By James Basle
The effects of years of education cutbacks are now being felt across Australia. Problems include overcrowded classes, inadequate facilities from cafeterias to libraries, transport systems unable to cope and up-front fees for overseas and postgraduate students.
According the Victorian Post-Secondary Education Commission (VPSEC), enrolments in higher education institutions in that state will exceed funded levels by nearly 7000 places. La Trobe University, for example, has over-enrolled by 13%. Nationally, academic staff unions estimate that universities have over-enrolled by 10%.
One cause of over-enrolling is the dramatic rise in the number of students staying on to year 12. According to Ron Cullen from VPSEC, high unemployment has led more students to accept offers of places at universities. He added that, because students were paying a $1993 Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) fee, the government had received a $14 million windfall, but this money was not being used to benefit students.
Over-enrolling is also encouraged by federal government funding arrangements, which penalise institutions for under-enrolling.
But overcrowding on campuses cannot be attributed solely to over-enrolling. The basic causes are years of neglect by ALP and Liberal governments, and funding cutbacks. More recently, the federal government has sought to increase the number of students but has not injected the funds necessary for this increase.
Commonwealth grants to universities as a percentage of GDP were 1.36% in 1975 but only 0.99% in 1988. When the Hawke government was first elected in 1983, $9870 was being spent per full-time student. In 1990 the figure was only $8858 — a 10.2% cut even without allowing for inflation.
According to Simon Marginson from the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations, student numbers in 1991 increased 10% on last year, yet operating grants to universities have increased by only 1.6%.
Says Tony Sum, the education vice president of the University of NSW Students' Union, "there is less money from the government but pressure to take more students. The university administration doesn't confront the government, so it is the student, as always, who suffers."
All students are now paying some sort of fee, either deferred in the form of the HECS or an up-front fee. Many more postgraduate students are paying up-front fees. All overseas students now pay up front — between $10,000 and $22,000, depending on the course. Both the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee and the Liberal Party believe that students who miss out on places at university should be allowed to go provided that they are charged full up-front fees. This is another step towards up-front fees for all undergraduate students.
The quality of education is further downgraded by a generalised shortage of academic staff. The National Institute of Labor Studies claims that there is an annual shortfall of between 1300 and 1890 staff recruits, if the 1989 staff-student ratios are to be maintained. It says there may be staff shortages of up to 20,000 by the end of the decade.
The impact of the funding shortfall can be illustrated by the example of the University of NSW.
Most lectures and tutorials there are overcrowded, some to the point of students not being able to fit into lecture halls. Tutorials, which should be small discussion groups, resemble lectures. There have been reports of tutorials which should have 20 students with up to 47 in attendance.
All over the Kensington campus, there are queues: queues to use the photocopiers and public telephones, queues at the cafeterias, even queues at toilets.
The transport system is unable to cope with the increased number of students. Many students catch a bus from Central Station to Kensington, and there is almost mayhem as students try to board. A letter to the university newspaper Uniken stated that there had already been two instances of people being injured in the crush.
According to Tony Sum, library funding has been cut 7.5% by the university administration. Even more disturbing is the incipient corporatisation and privatisation of the library, which is reportedly offering services to private industry.
Students more and more are being asked to pay for library services. There is now a fee to get a tape of a lecture, a service previously free.
It is difficult for students even to find a desk at which to study in the library. A simple task like photocopying becomes difficult because of the lack of photocopiers.
Australian tertiary education seems to be going the way of New Zealand. There, it was free until the Labour government introduced a $NZ1250 up-front fee. The newly elected National government now plans, according to the March 19 Financial Review, "corporatisation of universities and polytechnical colleges, campus amalgamation and user-pays student fee structures".
Neither mature age nor postgraduate students in NZ have any right to funding from the government. Assets of the institutions are to be managed like those of any business. Universities will be able to raise mortgages on their assets and to use this money for capital works programs.
What can students do?
The vice-chancellors' response to the lack of funding is to make students pay a full up-front fee, which would make universities the bastion of the rich. A fairer solution would be a progressive tax, with businesses paying their share.
The cost of sending frigates to the Gulf was estimated at $600,000 a month. This money could have been used constructively to fund education.
Students need to campaign for free quality education, taking up issues like class sizes, Austudy, improvement of services and facilities, funding levels and fees. Protests must be directed against the ALP government and compliant university administrations. It is only though a broad, democratic and mobilised campaign that students can hope to reform the education system.