It’s bad for students. But it’s also bad for universities themselves and for democracy more broadly.

What I describe is one under-appreciated part of why higher education was so marginal as an election issue. In coming weeks and months we’ll learn more about specific voting patterns. Yet it seems likely that students formed one plank of a new generation of “Quiet Australians” that voted the Coalition out. On another front it’s already clear that disaffected small-l liberal voters have voted the Liberal Party into oblivion across a swathe of Menzies-style metropolitan heartland seats. There’s a lesson here that could apply to students in future.

Part of the success of the Teal independent movement was that local moderate candidates spoke to issues that had been suppressed and ignored. There’s parallel potential for Australia’s 1.3m higher education students to re-emerge as a potent political force, particularly if their interests continue to be ignored and democratic voices remain suppressed. Re-establishing that voice in updated and modern form, should be one topic for discussion at a national universities summit that James Guthrie and Public Universities Australia are calling for.

Just because Australian students lacked the capacity to make their voices heard in the election campaign, doesn’t remotely mean they were unconcerned by radical changes in higher education.

Adrian Cardinali worked for the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association from 2001 to 2020 and was head of its advocacy services for a decade. He is currently pursuing Italian Studies postgraduate research through the University of New England, and was an elected member of their Academic Board


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