Students from the Education Action Network (EAN) appeared on ABC’s live Q&A show on May 5 to protest against Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne and his support for various higher education policy proposals.
The interruption came 20 minutes into the program after students in the audience asked Pyne questions about the government’s plan to deregulate university funding and make cuts to youth programs. In an attempt to give Pyne “a breather”, the show’s host Tony Jones asked another panelist to respond, at which point over a dozen protestors appeared on the mezzanine behind the guest panel. They chanted “Chris Pyne, get out! We know what you’re all about! No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities!” and dropped a banner – at first, back to front – which read, “More brains, not warplanes. Fund Education. May 21 Rally @ UTS 2:30pm”.
Eleanor Morley, the Education Officer at Sydney University, said the protest was organised because “students aren’t happy with the attacks on higher education that are being proposed by Pyne and Abbott”.
The protest followed the recent release of the Kemp-Norton Review and the Commission of Audit Report, both of which recommend an increase in the contributions paid by students for the cost of their degrees, as well as a drop in the HELP-debt repayment threshold. “By further deregulating the sector to create a US style two-tiered system where only rich kids can get a quality education … poor, working class students will be in severely underfunded institutions,” Morley explained.
As security guards stepped in to suspend the protest, the live broadcast was temporarily abandoned in favour of a clip of a previous episode featuring a performance by singer Katie Noonan. Jones resumed the show by apologising to the panelists and the audience. “This is not what we want to happen on this program. This is not what democracy is all about and those students should understand that,” he commented.
Jones has received wide criticism on Twitter for his response, sparking debates about Q&A’s role in democracy in news outlets like The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald. “Q&A protesters didn’t disrupt democracy, they disrupted a highly produced TV show,” wrote SMH national opinion reporter Judith Ireland.
The show’s Executive Director Peter McEvoy did not think that the protest was an appropriate use of Q&A. “We think there’s a lot more value in people having a productive dialogue rather than chanting slogans,” he said. “There was some opportunity for debate lost because of the interruption of the protest.” McEvoy also believed that the protest did not have any impact on higher education issues. “So far, it’s really led to a discussion about the place of protests in a democracy rather than a discussion about education policy,” he said.
Morley disagrees. “It’s just false to say that no one’s talking about education cuts, I mean there’s obviously two things going on here, talking about the cuts and the impact they’ll have on students and the role of protesting.”
The EAN will be organizing more campaigns against increases in student fees with its cross-campus network, including a protest for the National Day of Action on May 21st at the University of Technology, Sydney.