Despite widespread public opposition, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne are determined to get their higher education deregulation bill through the Senate.
Students, on the other hand, are just as determined to stop it.
Mia Sanders, the UWS Bankstown Student Council Secretary and an education activist, told Green Left Weekly that students would not back down.
“Deregulation is about stacking the deck against working class students,” she said. “Whether or not you can access higher education should never be determined by how much money you have. That’s why students and the community have been fighting Pyne’s outrageous legislation.
“Students will be coming out in force against the bill on March 25 [a national day of action], and we’ll return to the streets again and again until we win free education — the kind Mr Pyne enjoyed throughout his degree.”
However, they will need as much support from the community as they can get to defeat it. This is because “deregulation” of education has the broad support of both big parties — even if Labor is correctly opposing the Abbott government’s current raft of attacks.
Pyne’s 2014-2015 education deregulation push is the biggest attack on accessible education since John Dawkins, education minister under the Hawke Labor government, introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in 1989.
Back then, students led a massive fight, but Dawkins’ deregulation “reforms” were supported by a willing Coalition opposition.
Those attacks — presented as improving the "efficiency" and "international competitiveness" of Australian universities — reduced public funding to universities and opened research funding to the market.
Dawkins, now a corporate CEO, has given Pyne some advice on getting his deregulation agenda through a hostile Senate.
He has advised separating university fee deregulation — a “small and unremarkable change” — from the additional cuts of billions of dollars of government funding to universities, which he opposes.
Pyne well may be taking this on board as he seeks to induce wavering Senators to change their minds.
The March 4 Sydney Morning Herald said, the government is now contemplating penalising universities if they raise their fees over a set amount. Economist Bruce Chapman and David Phillips, a former adviser to the Hawke government, have made this suggestion and the government is using it to entice six of the eight crossbench Senators to support its bill. At the time of writing, it is counting on four and two are still undecided.
A submission from the University of Western Sydney vice chancellor quoted in the SMH welcomed the government’s moves to moderate its bill and explore options on regulating the price of degrees.
Nearly 90% of parents hope their children will consider university study. Yet Australia spends proportionally less public money on universities than most OECD countries.
Ian Escandor, another UWS Bankstown student councillor and Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance activist, told Green Left Weekly: “Pyne's bill is the slippery slope towards an Americanised schooling system which neglects those who need it most.
"Showing your support by joining us at the National Day of Action for education will not only send a strong message to the MPs, it's also an opportunity for us to take back the power and make our voices heard."
[Mia Sanders and Pip Hinman are standing for Socialist Alliance in the NSW Legislative Council. See here for details of the national education rally in your city.]
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