University education is becoming tough. Over half of Australia’s full-time undergraduate students are under financial stress, spending more money than they receive. Added to this, students are finding accommodation affordable. They are struggling with rising rents and overpriced textbooks.
Not surprisingly attrition rates are growing, with students dropping out at increasing levels, often leaving with them student debts yet no qualifications to aid them in repaying it.
Alongside the growing problems faced by students the situation for teachers is also degenerating with casualisation and job cuts ripping apart the workforce. Half of the teaching and research at Australian universities is now being done by casual academics earning less than $500 a week. This not only has a massive effect on the lives of teachers but on the quality of education itself.
Meanwhile, universities are selling education to people as if it were a new brand of breakfast cereal. Cheap taglines from marketing and advertising companies are being wholly embraced to sell courses. Melbourne University last year spent $4 million on its “minds collide” advertising campaign while the University of Western Sydney is said to be spending $20 million on its “Unlimited” campaign.
Part of the problem is that universities are increasingly becoming commercial ventures. In the midst of reduced funding for education the heads of universities have been scrambling to increase enrollments.
While socialists are in favour of making higher education accessible to all, the way that enrollments have been permitted by universities in recent years has hardly been altruistic. The uncapping of student places is designed exclusively to increase revenue. At the same time the quality of education has decreased.
The dilemma for the government is that, by uncapping places, more and more students have embarked upon study and taken out student loans. If allowed to continue at the current rate, the loans will soon blow out the federal budget. The government see the further deregulation of fees as the answer.
The deregulation of the tertiary education system has allowed universities to charge higher and higher course fees. If allowed to continue however students could soon end up paying American style tuition fees which would leave them with an impossible level of debt at the end of their studies.
Vice-Chancellors across the country backed deregulation believing it would allow them to bleed more and more from students. Alongside deregulation by slashing education funding the government has set in train a process where universities are increasingly reliant on corporate cooperation. Millions of dollars were recently slashed from education funding in a joint deal between the Liberals and Labor, but the government still wants to cut more.
As a step towards the full deregulation of fees the government has proposed to offer so-called flagship courses. That is, certain courses that might have their fees uncapped. The government has proposed that these could be highly specialised courses that might make up to 20% of enrollments.
This would lead to extremely high cost degrees in specific areas such as law and commerce. The big worry is that this will lead to a two tier system, with some students forking out incredible amounts of money while poorer students will be pushed out of such areas. In reality it would be the thin edge of the wedge, opening the door for the government to uncap fees in more and more course over time.
Unless the government’s proposed changes to higher education are fought it will mean the beginning of the end of public education in Australia. Neither of the major parties or those who run Australia’s universities are committed to a publicly owned and controlled model.
We need to resist their push and demand that all levels of education are funded properly and made free. This could be done if taxes on big business were increased and priority was given to need instead of profits. Such an approach is possible, but it requires the re-building of an activist student movement and the push for a political alternative.
By Corey Snoek