On December 2 last year the Abbott government’s plan to deregulate higher education fees was defeated 33 to 31 in the Senate. This was a significant blow built on the back of huge public outcry and protest. But sticking with the Abbott government’s contempt for the community, Education Minister Christopher Pyne re-introduced the same policies into the lower house the next day – Plan B.
Plan B is the same as Plan A, except that it would not place a real interest rate on student debts. Instead debts will grow only with inflation. Plan B aims to create a new ‘full-fee’ undergraduate market by deregulating HECS-HELP fees. This is reinforced by a 20% subsidy cut and a significant reduction in the indexation of future subsidies. To top things off they want to extend public subsidies to private for-profit providers.
This would radically undermine access and quality and lay the basis for the future privatisation of public universities. Some course fees could double or triple in the medium term, with no guarantee that future prices would not inflate even further.
All but one of the public university vice chancellors are in favour of deregulation because it could potentially bring their now corporatised institutions billions in extra fee revenue. In 2013, 61.6% of university places were paid for by regulated student fees (and federal subsidies), highlighting the fee bonanza for uni bosses if deregulation is implemented.
Many students and commentators have rightly celebrated the defeat of Plan A. Some have even declared the government’s war on higher education over, suggesting that Plan B was only introduced by Pyne as a face saving exercise.
However, the defeat of Plan B and other cuts-legislation – which could be voted on as early as February – is far from certain. Plan A was only defeated by the public pressure exerted on wavering Senators including the Palmer United Party crossbenchers Lazarus and Wang and ex-Palmer United Party Senator Lambie. All three have previously flip-flopped to support the Coalition.
The ALP are far from friends of public education having cut billions from universities during their last term in government. The Greens for their part supported that government and continue to support budgets that contain cuts.
Crossbenchers Day, Leyonhjelm, Madigan and Muir already voted for Plan A. Xenophon did not, but only because he was playing for time. Pyne meant it when he said as “far as I’m concerned, round one is over, round two begins tonight.”
Given this, the only way to guarantee Plan B’s defeat is to escalate the public campaign against deregulation. The Coalition understands this and is already wasting millions of dollars of public money on an advertising campaign which peddles nothing more than mistruths.
The National Union of Students (NUS), the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and other education unions should organise more protests and prepare for a one day nation-wide strike of students and staff in the coming weeks. If Plan B is passed a campaign of non-compliance should be organised to stop its implementation.
Instead of accepting that that some deregulation ‘compromise’ must be reached to avoid ‘uncertainty’, as key figures within the ALP are currently saying, student and trade unions should fight for free education from childcare to university. No fees at all, with all current student debt written off.
The elite Group of Eight universities estimated that “free education would require an additional $4.8 billion in 2014”. While likely overestimated, this is small cost in terms of a $1.65 trillion national economy. Increased taxes on big business could easily cover the cost of free education and even more funds could be unlocked by stopping subsidies to private for-profit providers and eliminating corporate welfare.
By W. van Leeuwen