Don’t let education be handed back to the rich: It’s time for students and unions to take the offensive

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The Howard Government imposed Voluntary Student Union legislation
to destroy a collective voice for students.

In a privatising frenzy, John Howard’s Coalition Government is going after education as if there’s no tomorrow. For the ordinary person, education decides how life will turn out. It’s a right. But to Howard and his neoliberal ilk, rights are things you buy. If you really want a good education, you should be prepared to go into debt for it. And, frankly, only certain people should be educated. The rest should be trained, and only if they pay.

The federal government’s attempts to introduce a national curriculum at the school level and take financial control over universities from the states go hand in hand. They also forge another prong in the Howard Government’s general aim to wrest powers from the states — from river systems and industrial relations to education — and centralise them in Canberra.

In 1972 voters resoundingly voted in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) after 23 years of Coalition rule. One decisive issue was Labor’s promise to abolish university fees. Almost overnight, universities across the country were constructing extensions, including crèches, to meet the demand. Working class kids of that generation were often the first in their families to go to university. They entered professions once closed to them and lapped up the learning once denied them. Affirmative action for the “mature aged” (over 25), women and Indigenous people, matched by courses such as Women’s Studies, Aboriginal Studies and various new social sciences with radical perspectives, turned universities into bustling places of critical thinking and debate.

But by the end of the 1980s, the clawing back had started. Labor’s Prices and Incomes Accord, introduced by Bob Hawke in the mid 1980s, contained a “social wage” component. The promise of government funding that would ensure working people’s living standards helped sell this plan to tie earnings to productivity — namely, to cut wages. Instead, government funding was also systematically slashed. Education copped a beating.

Here come those fees again. In 1979, fees were introduced for overseas students. The “logic” was that these “rich Asians” should pay, and appeals to racist nationalism saw initial protest against the fees soon dissipate. In 1987, the Hawke Government brought in a university administration charge for domestic students. Two years later, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) came into being, at this stage for some postgraduate full fee paying courses. When elected in 1996, the Howard Government introduced full fees for domestic places and, within a year, applied the HECS to full fee undergraduate courses.

HECS is the portion paid by the student, according to a complex formula. The government funds the remainder. The student pays through income tax, once they are employed and earning more than $38,000. A student’s contribution can range from several thousand dollars per course to over $200,000 for medicine. In 2004, the government deregulated HECS and allowed for the maximum student contribution to be raised by 25%. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) reported that students’ share of their education costs (through1997 until 2005, the number of mature-age enrolments dropped 17,000 each year. For entrants from high school, the annual fall was 9,000.

According to the National Union of Students (NUS), Australia stands out from the rest in its use of increased student contributions to cut back on government funding. Over the past 20 years, federal funding of universities plummeted from 90% in the mid 1980s to about 20% today. In overall education funding, Australia not only spends below the average of the world’s richest countries, it puts more public funds toward private schools than most of the others. Australia’s class sizes in primary and secondary schools are among the largest, and teachers’ salaries among the lowest.

Indentured for life. Student debt is staggering, and rising. In 2005, HECS and Fee-Help, the government loan scheme introduced that year, were calculated to be over $13 billion. The number of debt-burdened students was expected to triple by next year. Many graduates will be paying off their study well into their forties. For women, it’s even more serious. Concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs and uncompensated for time out to have and raise children, they face indebtedness for their entire working lives.

Life at university hasn’t been good, either. The imposition of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in the 2006 has effectively killed off the services provided by student unions. Starved of funds and hampered by restrictions, childcare, emergency loans, welfare advice, advocacy, employment services and more have disappeared. So has student activism.

Enter the Melbourne Model. Education is now being pummeled with a four-pronged assault. One was launched on April 17 this year by Melbourne University’s Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis. Davis also chairs the Group of Eight, which comprises Australia’s prestigious “sandstone universities” and is spearheading the full privatisation of the country’s university system.

