Liberals’ budget reveals looming attacks on students and universities

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Federal Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham has outraged students with his announcement of cuts affecting higher education that will come in the federal budget on May 9. Speculation is rife about the impact the cuts could have on students.

The cuts revolve around a 7.5% increase in university fees. But the reality of the fee hike could be much worse.

In conjunction with the budget’s $2.8 billion in cuts to university funding, universities could be forced to raise student fees by a minimum of 25%.

The attacks build on the Tony Abbott government’s disastrous 2014 budget, which proposed the full deregulation of university fees and a 20% funding cut to universities.

The cuts would also see students face higher HECS-HELP (Higher Education Contribution Scheme-Higher Education Loan Program) debt rates and a lower threshold to repay the debt.

Currently, students who have graduated are not required to start paying back the cost of their degrees unless they earn more than $55,874. This will be lowered to $42,000, meaning that more than 200,000 low-income graduates will be forced to repay their course fees much earlier.

Students will carry the burden of higher costs for degrees. The cost of four-year degrees, such as education and nursing, will rise by $1250 to $27,800, while the cost of a six-year law or medicine degree would rise by $3900 to $71,900.

The changes will also mean permanent residents and New Zealand citizens will have to pay full fees.

The government’s justification for these cuts is to create “savings” of $2.8 billion. The government is trying to justify these cuts by drumming off the creation of $2.8 billion in “savings”. Birmingham argued that these changes come as part of the Turnbull governments plan to bring the federal budget back into surplus.

But these changes are another government attempt to directly attack the livelihood of students and universities and force students to bear the cost of higher education. The talk of bringing the federal budget back into surplus rings hollow when the government gives more than $50 billion to corporations in tax cuts.

These attacks on students come at a time when two-thirds of students are living below the poverty line and there has been no real increase in welfare payments since the 1990s. The cost of living and rents are soaring, at the same time as the gutting of Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers, which many university students rely on to make ends meet.

If the proposal for the $2.8 billion funding cut goes through it will be on top of existing cuts that have led universities to make extreme restructures. An example is Victoria University, which is trying to create a first-year college system that will result in staff redundancies and a huge drop in the quality of education. We can expect to see many more universities adopt such practices in the future.

The hypocrisy of ex-merchant banker Malcolm Turnbull demanding students cough up even more for their degrees when he paid nothing for his education is criminal. He enjoyed the benefit of free education and so should the rest of us.

Now is the time to organise and take action against these proposed cuts. We cannot rely on the Senate to defend us against these cutbacks. The only way to pressure the government to reinstate and increase funding to higher education is for students and staff to erupt into rallies, protests and actions on the streets, starting with the National Day of Action against fee increases on Wednesday May 17.

We beat back Abbott’s fee deregulation plan back in 2015 and we can do it again.

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