I never thought I’d say this, but John Howard is a hero compared to Tony Abbott.

Back in 1996, John Howard had just introduced his gun buyback plan and was touring country areas speaking to angry gun owners. The Federal Police advised him it was too dangerous to attend but instead of pulling out, Howard donned a bullet proof vest and addressed those hostile crowds. In many ways, it was the making of him.

Tony Abbott’s decision to pull out of visiting Deakin University because students and teachers are planning a protest will be the making of him too.

I thought our Tone was the all-fightin’, all-runnin’, all-cyclin’ super hero. Wasn’t he a boxing champion during his uni days? Didn’t he punch a wall right next to the head of a female student who dared to have a different political opinion to him? The students of today must be pretty bloody scary to frighten off our Tone. From what I’ve seen on the news, there’s literally tens of them threatening to undo the entire fabric of society.

Let me make this clear, I’m not condoning violence and the students who jostled Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella need to think smarter about how they prosecute their case. But this is all a bit rich. Our Government happily stands by while young men are killed on Manus Island and then hides beneath the bed when students start yelling at them or get too close.

If you watch the footage of the Sophie Mirabella and Julie Bishop incidents, the students cop far more violence themselves from the security detail surrounding the politicians. They are shoved, pushed, grabbed and thrown. I doubt they are now so petrified they’ll never go near a politician again. It’s genuinely hilarious that Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott are scared of them. Who do they think uni students are? Al Qaeda operatives?

student-protestsStudent protestors yell at Julie Bishop at Sydney University. Source:


While I was at uni in the early to mid-nineties, I saw the effect the HECS debt had on students. Gradually, the type of student changed. More people turned up to class wearing suits and carrying roller bags. Less students were interested in student services and politics and more were worried about finding a job at the end of their degree that would afford them a salary big enough to pay off their debt.

The threat of staggering levels of debt scares people on low incomes away from university: they’ve grown up watching their parents try desperately to make headway on their mortgages and loans and don’t want the same lives for themselves. The Liberals know this. It’s part of their plan.

The last big student protests I remember were when the Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, brought in Voluntary Student Unionism in the ’90s. Student unions provided a lot of the services that the universities themselves did not. They provided childcare, student theatre and ran the student newspaper. They gave students the ability to hone skills that would one day help them get a decent job. The problem was, student unions were also the place that a lot of future ALP ministers got their start. It was no secret back then that Kennett wanted to kill off student politics in order to kill off his political opponents.

The protests were big, violent and loud. The government railed against students and encouraged the public to hate us with as much force as possible. It was a perfect campaign.

By 2005 when Voluntary Student Unionism was rolled out nationwide, the protests were far more muted. By then, students were just trying to survive. They didn’t have time to fight for their rights, they were too busy trying to live on dwindling Austudy payments and part-time jobs.

The Liberals have already won on this front. Universities are no longer the place where young people find their feet in the world. Universities are now simply a means to an end: get through it as fast as you can, try to survive and try to find a job in a market flooded with graduates. It’s no wonder modern student protests are on a much smaller scale, most students are too busy or too exhausted to take part.

I’m studying full time at the University of Melbourne Law School right now. The cost of my degree is $113,000. I have to pay $13,000 to the university within the next year and the rest becomes a HELP debt. When I graduate, I’ll walk into a law job where I’ll earn $60k a year if I’m lucky. (I’d earn more than that if I was a male law graduate, but that’s another story.) I’ll be paying that debt back for the rest of my life. If I do wind up in a well-paying job, I’ll also be paying higher taxes. I will be contributing far more than law graduate Christopher Pyne has ever have to pay. Pyne graduated during the last year of free tertiary education. Isn’t he a lucky boy?

Don’t for one second think that Pyne is advocating that students should pay more than double the current amount because it will create a world class university system. That is utter crap and he knows it. This is all about the budget bottom line.

HELP debts are only debts to students. When a business or a government is owed money, it’s classed as an asset to them. The government even reports these ‘HELP assets’ as offsetting government debt. The higher the student debt, the higher the interest and the better the government’s bottom line looks. This has got nothing to do with education, it’s all about fiddling the books.

Lowering the threshold for when students start paying back their debt is also a neat way of social engineering. High levels of debt when you graduate mean that you have to look for a higher paying job. You don’t find graduate positions offering $80K a year in community legal, health or environmental centres but you might find one in investment banking or mining. Now that students will have to start paying off their debt at around the average starting income in the community sector, it serves as a disincentive to work there. The Liberals are well aware of that. This is a government that is systematically working to dismantle any form of support for the poor, the elderly, the disadvantaged and those with a disability.

Maybe someone in the mainstream media could report on that instead of focusing on the tiny percentage of students jostling politicians. Maybe the older journalists who enjoyed a free education and a job market screaming for tertiary graduates could think a little harder about what these changes to university funding really mean.


 width=*Corinne Grant is a stand-up comedian, MC, presenter, writer and broadcaster and has performed both nationally and internationally. In addition to her years on Rove Live and The Glasshouse, she has appeared on everything from Spicks and Specks to Dancing With The Stars to Good News Week. She has co-hosted successful national radio shows, performed countless solo live shows and appeared everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to the Kalgoorlie Arts Centre. Corinne’s first book, Lessons In Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder (Allen and Unwin) was released in September 2010 and went into reprint just months after its release. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_grant.

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