The Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) new higher education policy, announced on September 21, risks being indistinguishable from that of the Coalition under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
That is because the new Prime Minister has signalled a departure from the bully-boy antics of former education minister Christopher Pyne, who had threatened to introduce his doomed education cuts a third time to the Senate this spring.
Turnbull can see, correctly, that there is bipartisan support for the neoliberal corporate university framework. Pyne has been replaced as education minister by Simon Birmingham, who said: “There’s no point just talking about reform. There’s no point trying to ram it through. You have to build consensus in the community that allows you to have the consensus of parliament.”
Labor’s new policy — its “Fairer Plan” — is short on detail but big on rhetoric. Perhaps this is why the Labor-aligned National Union of Students has, so far, said nothing about it.
It will reverse the Coalition’s 20% cut to the education budget — assuming it is ever passed. It will stop universities from being able to charge $100,000 for degrees. It will legislate increases for every undergraduate student — a “Student Funding Guarantee”— and index the funding. But it remains committed to the neoliberal corporate university framework.
The National Tertiary Education Union cautiously welcomed the proposals, saying university fees must cease being a “political football”.
But it said more funding is needed because “Australian undergraduates still pay higher education fees than many comparable countries”.
Labor’s plan promises that by 2018 undergraduate students will receive an extra $2500 a year. By 2026, it says students will be $4000 better off. The increases, it says, will come from taxing multinationals, superannuation tax concessions and the abolition of the Emissions Reduction Fund.
However, an expanding university sector, which is geared to meeting society’s needs rather than corporations’ wants, requires a lot more funding.
Australian universities receive one of the smallest amounts of direct government funding as a percentage of GDP among OECD countries.
In 2013, it ranked 25th out of 29. By contrast, in 1964, Australia ranked third among 44 countries for direct government support for students.
Notwithstanding this, Labor’s statement enthuses that OECD figures show Australia has the second best “return on investment in higher education”.
“For every extra dollar Australia spends on a university student’s education, the average return is twenty six dollars. The economic case is emphatic.”
This is the problem. Since the 1980s, tertiary education has increasingly become a tool for corporate Australia.
Both the 2008 Bradley Review and the 2011 Lomax-Smith Funding Review, commissioned by the Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard Labor governments, recommended a significant increase in public funding for universities.
The Bradley Review found that, despite an increase in government investment in the 1990s, federal funding per subsidised student in 2008 was 10% lower in real terms compared to 1996. It put this down to cuts, constrained indexation and shifting towards a user-pays model.
Student numbers have grown considerably since then, which has led to government funding increases. However, students are contributing more funding themselves than ever before.
In the 1980s, the federal funding contribution to universities was about 90%. By the mid-1990s that figure had shrunk to 57% and by 2011 it was 42%.
Making higher education a lucrative export commodity has helped drive the neoliberal transformation of higher education. The introduction of full fee-paying international students in the 1990s allowed governments to appear generous to local students, while scamming those from overseas. Higher education is now Australia’s largest service export industry — valued at $15 billion annually.
Labor’s “education revolution” was always a fiction. Since it dropped its commitment to free education in 1988, by just a handful of votes, it has played a big role in marketising the education sector.
Labor’s “new” education policy is, fundamentally, more of the old.
The Socialist Alliance has some ideas that rest on the notion of education being a fundamental right, not a privilege.
A real education revolution would start with listening to students and staff in the public system. Rather than look to the market, students and staff should be given the chance for a real say in the education system.
If we want a university system that encourages questioning and learning, and meets society’s needs and expectations, we need to campaign and fight for publicly-funded and publicly-controlled education.
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