Hands off our education and student unions!


Trent Hawkins
& Fred Fuentes

While students get ready for the start of the university year, federal education minister Brendan Nelson is already planning his next wave of attacks on higher education.

Last December, the Australian newspaper reported that, in confidential pre-budget papers, Nelson's department has proposed a dramatic increase in the size of taxpayer-funded loans to university students from $50,000 to $160,000.

The aim is to push universities to increase the amount of places available for domestic full-fee paying (DUFF) students, which would force more students to take out exorbitant loans to finance their education. University graduates are already avoiding payment of one in every three dollars of their $10 billion HECS debts.

The proposal comes in the wake of the decision to force Australian permanent residents into DUFF places. Until early this year they, like Australian citizens, could defer repayment until their annual income reached $30,000. Through HECS, many have been shocked to discover places at university are no longer available to them unless they can afford to pay more, and up-front.

It is not hard to see what the federal Coalition government plans for our education are. According to research by the National Tertiary Education Union, since the election of the Howard government in 1996, HECS has increased by 94% in real terms. During the same period, funding per student suffered a decrease of 13% in real terms.

The Coalition clearly has its sights set on the full privatisation of universities, where only those who can afford to pay for it will be able to go. Universities will be left to chase big bucks from corporations, whose money will come at the cost of greater control over what students are taught. Nelson's rhetoric about future choices in universities really means a choice between a degree in corporate propaganda at McUniversity or warfare engineering at the Halliburton Institute of Technology.

The impact of this push towards privatisation is already being felt. The February 4 Australian reported that there had been a nationwide slump in applications for university places — down by 3782 in Queensland, 2458 in NSW-ACT, 2130 in Western Australia, 1873 in Victoria, 1080 in South Australia, 577 in Tasmania and 223 in the Northern Territory.

Nelson's "reforms" are not just impacting on who can go to university, but the conditions students face there. At Newcastle University, drastic underfunding has meant that most likely there will large job losses to cover the university's $28 million budget deficit. That means more overcrowding as the ration of students to staff jumps again.

In this context, all the talk of "freedom of choice" being tossed around by the Coalition government as it prepares to introduce their anti-student union legislation, euphemistically referred to as "voluntary student unionism" (VSU), is clearly rubbish.

The government has no interest in providing everyone with a real choice in education and are happy to see us fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars for degrees, so why would they care about student union fees?

The reason is because student unions have played an important role in opposing their plans. Whether it was back in the days when the current crop of politicians were at university (many of them studying for free) and student unions actively opposed the Vietnam War and supported movements for women's liberation and gay rights, or in the 1980s when they fought the introduction of HECS by the federal Labor government, student unions have played an important role as a collective voice for university students.

That is why the Coalition knows that for its plans to go smoothly it would be easier if the government first destroys student unions. This is also why Resistance totally opposes VSU. We believe that the government has no right to interfere in how students organise on campus. How could an anti-student government be trusted with any decision on behalf of students, let alone how we choose to fight its rightwing agenda!

With a Senate majority as of July 1, the Howard government will face no effective resistance in parliament. That is why, more than ever, in order to defend public education we need to bring our resistance onto the streets in the biggest possible way and say "our education is not for sale, hands off our student unions".

[Trent Hawkins is a University of Western Australia Student Guild Council member and Fred Fuentes was a delegate to the 2004 National Union of Students conference. Both are members of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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