Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Public education for all!

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The Howard Government has used the May 2007 Federal Budget to reinforce its attempts to shift Australian public education towards a US-styled privatised model for the rich elite. In the budget Federal Treasurer Peter Costello announced the creation of a $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund to pay for university infrastructure and research facilities. But the fund will only generate around $300 million a year for Australia’s 38 universities, which is about the same amount committed by the Keating Government back in 1992.

Budget papers show Australia is the only OECD country in which education spending as a proportion of total government expenditure is expected to fall – from 7.7% in 2005-06 to 7.4% in 2010-11.

Under the Howard Government universities have accumulated a maintenance backlog of $1.2 billion. New classrooms for a single university cost upwards of $30 million, with more complex research facilities costing much more.

Federal Education, Science and Training Minister Julie Bishop has also warned that individual universities will only receive grants from the fund if they meet the government’s requirements for “specialisation, diversity and responsiveness to local labour market needs. It will be on a competitive basis and based on the merit of their application” she says. “In some instances universities may well have put money from a particular benefactor into the endowment fund and then make an application for some other funding.”

In addition the budget has removed the 35% cap on the number of full-fee paying students that universities can enrol. These fees were deregulated in 2005 under then federal education minister Brendan Nelson. This is the second stage of the ultimate privatisation measure. It reverses the burden of universities justifying full-fee paying places to the government; who must instead justify funding HECS merit-earned places in degrees deemed necessary of public support.

Michael Gallagher, Policy Director at Australian National University, admits: “The deregulation of fees and HECS degrees is the most significant component. It’s taking the chains off. The government is still setting the same rate for HECS everywhere, so it doesn’t take into account different costs in delivery. But this whole package is moving a bit more to make the market work.”

Under the title Growing Esteem, Melbourne University will from next year adopt a new US-based structure, based particularly on advice they have received from the ultra elite Harvard University. Under this model students will be forced to study a broad generalist degree before they can study for professional qualifications in one of their new graduate schools. Half of the students in professional courses, such as law and biomedicine, will be paying full-fees.

One of the main aims of this ‘Melbourne Model’ is to slash any courses that are not profitable, such as creative arts and gender studies. The university has already announced intentions to cut 7000 HECS undergraduate places over the next 20 years, about 25% of existing places, as well as conceding to staff redundancies. Increased numbers of scholarships have been offered to provide some balance, but these too will target high performing students from the well-funded private school sector.

In 2005, when the model was first proposed, the Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University, Glynn Davis, highlighted that over the past 25 years guaranteed federal funding has fallen from 90% to 23% of university revenue. He has already talked openly about wanting to reclaim the word ‘elite’ for his institution. Furthermore, the Howard Government has reduced Commonwealth funding for degrees in accounting, administration, economics and commerce, allowing universities to increase HECS fees by $1200 on students to make up the gap.

But expect little difference in the ALP’s promised ‘Education Revolution’. Kevin Rudd and Davis were close friends in the Queensland public service, and the Labor Party has stated their avid support for the Melbourne Model. Rudd conspicuously hesitated in reaffirming the ALP’s official opposition to full-fee places for days after the budget was brought down, and they have failed to promise a repeal of the Howard Government’s anti-student Voluntary Student Unionism legislation of 2005.

In the primary and secondary education sectors, the budget has provided students with low literacy or numeracy skills a $700 voucher for private tutoring, directing further funding away from public schools and into private tutoring colleges. Over the next five years, public schools will only receive an increase of $300 million from the budget, while private schools will receive $1.7 billion in federal funding. Nothing was offered for early childhood education or TAFE.

As John Howard himself puts it, the Liberal Government’s ideological agenda is to overcome the “left liberal bias in academia”. The budget has reinforced their aims to neoliberalise education for the benefit of the rich and elite, and to invest in the skills necessary to maintain the future profits of big business. Education is a right for all, not a privilege for the few, and the public education system must be defended.

Editorial comment from the June 2007 edition of The Socialist Newspaper