More to uni than crippling debt

February 17, 2012

If you have just begun studying, welcome to university. If you’ve been looking through the pamphlets and advertising material for your campus of choice, you’ve probably been led to believe that university largely revolves around sitting on lawns on nice days laughing with attractive young people.

If you’ve been watching too many American films, you might be expecting wild parties and crazy weekends. Or if you’re academically minded, you might just be expecting to broaden your horizons with new and exotic ideas.

Unfortunately, universities don’t guarantee any of these things. But there is one thing that you are certain to come across as you pursue higher education — crippling debt.

From the 1970s until 1989, going to university was free in Australia. Anyone who had the brains to back it up could study and be the best they could be. Our entire society reaped the benefits, as a generation of doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and other highly trained and qualified people were educated.

Small token payments grew into significant fees, and now most students will owe tens of thousands of dollars by the time they graduate. Students now owe more than $22 billion to the government. One poor person owes more than $400,000.

More and more, our education system is run as a business — and it’s a big business. For the Australian economy, the “education industry” is one of its big “export products”. In 2007-08, the industry made more than $14.5 billion through charging fees to international students. This is more than Australia’s export market for gold, natural gas or aluminium.

The pressure on our education system is not towards making the best and most qualified graduates, but towards making the most money. Arts courses and resources are consistently cut to accommodate more funding to faculties that can attract high fee paying students.

All of this undermines student activities and the campus culture. We are under pressure to get through our study as quickly as possible, to not run the debt up further by doing interesting elective courses, and to not take the time to get involved with a club or society.

It doesn’t need to be this way though.

The fact that universities were once free reflected the strength of student protest movements of the past. When students get active in politics, it can stop administrations and politicians from cutting the resources we need for the education we deserve.

We need to rebuild a student movement that is up to the challenge. But the creeping privatisation of our education system is linked to other issues. It reflects the values imposed on our whole society, which is run in the interests of a small, super-rich elite.

To make real change, we need mass movements that focus on dealing with the root causes of our social and economic woes, not just the symptoms.

Universities are a great place to meet up with people who are also pissed off about injustice in the world. There are still opportunities to learn about these problems at university and organise with other people to set them right.

Resistance is a socialist youth organisation that takes part in a range of social justice campaigns, from women’s rights and climate change, to Aboriginal rights and support for the democracy struggles around the world.

This year at university, you could decide to do what is expected of you. You could decide to do what you are told. Or, you could join Resistance and make the start of university the beginning of your own fight to radically change the world.

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