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Issue 

The graduate factory (pay at the door)

By Sean Healy

University was supposed to be a sanctuary of ideas and debate, a "community of scholars" adding to the pool of society's knowledge and enlightenment. But today's universities are factories, churning out graduates. They're an "industry" like any other, based on selling and marketing a product.

The negative impact of this on both the quality of education and the lives of students (the raw material in this factory) is drastic, and getting worse. And the trend is for the cost of this process to be borne more and more by the individual student.

The process of "user pays" began under the last Labor government, which in 1985 introduced the first charges for overseas students. This was followed, in rapid succession, by the first fee (an "administration charge") for undergraduate students, the introduction of the graduate tax (Higher Education Contribution Scheme — HECS), major cuts to and restructuring of Austudy and full fees for postgraduate degrees.

In 1996, when the Coalition won government, this trend went even further. In its first budget, in May 1996, the Coalition announced a $640 million funding cut to higher education, 5% of the total higher education budget. This reduced the government's contribution to higher education funding from 90% in the 1970s to 58% (with a target of 50%). The balance comes from fees and other sources.

The government also allowed universities for the first time to charge up-front fees for undergraduate degrees.

The Coalition's general policy has been to run higher education according to the laws of the market — to the advantage of the already wealthy universities and to the detriment of everything else.

The cuts to government funding led to enormous changes at campus level. On some campuses, staff were sacked and departments cut (usually those departments deemed least "economically viable").

For example, there were attempts to impose major cuts to the arts faculties at Monash University and the Australian National University, and to close the Sixth School at the Victorian College of the Arts. Increasingly, what is being taught is what can be sold, not what is worthwhile for society.

On other campuses, other services have been targeted, such as the libraries. Fees on internet access and study materials, overdue books and lost student cards have sprouted everywhere.

Access to study materials, even to seats in lecture theatres, is increasingly difficult — in some courses, there are four library copies of the required reading for a course of 100 people. In 1986, the tutor to student ratio was 1:9,

10 years later it was 1:16.

This process has not ended. As yet, fees for undergraduate degrees are not widespread — even those universities which introduced fees did so only for a very small number of places.

The government is determined to enlarge the market for undergraduate fee places so it can cut its own funding commitment even further. Not only are we expected to learn what they force down our throats, they want us to pay for it too.

The government's grand vision is of a higher education sector of "greater diversity" — by which the politicians mean rich, well-resourced universities for the elite and poor, under-funded and overcrowded universities for the rest of us. They look forward to universities which are more "responsive to the needs of the community" (i.e., more tailored to the needs of big business) and more "competitive" (run like real estate or used car businesses).

The gap between the government's "vision" for higher education and the needs and wants of students has never been greater.

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