Sunday, January 16, 2005

The challenges facing the student movement (conclusions)

The student movement (and the left in general) needs a serious and comprehensive strategy to guide its activities in the short, mid and long term. Too much of our activity is merely reactionism to conservative attacks, opportunism, or fruitless and goaless "campaigning". In short, we need a vision.

The language we use to express our ideas needs to be re-imagined so as to engage with a new and changed audience: a public that has accepted the nihilistic views of neo-conservatism.

We need to reconnect the disparate communities and groups that have been successfully divided and disenfranchised by the neo-conservatives. Student activists must engage in the debate, and attempt to change its terms.

Finally, we must provide a well-considered, solid and positive progressive/left alternative to neo-conservatism.

Organising & Strategising
We must identify our long term and short term goals, the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and our opponents, and the resources that we (and they) can rely on. In order to work towards success, concrete goals, benchmarks and achievements must be worked out.

Without this, the student movement will float along in a vacuum with no comprehension of its failings or successes. Such a guide would allow for a more coherent approach in resisting the assaults by the right, and in organising a progressive social change on campus and in the community.

Community Building
The student movement also needs to engage more closely with the community and with other groups as well as international activists. We often expect unions and other-issue activists to support and aid our activities without responding in kind. Unionism and community groups are underthreat around Australia. A coherent and coordinated approach to resisting this would not only cohere the left, but also go some way to the development of a counter-hegemony.

Engaging in the national debate
The debate in Australia around higher education is one that has been successfully dominated by right wing reactionary forces. In the face of this, the student movement has resorted to empty rhetoric and platitudes, without convincingly addressing or opposing the views of neo-conservative attacks.

For example, faced with the Nelson Reforms to higher education, the student movement resorted to fear-mongering and attacks against Brendan Nelson. In particular, the student movement was unnecessarily obsessed with the proposed 25% HECS fee increase. This is a perfect instance of the Liberals creating a windmill that we quixotically jousted against. There is almost no evidence in the many studies that have been conducted that high HECS fees (or HECS fees at all) concern the majority of students. People with detailed knowledge of economics, personal debt, foresight, etc. are more than aware that HECS debt is a massive burden later in life. However, the HECS debate was lost when it was introduced.

We must move beyond dead debates and recognise that HECS is very popular with the average student, and is a concept that is difficult to attack: the idea of having wealthy lawyers pay for their fees is attractive, and HECS has a repayment threshold, so most people think they will only pay it back when they are in a position to afford it. We can make the argument that higher (/any) education is primarily a public benefit, and we must take this beyond university course fees.

Of far more worry is access equity, such as up-front, start-up or living costs: union fees, course readers and books, and rent, food and amenities. These things are a proven, demonstrable and empirical deterrent to people accessing higher education, and there is a lot of quantitative evidence to this effect. TAFE is an instance of a system that is predominantly used by people from low socio-economic backgrounds who are required to pay up-front fees, sometimes in the $1000s. Contrast this to university education where most students are from middle or upper-class backgrounds and receive considerable government subsidy (something akin to $1 in every $3 or $4) and it is easy to see why HECS is difficult to criticise.

Voluntary student unionism is another issue, more current than Nelson's attacks. VSU is a benign sounding and there has been little coherent or reasoned defence of student unionism in its current form. (Edit: some of my thoughts can be found here and here.) There have been a number of responses from the student movement, but at the moment they appear to be coalescing into two camps: the "campaign" camp and the "lobby" camp. Unfortunately the anti-VSU movement is already fragmenting, and so has provided no serious counter-argument to that put forth by Nelson.

Providing Constructive Alternatives
The student movement and the left come under constant assaults aimed at undermining its financial and governing credibility. We then fall into the trap of being confined in or obsessed with that. The Victorian State Labor government for example is still suffering from the criticisms directed at it from the Liberals from fallout over the Cain/Kerner Labor Government. In response, Labor has decided that it will maintain a considerable (and ridiculous) operating surplus, at the expense of its progressive social agenda. Likewise, Labor is seen as high taxing, high spending when in Federal government, a charge that is demonstrably and definitely false.

A similar tactic is used in student politics, with charges leveled that left-wing unions foster violence, waste money on junkets to Woomera or on posters, leaflets and other non-service activism.

However, due to the nature of the public debate, we cannot merely ignore or disregard these attacks. Clearly there is an expectation now in the minds of the general public (student or otherwise) that governments or student unions be responsible and solvent. Rather than explain that governments can operate at a debt (and that a national debt can be healthy or productive) or student unions are primarily representative and activist bodies, we need to clearly demonstrate that the left is responsible on all levels.

Having established this objectively (i.e. through financial statements, etc), we can then move on to explaining what we believe are important issues: we answer within the context of the debate and then move forwards to attempt to set out our own terms. This cannot be done however without first addressing criticisms against us.

Strategy Example
Long term: the socialist objective, progressive socialism, true democracy, material/social equality, etc.
Mid term: free, universal, high quality education, vibrant student culture and broad-based activism, progressive Labor governments and strong, representative unionism, dissolution of right-wing legitimacy.
Short term: addressing student apathy, broader student activism and relevancy of student unionism, restoring student activist’s reputation, illustration of the right’s dishonesty and failings.

Student activists: commitment and passion, integrity, wide-ranging support amongst left-wing students.
Neo-conservatives: a sense of legitimacy, organisation and material/monetary/institutional support, no/weak/undeveloped morality.

Student activists: disorganised, marginalised from wider student body, little material/institutional support.
Neo-conservatives: undermined by contradictory rhetoric/policy, deformed notions of ethics and decency.


  • At January 21, 2005 12:34 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm right-wing, but I agree with your analysis (though not your motives, obviously). The Left has been hugely disadvantaged by the fact that so many within it make no attempt to connect to people at their own level.

    Some within the Left are quick to label anyone who disagrees as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Whilst they may well be those things, screaming abuse at people or suggesting they're morally abhorrent for supporting some policy will never win people over.

    If the Left wants to create change, it has to learn to deal with people in a constructive, positive way. No Socialist Alliance rallies, no "Fuck Brendan Nelson!" posters, no unwashed hippies: they all just the Left turning out caricatures of themselves.

    Splat Guy


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