BY GRANT COLEMAN
On March 18 the federal cabinet approved education minister Brendan Nelson's proposed reforms to Australia's higher education system. According to the March 25 Sydney Morning Herald, implementation of the Nelson review will result in further cuts to government funding of universities.
Throughout the review process, conducted over the last 12 months, universities, students and staff have called for an immediate injection of $1 billion into the higher education system followed by future funding to be fixed at 2% of the gross domestic product.
Nelson's package proposes to gradually inject $1.5 billion, with the bulk of the funds not available until after 2007. Furthermore, the funding will be conditional upon industrial reform, partial fee deregulation and the opening up of the system to the private sector, according to the March 25 SMH report.
Despite dressing up the package with so-called sweeteners for rural and Indigenous students, the basic proposals demonstrate the real agenda of the Howard government a further push toward a privatised, user-pays system of higher education.
Contained in the package is a proposal to implement partial deregulation of student fees for some courses. This will allow universities to decide how much they charge with the likely effect being massive increases in fees across the entire sector.
Currently, students pay a set amount determined by the course they are studying, not by what university they attend.
Another proposal in the Nelson review is to charge market interest rates on the fees above that covered by the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS). So, if course fees increase by $15,000-$30,000, students would be asked to pay exorbitant interest rates on the $15,000 not covered by HECS.
National Union of Students president Daniel Kyriacou responded to this proposal saying it will lead to massive fee increases. The suggested introduction of market interest rates to cover these increases will sentence students to a lifetime of debt repayments.
He also condemned plans contained in the package to penalise students who take longer to finish a degree. Nelson has proposed that these students have their funding withdrawn and be asked to pay full fees. This is to be monitored by a big brother-like ID card system that will track students' progress.
This will affect mature-age students and students from average working families who, due to financial pressures, are more likely to take longer to finish their degrees, said Kyriacou. This system is designed to create degree factories but not quality graduates.
Another of Nelson's proposals is to double the number of places for fee-paying Australian students. The likely result of this will be that students who are able to pay will take the places of their better qualified peers simply because they can afford to pay upfront. Currently, students who pay full fees are admitted to university even if they fall below cut-off scores used to assess non-full-fee paying students.
Staff will also come under attack in the May budget. An integral part of the Nelson package is an attempt to weaken the bargaining power of the National Tertiary Education Industry Union. One of the proposals is to move staff from tenured positions to individual contracts. There are also proposals to tie academic research funding to no-strike agreements.
Kyriacou labelled the Nelson package the most regressive reforms our universities have ever seen. He stated that students would reject the package in its entirety.
Students are determined to push on in our campaign against these reforms. We are planning mass demonstrations in the coming weeks, Kyriacou said.
From Green Left Weekly, March 5, 2003.
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