Dying by degrees: Labor’s uni review too little too late

August 2, 2023
Australian universities graphic
The higher fees and costs went, the more universities found ways to profiteer. Image: Green Left

The Labor government announced a review into Australia’s higher education sector as the United States announced plans for billions in student debt relief.

Can Australia really hope to find its way back to Whitlam-style free education policy when so many are ensnared in a brutal hunger-games economy, driven by the ferocious greed of the privileged, privately-educated few?

When the Gough Whitlam Labor government introduced free tertiary education in 1974 Whitlam told the Labor Party faithful: “Education is the key to equality of opportunity… a student’s merit rather than their parent’s wealth should decide who benefits.”

It was what Australia had long wanted and for 15 nation-building years the system, while not perfect, allowed access on merit and affordability.

Unsurprisingly, conservative efforts to put the increasingly well-educated working class back in their overworked, underpaid place began almost immediately.

Thanks to student protests it was not until 1986 that the Bob Hawke Labor government introduced the Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC) of $250 for each student.

User-pays education was born and — by design — favours users who can most afford to pay.

Whitlam recognised equity was based on a scale of affordability, however, the system still had to be sustainable. The new “administration fee” itself might have been reasonable policy, had it not been foundational on the premise that “everyone” could afford it. Not everybody could.

Once equity of access again had a price on its head, it became a political target that just kept getting bigger, becoming the now insatiable debt turbine known as Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS).

It became harder for the disadvantaged to get a guernsey for the frequently promised, but never delivered, “level playing field” of higher education; the game’s brightest too often benched by self-interested referees.

It is no secret that market economics is Kryptonite to all forms of social equity. Even the most level playing field is rendered inaccessible if it is located too far up the mountain.

The higher fees and costs went, the more universities found ways to profiteer: special rates for overseas students; pushing for public funding of private equity; demanding cheaper teaching costs; higher and higher productivity for less money; and charging ever-higher fees.

In the end, the best free education model in the world was unable to withstand the ferocious greed of corporatised capital in a ruthless gig economy high on negative-geared wealth and markets hijacked by lobbying cartels.

Public funding of private gains

Between the inequities of the public funding of private schools and universities and the deliberate cruelty of some of those who benefitted the most (often finding themselves in Parliament or captains of industry as a result of free education) corporatisation and the de-socialisation of the entire education sector has set in.

For disadvantaged students, the HECS tax formula became ground zero. They found themselves needing more and more money to study in less and less Commonwealth-subsidised places. Course choices, locations and even entire curriculums became rigged to political capital. University boards were stacked with vested interests.

Politicians of all stripes are fond of pointing out that “we don’t charge interest on HECS”, as if that takes the sting out of a $100,000 bill so many can never hope to pay off.

Instead, they backhanded disadvantaged students yet again by making HECS debts (and its poor cousin the vocational fee HELP system) subject to indexation — rigging it to the rate of inflation.

Currently, indexation is charged out at 7.1% — effectively a 7.1% interest on an average debt of between $50,000–$100,000.

Call it what you will, this has the same effect as taking out an unsecured variable rate personal loan. It has the same effect on your credit history too: a debt bomb timed to go off exactly when a now post-graduate student in need of housing needs it the least.

Once again only those highly coveted, private full fee-paying students enjoy any real freedom of study and career choice, capacity to pay both fees and the increasingly crippling cost of living being the primary admission requirements.

Plus parts

After navigating the dazzling complexities of CSP’s (places subsidised by the Commonwealth), HECS, VET Fee HELP, different study formats and the various scholarships, prospective students then face a heartbreaking list of things student loans will never cover.

They include expenses such as accommodation, laptops, transport or many of the other core necessities of study that have somehow morphed into hedge-market indicators.

With university managements becoming greedy slumlords selling precious student accommodation to the highest bidders, and an entirely feral private rental market nationwide, accommodation costs alone have already bumped too many students off the side of the mountain completely.

Textbooks are costly too: students are trapped into uni-approved-only texts that are hugely expensive for a variety of government-sanctioned reasons. It is a significant cost that even the most frugal of students cannot avoid and quickly outstrips eligible subsidies.

Add the yawning gap between low-paid casual student jobs and the stratospheric cost of living and those without external financial support have long since been priced out of the university education market completely.

Labor’s rear-view mirror

Labor announced the Australian Universities Accord last November with a Review of Australia's higher education system, led by Professor Mary O’Kane.

The report released on July 19 by Education Minister Jason Clare noted the Chair’s comment: “Higher education is essential to our national prosperity – it is the foundation upon which a more equitable and fair society, and a stronger economy, can be built.”

Whitlam was proud of his delivery of free education, and he would struggle to recognise either the education sector itself or the Labor Party that once protected it from profiteering harm.

With universities now in bed with lucrative defence contractors, leveraging everything they can to hijack curriculums, and more than half of Australia’s lobbyists being ex-politicians, it’s hard to see how the Education Accord’s big ideas can make more than a small difference.

Everyone says they want to help “the disadvantaged” it’s just that nobody wants to pay for it.

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