During the last term of government the Liberals wanted to allow universities to set their own course fees. This sparked a major backlash as it was revealed that under the plans degrees could cost $100,000 or more.
In the lead up to the election the Liberals appeared to walk away from this controversial proposal but instead spoke about a raft of measures that would result in about $2 billion worth of education cuts.
They wanted to see a 20% funding cut for universities and an increase to student contributions to course costs from 40% to 50%. They suggested reducing the income level from which loan repayments would start from $54,000 down to $40,000. They were also looking at a student loan fee to recover part of the costs for the HELP loan system and an increase to repayments from higher income earners.
Knowing how unpopular these proposals would be amongst voters, especially young people, they decided not to formalise these plans during the election campaign and instead said that they would finalise their policies for the sector later in the year, with any changes to begin in 2018.
Labor initially opposed the Liberals proposals but during the election campaign reversed their position and said they would support a number of measures that were put forward by Abbott in the 2014 budget.
Labor agreed to tie the higher education indexation program to the consumer price index which will mean a reduction in spending of about $3.7 billion over the medium term. Graduates will also have to pay back debt sooner, with the threshold for loan repayments being reduced to $50,600. Despite claiming to support advancements in maths, science and education they also agreed to end the benefit that applied to degrees in those areas of study.
It is clear that both the major parties are in favour of slashing spending to education and aim to corporatise the sector for the benefit of their big business backers.
Since 1983 the costs of university attendance per student has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation. This of course makes it far less affordable and increases the amount of debt a student must take on. Two-thirds of graduates now take out loans to cover their expenses. The changes agreed by both the major parties will see an even greater reliance on debt and will be a further step towards a US-type model where student loans become a lifetime burden.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia ranks very poorly when it comes to public funding for education. Significantly increasing funding to the sector and scrapping fees entirely would see a huge increase in the number of students enrolling and completing their studies. This would be a huge boost to the economy and open up a range of job opportunities for working class young people.
By making education free, and supporting students with a proper living allowance, students would not have to worry about juggling study with part time casual work. This would result in better educational outcomes and open up possibilities for more secure jobs. This readjustment of priorities would be a benefit to society as a whole. Not only would it eliminate future student debt but it would create greater social mobility and economic equality.
Instead of seeing education as a commodity we need to see it as a basic human right. Free education from childcare to university could be easily paid for if big business paid more tax on their profits. Students and workers in education need to build a movement to oppose the cuts and to fight for free education for all. Central to that movement should be the need to reject the pro-big business politics of both the major parties.
By Amy Neve