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A Brief Outline of the Impact of National Student Unionism in Australia

A Brief Outline of the Impact of National Student Unionism in Australia

For most of the last eighty years there has been a national student organisation of some sort or another. Students have consistently tried to find ways to overcome the parochialism of life on a particular campus and to work on joint projects with students on other campuses. Today's National Union of Students, is the latest incarnation of the long tradition where national student unions have been a key vehicle for students to have an active role in shaping their higher education system and the society around them.

From 1926-29 there was a short lived body called the Australian Universities Student Union which petered out as student politics on campus faded away after its first flicker of life. Student politics came to life again in the 1930s as students campaigned against book censorship in campus libraries and around also rising menace of fascism. In 1937 the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) was established at Adelaide University. Student saw that with the Commonwealth Government taking on a greater in funding for universities that they needed a national voice. NUAUS also organised bulk buying arrangements so that students could get imported textbooks much more cheaply.

NUAUS was pretty quiet during world war two but was active in strike by medicine students in 1942, which forced the government to introduce an equity scholarship scheme for medicine students; the first Commonwealth program to help financially disadvantaged students. After the war the union was active in organising national debating events, arts festivals and opposing the White Australia politics of the political mainstream. In 1950 NUAUS played a central role in developing the Colombo Plan which created ten of thousands international aid scholarships for students in developing countries in South East Asia to study in Australia.

In the 1960s NUAUS took up the campaign against conscription for the Vietnam War. Despite this political stance both Rupert Murdoch and BHP provided funding to NUAUS for the establishment of a national student paper which was called National U. Also at the time there were no government programs to help indigenous students study at universities. NUAUS established its own ABSCHOL scholarships with the revenue coming from fundraising activities organised on campuses around the country. The first indigenous students at Australian universities were on ABSCHOL scholarships. It was not until 1969 that the government was shamed into setting up its own program, which we now know as ABSTUDY. NUAUS also had a thriving student travel charter arrangement, which gave students access to cheap international flights.

In 1971 the union changed its name to the Australian University of Students (AUS) after it allowed the old teachers' colleges and Institutes of Technology to become members. In its early days AUS played a central role in co-ordinating opposition to the tour by the Springbok rugby side at a time when the apartheid regime was still in power. The student-led protests across Australia led the Liberal government to order a ban on all sporting links with South Africa until apartheid ended. This ban was upheld until the ANC sanctioned the entry of a South African team at the 1992 cricket world cup.

AUS also played a central role in the development of second wave feminism (known then as the women's' liberation movement). The movement started on the campuses and AUS provided many of the first national forums where women's' liberationists could get together and develop their politics. The first AUS national women's officer position was created in 1975. Queers students at that time suffered officially sanctioned discrimination at universities. Students could be expelled from their teaching degrees for being seen kissing a member for the same sex on campus. AUS played a key role in cohering the early gay and lesbian liberation movement (as it was known then) to fight this official repression of sexuality choices. AUS also widely distributed some of the first positive portrayals of Queer lifestyles.

The union also continued to influence student culture. It held national campus band tours, which launched the careers of many of the Australian rock bands of the era. AUS held arts festivals that attracted huge crowds to the best works of Australia's young avant-garde and counter-cultural artists. Most famously there was the 1973 art and music festival at Nimbin which led to the establishment of the alternative community there.
On the education and welfare side of things AUS was very influential with Whitlam Government which in 1974 introduced some of AUS's key proposals such as free education and a needs-based student financial assistance scheme (a forerunner of Austudy and Youth Allowance). The decision of the Whitlam Government that the Commonwealth would take over the direct funding of universities and student financial assistance mean that there more of a need for a national student body than ever before. The end of post-war economic boom and the election of the Fraser Government ended the close relationship between AUS and the government. The new Government announced its intention to scrap free education for students doing postgraduate or second degrees. Despite the government controlling both houses of parliament it backed down following the 1976 national student strike organised by AUS.

It was exactly because of AUS's social influence that the union became the target of a concerted effort by government supporters to bring it down, Laws were passed to prevent member campuses in the territories and some states from paying their affiliation fees to AUS. The travel minister intervened to disrupt AUS cheap student travel operations. A section of students on the hard right of the Liberal Party received extensive financial resources to discredit AUS and then to get campuses to hold referendums to disaffiliate (a strategy widely opposed by party moderates). The crisis led to a series of bitter factional fights over how to respond and some campuses disaffiliated. The student travel operation collapsed and was sold to Students Travel Australia. The union had enough clout to stop the Fraser Government re-introducing tuition fees in 1981-2. However, another wave of campus disaffiliations saw the union leadership decide to wind the union down in 1984. A national student summit was held at end of that year but no agreement could be reached on how a new national body could be structured.

During the time when there was no national student union the ALP government of the day, acting under pressure from Treasury, decided to phase out the aid scholarships for international students and start charging them full fees. Then the government abolished free education and re-introduced fees for domestic students, and later HECS. Although students set up networks to oppose the changes there was a widespread recognition that students needed a more coherent framework to fight back using all the political tools: campus mobilisations, lobbying, media, research, etc. The defeats suffered by students in the mid 1980s created the impetus for a new national student union.

A provisional National Union of Students was established in May 1987 as a federation of the state branches that had been set up in some states. A national conference was held at Adelaide University in October 1987 to bring in other campuses that were not part of the provisional structure. A broad agreement on the structure was reached and the first full conference of NUS was held at Melbourne University in December 1987. It also agreed to recognise the already existing National Liaison Committee for International Students as its international student department.

While NUS was created too late to stop the dismantling of free education it did win official recognition from the government and was placed on the government's highest advisory body at the time, the Higher Education Council. NUS had some victories in the early 1990s such as stopping Treasury-driven moves to replace student financial assistance with a HECS-style loans scheme. NUS was also instrumental in convincing the government to lower the age for independent qualification for student financial assistance from 25 down to 22. NUS, however, experienced some tough financial times in 1990s as its membership fees were less than half what they had been in real terms for much of AUS's history, and also because anti-student organisation legislation in WA and Victoria prevented many campuses from paying their fees.

The election of the Howard Government, committed to silencing the student voice through national anti-student organisation legislation, meant that NUS was on the outer when it came to influencing government policy. Nevertheless the NUS does continue to meet the Minister. Despite, considerable disagreements, Brendan Nelson praised NUS several times in parliament for its high level of participation in last year's Nelson review forums around the country. NUS has built a high profile both in the media and with the Opposition parties. NUS regularly briefs the media and Opposition parties on higher education matters and our briefing materials are widely used in newspaper articles and parliamentary debates.

The union played a central co-ordinating role in stopping the 1999 attempt by the government to introduce anti-student organisation legislation on a national level. NUS also employed professional project officers and consultants to assist WA student representatives in the successful repeal the anti-student organisation legislation in that state. NUS also provided the key arguments in 2002 that led to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission's decision to rescind its draft ruling not to allow the existing universal membership of student organisation provisions to continue.

The current changes to higher education in Backing Australia's Future, including more anti-student organisation legislation, and also the welfare reforms expected to be announced 2004, means that there are massive challenges facing student organisation in fighting for matters of great importance to our members and future members. The past shows that a well resourced and coherent national student union can make an important difference.

Contact Details

Graham Hastings
Ph: 03 9650 8908
Fax: 03 9650 890