Plans are underway for sweeping counter-reforms in the university sector. The Turnbull government wants to slash $3.2 billion from course funding, alongside a raft of changes to the HECS loan system that would force students to pay their debts back sooner.
Although public pressure has compelled the government to shelve the proposal to entirely deregulate course fees – which would make some degrees cost as much as $100,000 – deregulated “flagship courses” are still being considered for popular courses like Law and Engineering. Full fee deregulation remains part of their long-term agenda.
At the same time, a debate is simmering in the mainstream press about the number of university graduates who struggle to find employment. Last month Vicki Thomson, executive director of the elite Group of Eight universities, argued that the free-for-all admissions system is producing too many graduates with “useless qualifications” and called for more restrictive entrance criteria.
Her argument was echoed by Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute, who declared that “in science at least, fewer students would ease competition in the limited market”.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham defended the admissions system but agreed that “…we need to find a method that drives an outcome that frankly is more attuned with what the employment market demands.” Birmingham and Thomson both suggested more people go to TAFE instead.
It is widely accepted that the existing university funding and admissions system is a mess. Under the current “demand-driven” model, introduced by the Gillard Labor government, universities are not limited in the number of students they can enrol and funding is allocated based on the popularity of each course. This incentivises universities to use students as cash-cows to boost their funding, and has created a glut of graduates in the most popular and prestigious courses.
Yet tightening university admission criteria would fail to resolve the fundamental problem – Australia’s weak employment market is not providing enough jobs to go around. According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in May, on average there are close to 4.2 job seekers for every job vacancy available! With harder economic times ahead this will only worsen.
To end the crisis of systemic unemployment there is a pressing need for major public spending. Government investment in sustainable infrastructure, public housing and shifting to clean energy would create thousands of ongoing jobs that would require on-the-job or tertiary training.
The higher education cuts are primarily motivated by the government’s need to balance the federal budget. As the traditional party of big business, the Liberals are desperate to find savings in ways that won’t hurt the profits of their corporate backers.
For their part, the Labor Party are not opposed to undermining public education – state and federal Labor governments have pursued an agenda of cuts, privatisation and deregulation of the tertiary education sector, including plans to hack away $2.3 billion from university funding when they were in government in 2013.
In the long run both major parties seek to transform the education sector into a US-style, user-pays model that capitalists can profit from investing in.
There is no need to make students pay for education at all. Australia is brimming with wealth that is being funnelled into offshore tax havens by the super-rich. Three decades of profit-driven cuts have created the highest levels of inequality since records started in Australia.
While the major parties have been trying to squeeze savings from cuts to vital social services, last year the big four banks made over $30 billion in profit. Bringing these corporations into public ownership would harness more than enough wealth to reverse all the cuts and make services like health and education free.
Under capitalism, higher education is seen as a commodity to be bought and sold, and its role in society is to serve the needs of the market. The student movement must go beyond merely opposing this round of cuts. We need to fight for an entirely different kind of society where free, quality education at all levels is a basic right and employment is guaranteed.
A mass campaign of student and staff strikes that posed this alternative would not only have the potential to win reforms but it would rock the establishment to its foundations.
By Jeremy Trott