Student protesters will take to the streets in all capital cities and some major regional centres on August 20. The protests will stand up against the planned cuts to tertiary education by the federal government. Earlier this year, the government announced $2.8 billion in cuts to higher education, via cuts to universities and student welfare services.
But the demands will go further than an end to cuts. “Education for all” is one of the demands of the protests. But is a free and accessible education even possible in the age of austerity politics?
An important starting point for education activists is that the campaign is not fighting for anything new, but to win back what existed in the past. Previous Australian governments have recognised the importance of higher education and made necessary investments to build the infrastructure that is the basis of today's system.
In 1940, the John Curtin Labor government drastically increased the number of federal scholarships to universities. In the 1960s the conservative Liberal government of Robert Menzies built new universities in city suburbs. In both circumstances the government was reacting to economic pressures for more technically trained workers to fit into an increasingly complex economy.
The most drastic changes, however, came under Gough Whitlam’s Labor government. Reacting not just to these economic pressures, but also to a growing radical student movement, the Whitlam government abolished fees for higher education in 1974 and ushered in a period of free education that lasted until the late 1980s.
Knowing the history of higher education is important for activists as it holds important lessons for the problems they face and the ways to overcome it.
Just as it was often economic reasons that led to the expansion of higher education, it is economic reasons that are the root of the problems in education today. But they are not the economic reasons parroted by politicians.
The problem is not that there is not enough money to go around. The cuts announced earlier this year were justified by talk of austerity. Supposedly there just isn’t enough money in the budget to do everything, and the government has to make tough choices. These claims fly in the face of reality.
The fact is, for those at the top, times have never been better. The Australian economy in recent decades has grown exponentially. In the early 70s, GDP was around $100 billion, today it is $1.39 trillion. Australia has been through decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth, so how can there be less money in the till?
The answer lies in who is contributing. Over this period of enormous economic growth, corporate profits as a percentage GDP has risen from roughly 4.5% in 1970 to more than 11% today. Yet from 1980 the corporate tax rate has dropped from 46% to only 30% today. The rich are making more, and giving less.
This isn’t a moral aberration, this is the nature of society. The pressure of capitalism is such that there is a constant need for bigger profits, to make greater and greater amounts of money, whatever the cost to society as a whole.
So in the 1960s and ’70s, the priority for capitalism was to generate more skilled workers for the workforce, thus the rapid expansion of higher education at this time.
Today, the economic pressures are different. Capital is looking for ways to drive down the costs of the workforce. Putting the cost of education onto students themselves and relieving the tax burden on companies frees up space for more juicy tax cuts.
This also helps to explain the pressures within universities. Increasingly, money is moved from areas such as the arts, teaching or nursing, to areas such as engineering and science as universities try to gear themselves toward the private sector and what is most profitable. In Australia, this is often the mining industry.
Federal funding cuts accelerate this process. As universities find themselves with less money they turn to corporate sponsorship deals to bridge the gap.
Areas of studies such as the arts provide a crucial point in education for critical engagement and reflection on society, but this is hard to factor into a corporate balance sheet.
That being said, economics is only half the story. As much as there was pressure for more technical workers in the workforce, capitalism hates nothing more than giving something for nothing, and education is no exception.
The other important part of winning free education was the state of near revolution that the student population of Australia was in during the ’70s. Ignited by the injustice of the Vietnam war, thousands of student radicals took to the streets against the war. The confidence and radical analysis sparked by the war soon spread to other issues.
Feminism and women's rights, the Aboriginal rights movement, a rise in unionism and also education activism saw a huge influx of activists, determined to win change.
It was in this context that concessions were granted by the Whitlam government. Prominent among the reforms was free higher education for all Australians.
It can happen again. Free education is possible, but it will never be given to us by sympathetic politicians won over to a good argument.
Free education will need to be fought for by student activists and others demanding that this be implemented against the wishes of big business and the pressures of capitalism.
Ultimately, winning and maintaining free education cannot be achieved in isolation. We need to fight against the systems in the world today that undermine such a sensible policy. These pressures of capitalism do not just affect the education system, but also the health system. It throws people out of work, it keeps the Third World poor and sends us to war to bomb innocent people.