Titled “Growing Esteem,” the scheme will restructure university into a two-level system, similar to that of the United States. Almost 100 existing undergraduate degrees will be scrapped and replaced by six degrees in arts, biomedicine, commerce, environment, music and science. Professional courses — such as law, medicine, architecture, nursing and education — will become graduate degrees, mostly at Masters level. Three-quarters of all graduate places are to be paid through HECS, and the rest through full upfront fees.

Davis claims that the model is intended to address the skills shortage and make Australian universities comparable with those of the U.S. and Europe. Said Davis two years ago, “To compete and contribute in a global setting, the university needs to be able to set its own fees, to pay for the staff, facilities and services essential in a leading university…” Teachers and students point out that Melbourne University needs the money, given the dramatic drop in government funds. They argue that the plan is to deregulate the university system, giving administrations the power to charge what they want in order to fully cover the costs with fees. For students, this would mean paying a lot more, due to a certain hike in fees and the extended length of a degree.

While media attention was on the Melbourne Model announcement, also put on the table that day was a proposal to extend HECS to the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sector. The scheme’s designer and guru, Bruce Chapman, says that TAFE, the country’s largest education sector, and drained of government funds for years, needs HECS for its future viability.

Unions are bad for business. A savvy university CEO would not pick the pockets of its students and forget to do the same with its staff. A detail left out of Davis’s announcement was the email he had sent two working days earlier to the university’s 6,400 academics about redundancies. They had until April 27, or two weeks, to respond.

University workers across the country have been fighting individual contracts for two years. Under the federal government’s Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements, Commonwealth funding is now tied to a number of workplace “requirements.” One is that all staff be “offered” individual contracts before August 31, 2006. Unionised campuses were afire with protest, and NTEU branches have had to organise hard against intense intimidation. The Group of Eight’s deregulation regime ups the ante even more, and the staff of Melbourne University is on the front line.

When asked for a response to the Melbourne Model, ALP leader Kevin Rudd did not want to commit to the party’s earlier stated, and very limited, policy to abolish full fees. He eventually put a guarded position of phasing out fees from 2009 — whether only for domestic students, as the ALP’s education spokesperson said, or all students is unclear. Earlier this year, he had said that the ALP would halve HECS for teachers of maths and science in secondary education. And that’s about it. Labor stays in the service of the business world. Neither students nor teacher unionists have any reason to rely on the ALP for salvation. They need to look to themselves.

Students and teachers, unite! When students saw that Gender Studies was dropped from the list of majors in the new Arts degree, 100 marched on the Academic Board and demanded that the course be reinstated. When the university tried to shut out the protest by locking the building and closing the windows and shutters (despite the searing heat), the predominantly women students stayed outside and shouted their messages. The ever-popular Women’s and Gender Studies exist today because of the historic fights to establish them, and students weren’t going to allow them to be taken away. These studies have radicalised both women and men, transforming many into highly conscious feminist fighters.

On the night of Davis’ grand launch of “Growing Esteem,” students shut down the banquet, leaving more than 200 well-dressed partygoers outside in the rain until they had to abandon their celebration.

At Queensland University of Technology, students rallied for hours outside QUT’s Academic Board to demand the secure future of the humanities and human services school. It was threatened with closure due to financial losses, although QUT’s profit last year was more than $44 million. On the previous day, students protested the victimisation of two humanities lecturers, suspended without pay for publicly challenging the Howard Government’s attacks on education are well orchestrated. They need to be met with this energy, united across all sectors of the industry and supported by the entire union movement. Student protest is resurfacing, and women are leading it. Even though fragmented, this mood of revolt is showing what can be done if campuses unionise and join in a mighty combination of forces. Such a counterforce would win back education for everyone. It would also inspire unionists everywhere to organise for the complete defeat of Howard’s brutal industrial regime and go on to fight for all our needs, from free healthcare and childcare to decent housing.

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