Reverse the education cuts!

December 1, 1999

By Simon Butler

Most students, and much of the wider community, recognise that there is a crisis in tertiary education funding. The Howard government promotes the introduction of increased student fees and university privatisation as the only solution to this crisis. The real solution is much simpler: increase education funding.

Until the early 1950s, higher education in Australia was largely the domain of the children of the wealthy and privileged. Governments did not consider mass public education an important tool for achieving social development or economic growth.

A change was signalled, however, in 1951, when the Menzies government introduced the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme (CSS) which covered the costs of some students' tuition. In 1957, the Murray Report recommended a massive expansion of tertiary education; between 1954 and 1967, enrolments at universities trebled. By the early 1970s, more than 80% of students were receiving scholarships through the CSS.

The government, industry and education authorities recognised that it was necessary to educate sections of the working class to acquire the skills needed in a more technologically advanced society. Universities changed from being elite institutions for the children of the rich to mass educators.


By the early 1970s, tuition fees covered only 15% of university revenue, so the 1974 decision by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to abolish fees altogether did not represent an immense financial commitment by the government. It did, however, fundamentally change the way society viewed access to public education.

The provision of full public funding for education and government-funded financial assistance for students raised the proportion of women enrolled in university from 33.7% to 55.1% in 1987. The number of students whose fathers worked in a manual trade increased by 36%, and the number of Aboriginal students enrolled increased 300%.

But since then, there have been repeated attempts by successive governments to roll back free education.

In 1976 and again in 1981, Malcolm Fraser's government attempted to cut tertiary education funding, replace TEAS (the precursor of Austudy) with a loans scheme and reintroduce up-front fees. A strong, nationally coordinated student opposition defeated these measures.

The Hawke years

When Bob Hawke came to office in 1983, the free education system put in place by Whitlam was still largely intact. During the 1980s, however, the schemes attempted by Fraser were implemented by the Hawke and then Keating Labor governments.

Up-front fees were introduced for overseas students in 1985. The Higher Education Administration Charge, an up-front fee for domestic undergraduates, was introduced in 1987. This was replaced in 1989 by the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), a fee payable through the tax system.

Since then, HECS charges have been continually increased, and the real levels of government funding per student have fallen. In 1995, the Labor government withdrew HECS funding for permanent residents who were not Australian citizens, forcing them to pay up front.

The ALP claimed that the HECS system would allow increased access for poorer students by taxing wealthier students. The reality is that poorer students are lumbered with large debts, which many will be paying until their retirement, while richer students who can afford to pay their HECS up front receive a 25% discount.

By 1996, the strong campaigns students had waged against education funding cuts and user-pays in the '70s and '80s had faltered; the Labor government managed to push tertiary education further towards privatisation with little opposition.

A legacy of Labor in government has been an insidious shift in the ideological debate surrounding higher education. Labor was able to convince sections of the student movement that students need to contribute individually to their education and that HECS was actually a fair system. This has undermined the notion that tertiary education is a universal right, which should therefore be fully publicly funded.

The Coalition

In 1996, John Howard's new government took up where Labor left off and proceeded to cut 6% from the operating grants to universities, reduce HECS repayment thresholds to 54% of the average weekly wage and introduce a system which levied HECS at different rates for different degrees. Austudy entitlements were cut or abolished for more than 20% of students. The barriers preventing universities charging up-front fees began to be removed.

Today, we have a public university system that is moving further and further towards full privatisation. Many of the early 1970s education policies have been eroded.

It is the government's explicit aim to further reduce the amount it pays to the higher education sector and to increase the amount paid by students.

A leaked cabinet document, tabled in parliament in October, outlined education minister David Kemp's privatisation plans, which include the replacement of HECS with a student loan system at market interest rates and the complete deregulation of university fees. Kemp also hopes to implement a "voucher" system, which could create a domestic market for undergraduate fees and force universities to compete for voucher-carrying students.

The leak indicates that a renewed push towards the complete privatisation of education is imminent. And, while the federal government failed in its attempt to implement anti-student union legislation this year, it remains committed to undermining the ability of students to organise against further government attacks on education.

The campaign

The student movement must be prepared to counter the Coalition's ideological justifications. Its ministers will use the crisis in education funding (which they are responsible for) to argue that students need to fork out even more money.

If politically conscious students cannot generate new activists and organise mass student mobilisations in the coming education campaign, then public education is in danger. Students will need to make alliances with all those affected by the Howard government's privatisation offensive — such as the National Tertiary Education Industry Union and high school students — and also ensure that strong campus activist committees are developed.

But the student movement needs to resist more than simply the current proposals, and it shouldn't get cornered into defending the inequitable HECS system as a lesser evil than up-front fees. The primary demand must be to reverse the cuts of both Coalition and Labor governments over the past two decades and return to a fully publicly funded and controlled higher education system.

[Simon Butler is an education officer at Sydney University Student Representative Council and a member of Resistance.]

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