Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Fighting university deregulation: Could higher education ever be free?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Last month Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced the government’s university deregulation plans would be postponed, but not scrapped. This means students and educators must brace for another round in the battle for accessible education.

The inability of the Abbott government to pass reforms that would cut university funding and increase fees was seen as an embarrassing failure. However, the motivation to reduce public investment in education and increase the burden on individual students remains as strong as ever. The Turnbull government will plan to repackage the same cuts to avoid the same fate as Abbott.

In order to defeat university deregulation we must win broad support for a totally different model: An education system that is free, accessible and publicly funded.

Higher education has become a commodity to be bought and sold, a privilege to be paid for. In this view education is an industry like any other, and must conform to the rules of the market. This is the outlook shared by both of the major parties. Yet most view education as a right, not a product.

So what is the alternative? Could higher education ever be free? The answer is yes. Free public education has been won before and it can be won again.

For fourteen years between 1974 and 1988 students paid no fees for university degrees in Australia. Many of the politicians pushing for university deregulation now were educated during this era. As a student during this time, Malcolm Turnbull studied law and arts at the elite Sydney University.  If the proposed education reforms pass, the same degree could cost upwards of $100,000 today.

University fees and the familiar HECS/HELP loan scheme began under the Hawke Labor government. At the time it was claimed that charging limited fees were make it fairer, as those who access education would pay for it. In reality, the introduction of fees was part of the broader neoliberal ideological push towards lowering taxes on business profits and charging working class people more for basic services. Today taxes on businesses are much lower than during the 70s and 80s and ordinary people pay a higher share of their income on a combination of taxes and privatised services like education. Meanwhile, private education providers have made huge profits through the commodification of education.

Despite the hypocritical arguments from politicians and business lobbyists it is both possible and beneficial to have free higher education. Free education is not simply a relic of the past as comparable countries like Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany have free higher education.

Free education has been won and maintained (both in the past in Australia and in other counties around the world today) by strong, organised movements of working class people and students. Such a movement must make the political argument that access to higher education is as a right and that universities should be seen as public service institutions. This should be the key focus of student unions and educator unions like the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Australian Education Union (AEU). To build a strong enough movement to win, these unions would need to be supported by a broader labour movement fighting for public investment in service that benefit working class people, like education.

Even with the mining boom coming an end, abundant wealth exists in Australia. Recently the Australian Tax Office revealed that 1 in 5 large companies in Australia currently pay no tax. The argument that Australia can’t afford free education only makes sense if we accept widespread corporate tax avoidance. With enough political will this untapped revenue could be harnessed to provide free, universal access to quality education.

The problem we face is that both major parties serve the interests of big business, not ordinary people. In a battle between tax avoiding companies and private education providers on the one side, and student and educators on the other, both Labor and Liberal will always side with business. To turn this around it will require rebuilding our student and union movements along socialist lines, as well as building a new workers party that fights unashamedly for the interests of working class people and students.

The possibility of free, universal, quality education is real, but at the moment those of us defending public education are on the back foot. We will continue to lose ground to creeping corporatisation and privatisation unless we propose a genuine alternative. That alternative needs to challenge the core logic of neoliberal capitalism, and instead argue for public need to be prioritised over private profit. In this sense, the fight to defend public education is intertwined with the struggle for a new type of society – a democratic socialist society where the world’s immense wealth and resources are used to improve people’s lives, not to make them slaves to the market.

By Kirk Leonard


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