Parliament set to push through new attack on universities

Photo: National Teritary Education Union / Facebook

Federal parliament looks set to approve the latest attack on higher education after the Senate voted on October 8 to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Rural Students) Bill 2020, which seeks to hike fees for some university courses and reduce costs for others.

The government claims to want more students studying “job-ready courses” — which it believes will lead to greater employment after graduation. But to do this, Education Minister Dan Tehan has proposed large fee hikes for some courses, while degrees viewed as being “in demand” will have their fees lowered.

Fees for humanities, law and communications courses, among others, are set to skyrocket, while fees for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will be reduced.

The National Union of Students (NUS) has described the fees hikes for arts degrees of up to 113% times more expensive, and costing the equivalent of medicine degrees, as “heartless and neglectful”. It said the bill would enforce a cut to funding when universities are already expected to lose $4 billion next year due to the coronavirus.

In addition, the bill seeks to disqualify students from being eligible for the Higher Education Contribution Scheme if they fail half of their first-year units.

Rather than seeing higher education as a fundamental human right, the bill affirms the neoliberal view that universities only exist to fill jobs. This is despite the fact that 91% of those finishing humanities degrees are in full-time employment within three years.

The bill’s plan to raise fees condemns young people to even greater debt. While the bill supposedly advantages those studying STEM by cutting those course fees, no new funding has been allocated to supplement the decrease in funding, and the average government contribution to Commonwealth Supporter Places (CSP) is set to be lowered from 58% to 53%. The overall result will be a $2 billion cut from universities, as reported by The Saturday Paper.

Universities will be granted incentives to enrol students in the more expensive courses.

Students and academics say the new funding arrangements are an insidious culture war attack on humanities and critical thinking. It has prompted the biggest student mobilisations since former prime minister Tony Abbott’s attempt to deregulate CSP in 2014.

While COVID-19 has limited the numbers able to turn out at protests, the bill has generated a lot of debate.

The lack of coronavirus funding for university workers, job losses and wage theft at universities are additional motivations for protest.

The National Tertiary Education Union said the bill “does nothing to address the funding and jobs crisis that is smashing our universities” and that it would destroy livelihoods and careers.

While extra-parliamentary opposition has remained steady, the Liberals have been forced to negotiate with cross-bench Senators, as well as within the Coalition as the bill is predicted by the NUS to hurt regional students the most. The Nationals settled for a modified definition of humanities courses, exempting social work from the fee hikes.

One Nation came on board quickly, with Pauline Hanson negotiating a new definition of academic freedom, which some universities say will make it harder to discipline racist or sexist academics, and the reinstatement of a 10% fee discount for students paying their HECS debt in advance.

Needing one more vote in the Senate, the government turned its attention to Centre Alliance’s Sterling Griff, and Senators Jacqui Lambie and Rex Patrick. The student movement managed to convince the latter two to oppose the bill, with Lambie gaining widespread coverage for her refusal “to be the vote to tell poor kids … to dream a little cheaper” pitch.

Centre Alliance agreed to support the bill in exchange for the three South Australian universities being reclassified as “regional”, from low-growth metropolitan — thereby attracting greater funding. Students condemned Centre Alliance for selling out, after it had criticised the bill.

The House of Representatives now needs to sign off on the amendments approved by the Senate.

However, as Varsha Yajman, an organiser with Students Against Fee Increases, noted, this is just the beginning for a new student movement that has been invigorated by people organising and taking action, including School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C).

A former SS4C activist, Yajman said that the intersection between the fight for student rights and other rights, such as having a safe climate, is having an impact on the student movement and that 2021 “is where [the activism] will really flourish”.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a member-elect of the Monash Student Association Student Affairs Committee.]

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