Rumours about federal government funding cuts to higher education have been prevalent since the start of the year, but the full extent of its attack was confirmed with the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, released on June 19. Its key proposal is to hike fees for some university courses and cut funding to others.
Under the current HECS-HELP scheme, first introduced by the Bob Hawke Labor government in 1974, students pay fees, with the government subsidising some costs through the Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP) scheme, available to domestic students for most undergraduate courses.
The prices universities are able to charge are regulated by law. Most students have no option but to defer paying off their HECS-HELP debt until they are earning enough, although the “repayment threshold” keeps being reduced.
The bill seeks to raise the amount universities are able to charge for certain degrees. Initially, these were humanities, law, communications, economics, mental health and social work courses, touted as delivering graduates that are insufficiently “job-ready”. But for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — (STEM) courses — fees were decreased on the basis that these areas help jobs growth. The measures would not apply to current students and excludes vulnerable students.
On August 13, the National Union of Students (NUS) condemned further changes to the bill. National president Molly Willmott said education minister Daniel Tehan’s push to make it harder for students to access the HELP and HECS schemes if they are deemed as making unsatisfactory progress is aimed at incentivising success “through fear”.
If passed, fees for humanities courses will rise by 113%, making them more expensive than a medicine course.
The government is seeking to divide those studying STEM and non-STEM courses, as well as between current and future students. But the proposed changes to funding will hurt all students claiming a CSP.
The projected funding cut to STEM courses would lower the overall Commonwealth contribution to university courses and shift the burden even further onto students, as NUS outlines in its submission to the bill consultation.
Resistance to the bill has emerged inside parliament and on the streets. University and high school students are mobilising in capital cities on August 28 (with the exception of locked-down Melbourne). The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is opposed to the bill, with national president Dr Alison Barnes saying on June 19 that “gouging students won’t fix the crisis in higher education”.
Labor and the Greens oppose the bill, as does independent Senator Rex Patrick. The Nationals’ concern about its impact on regional students was dealt with by some minor amendments that excluded social work and psychology from the fee hikes.
The timing of the bill is extraordinary. Universities face an estimated drop of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion in revenue this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. JobKeeper has been denied to public university workers, who face record levels of casualisation and wage theft.
Tehan’s proposals will only entrench a dysfunctional system that deprives young working-class people from the right to tertiary education and leave them with years of debt.
The bill is deeply rooted in neoliberalism. By framing higher education as a commodity to purchase before finding a job, it entrenches the free-market notion that higher education must serve corporations and their drive to raise profits. Learning and critical thinking is unhelpful for a neoliberal economy.
The government’s ongoing culture war against universities, and specifically humanities, ignores the fact that 91% of humanities graduates are employed within three years of finishing their degrees.
[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Socialist Alliance member and student at Monash University.]