Both of the major political parties are committed to cutbacks in education, leaving Australians little to choose between in the upcoming federal election. The ALP is cutting $2.8 billion in spending on tertiary education in order to fund the Gonski reforms at primary and secondary level. But these reforms are a mechanism to funnel more public money to private schools.
By David Elliott, Socialist Party
Most people agree that education funding needs to be increased, and many commentators have expressed bewilderment at the government’s proposal to cut one area of education to fund another. But there is a logic behind this, from a capitalist point-of-view. It is all about transforming education into a commodity they can profit from.
Australia is one of the lowest ranked countries in the OECD when it comes to education spending. 71% of students attend public schools, but teachers in most public schools deal with a lack of support staff, woefully inadequate facilities and pay rates that fall behind inflation. When schools apply for money to develop their facilities they must jump through bureaucratic hoops in an expensive and wasteful process, with no guarantee of funding at the end of it.
At the same time, there is plenty of wealth in the Australian economy. A 2011 study found that if Australia raised the same proportion of GDP in tax as the UK, we would have an extra $108 billion per year. Bankers made $27 billion in profit last year. The mining industry expects profits approaching $50 billion a year, exceeding the annual education budget by up to $20 billion.
The Australian tax system is so full of holes that last year BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals and Hancock Prospecting (Gina Rinehart’s firm) together earned tax credits totalling $6.4 billion! The watered-down mining tax brought in a mere $126 million in its first six months.
Instead of drawing on this wealth to invest in public education the Gonski model proposes funding per-student – regardless of whether the student is in a public or private school. Already more than $3 billion of public money a year helps to swell the profits of the biggest private schools, while public schools struggle to make ends meet.
The ALP’s approach resembles the system pushed in the TAFE sector. This system encourages the growth of dodgy private providers while public institutions are left to flounder, and ordinary people are made to pay more for a poorer quality service. If these latest cuts are allowed to proceed university students will face increased debt, poorer facilities and fewer teachers per student.
In recent months there have been a number of student protests against these cuts. Some polls show that up to 75% of the population are opposed to them. The only way to stop the cuts is to channel this anger into a mass movement. Such a movement could keep the pressure on no matter who comes to power later this year.
At the moment neither the student union nor trade union leaders are showing much intention to fight. A day of action is being considered for early semester two, but much more is needed if we really want to win. Socialists in the movement must argue for a more militant strategy.
For the movement to win long lasting change, it will have to fight for an alternative to the neoliberal funding models pushed by the major parties. These policies are driven by the needs of private profit. We need to fight for free, high-quality education as a basic right and adequate welfare for those who choose to study. Ultimately the best way to defend and extend public education is to link the campaign against the cuts to the fight for democratic socialism.