By Upul Wickramasinghe –
The National Education Conference (NEC) 2013 was held on 10-12 July at the University of Adelaide under the facilitation of the National Union of Students (NUS) and I was privileged to participate as an international student. The idea behind this article is to discuss several matters related to the conference, which are politically important.
In Australia, which is considered as a developed capitalist country, right wing capitalist parties, the Liberal party and Labour party (ALP), politically dominate. Hence, it is obvious to expect that student movement also dominated by right wing student groups. Proving this to be true, the agenda of NEC-2013 was scheduled in order to fulfill the political interests of ALP by focusing on preparing students for the coming up election on September against the Liberal party. This is well exemplified when looking at the programs included in the agenda.
Anaesthetizing people politically is a very important thing for the existence of the capitalist system. In other words, in a context of people are adopting to a competitive life style; working hard with their maximum strengths to gain personal goals and achievements, they lose or minimize their potentials and possibilities to understand social injustice and inequalities in a broader sense and collectively fight against it. As Marx clearly puts, the capitalist system destroys human values and human relations are transformed into competitive relations that are heading to achieve personal successes in the market economy. In this context, the individual happiness or satisfaction is really based on up to which extent I am ahead of others or others are behind of me. One of the main strategies of anaesthetizing of radical political activism is, offering economical concessions or allowances for a selected group of individuals who involve with radical politics and encouraging others to get that kind of benefits.
Implementing this strategy of anaesthetizing student activists and promoting it broadly was clearly observable during the conference. The simple example for it is, the offer of International Student Identity Cards (ISIC) for selected students which are sponsored by multi-national organizations that consist with the facility to travel in different countries for lower rates, discounts for purchasing certain products and so on. Someone should not misunderstand that we are against to the courtesy to the students who are having economical difficulties. In contrast, we insist that each and every student should have the equal rights to the education despite of their social backgrounds. However, according to my personal point of view, in a situation where the government has announced to cut more than 2.5billion dollars of state funds that spend on tertiary education and students are vehemently opposing to those proposals through carrying out protests all over the country, allocating a considerable time for a promotion of so called ISICs from a conference, which is constituted by student representatives from almost all of the Australian universities, should understand as a capitalist political strategy that politically anaesthetize students as explain before.
Another important aspect that was visible in the NEC is the assault of neo-liberal economic policies on education. The main slogan of neo-liberal economic policies with regard to the education is, similarly other economical commodities, education should also focus on profits. This idea can be implemented in various ways in various countries depending on the social, economical and political conditions. For instance, in one country it can be privatization of state education or minimize the government investments in education as much as possible, while in another country give the priority for the courses that merely aim the economical benefits or combination of both of these strategies. Despite the economical and social states of the countries, currently this trend is taking place in all over the world. For instance, it is common in Sri Lanka, where the percentage allocation of Gross Domestic Product for education per year is less than 2% as well as in Australia, which is almost 7%. At present, in Sri Lanka, university lecturers, students and other progressive groups are fighting hardly against the privatization of state education and degradation of the quality of education. In Australia protests and campaigns have called by students and progressive political groups such as Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance, against the proposed over 2.5billion dollars funding cuts and removing Arts and Humanities courses from the university curriculum.
NEC-2013 was taken place at the University of Adelaide in this kind of political context. Former minister of education in South Australian state government, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith’s speech in the very first day of the conference, should be understood under the aforementioned political context. Even though the main theme of NUS is “Our education is not for profit”, the fundamental essence of her speech as well as what she reiterate was, the education fees charged from the students should be comparable with the cost of the course. Moreover, with the aid of capitalist economic theories such as cost-benefit analysis and net present value, she is arguing that market values of Arts and Humanities courses are significantly lower than the market values of Science and Technological courses. Thus, simply her idea is promote Science and Technological subjects while depreciating the Arts and Humanities subjects. It is no longer a secret that under the capitalist system, the main objective of the education is producing ‘people’, who are competitive enough to contest in the market. In contrast, the socialist argument on education is that it should be focused on producing real humans with human values, who respect to the socially and culturally different others and against all forms of discriminations such as ethnic, national, religious or gender. A famous liberal philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her books; Cultivating Humanity (1997) and Not for profit- Why democracy needs the Humanities (2010), argues the value of Arts and Humanities even within the capitalist system.
In the second day of the conference, the key note speech was delivered by Ged Kearney who is the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), where the main leaders belong to the ALP. The main theme of her speech was how to build up a successful national campaign. No doubt, technically it is really important for a student movement that is fighting against education funding cuts. However, the bottom line of her speech was, winning the students to ALP in the upcoming election and it was pretty clear when she was questioned by the student representatives of Socialist Alternative (SA) on the anaesthetization of trade union movement after ALP came to the power in 2008 and she had to admit into it.
The Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia was the main speaker in the third day of the conference. Even though there are several burning issues existed relate to the education, he was very careful not to mention a single word about it and his speech was limited to just technicalities. We should understand that this is not an accidental thing but it is done purposely to neutralize the emerging militancy of students. It is important to note that at the beginning of his speech students of SA lead to boycott the speech and left the hall with around hundreds of students, which was able to politicize that apolitical speech and event.
As a whole, throughout the conference, students belong to SA and other progressive students were able to challenge significantly the hegemonic dominance of right wing ALP. It is evident by approving the slogans proposed by SA students: no cuts, more funding and education for all as main themes of the conference and future protests. Marking the political enemy or in other words building the political antagonism is really important in radical politics. In my personal point of view, the capability of SA to create a political antagonism against the right wing forces since the very beginning of NEC-2013 to the end is a positive sign in Australian left wing politics. Furthermore, it is symbolically important that several motions submitted by SA were passed during the resolution session at the end of the conference. Among those motions, facilitating a Palestine activist to launch an awareness campaign in Australia about the Israel apartheid policies and prohibiting the NUS representatives paid junkets to Israel are internationally significant. However, in my perspective, the suggestion of prohibit students belong to the Liberal Party to represent the NUS is undemocratic.
The main reason behind the success and strength of capitalist system is its global establishment as a system, rather than separate establishments in countries. By participating to the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting, which is going to be held in coming November in Sri Lanka, taking rigid actions against refugees including who flee from Sri Lanka to Australia and several other actions, the Australian government supports the Sri Lankan government who is internationally alleged for human rights violations during the civil war and undemocratic actions such as killing, disappearances and abductions of journalists and other people who criticize the government. However, there is no partnership on a global level among left wing forces that fight against the capitalist system (If there is such a partnership, it is also in a very small scale) and this in return strengthens the capitalist system. The development of an international solidarity and network among progressive student forces fighting to protect the educational rights in Sri Lanka, Australia and other countries is an important thing for the successful victory of those struggles and as an international student who participated to the Australian NEC-2013, I firmly believe that it would be a great foundation to establish a global socialist system.
*Upul Wickramasinghe (Sri Lanka) – International Post Graduate student at Australian National University