Time to fight attacks on higher education

November 29, 2000


According to a National Union of Students' (NUS) research paper, during the last 10 years student numbers have increased by 62.6%, peaking in 1999 at a total of about 671,000 full-time, part-time and external students. Growth in funding has not matched this growth in enrolments. Federal government funding for higher education, measured in terms of its proportion of gross domestic product, is at its lowest in 30 years.

According to a higher education audit conducted by the National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU), federal government funding has fallen from 1.6% of GDP to a low of 0.8% in 1998-99. This has resulted in a reduction in real terms of 23.1% for operating grants between 1995 and 2001.

Around a half of university revenue comes from private funding through individuals and business. Revenue from the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and up-front fees amounts to around 30% of overall funding. According to the NTEU audit, Australia ranks fourth in the list of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Organisation (the club of developed capitalist economies) countries most reliant on private funding for higher education.

The current level of funding is insufficient to deal with the growth in student numbers. This is why course rationalisations, attacks on staff rights and further deregulation of fees are on the federal government's agenda.

The growing links between big business and higher education are part of the explanation for course rationalisations. In an address to the OECD, minister for education David Kemp stated that "collaboration with industry is also increasing. The University of Ballarat and IBM Global Services have close collaborations. IBM helps guide curriculum development, participates in research and development projects, provides training and part-time work for students and sponsors a Chair in Information Technology. In return, IBM Global Services gains access to the university's resources and expert personnel and has the opportunity to recruit graduates from courses in which the company has had influence."


More recently, postgraduate studies have been attacked. If the federal parliament passes the Australian Research Council Bill 2000 it will result in the transfer of up to $474 million in research funds from public universities to private providers through a special research assistance fund.

Postgraduate students were some of the first to suffer up-front fees when the ALP government in 1988 allowed their introduction. Since then, there has been further deregulation and a majority of courses now charge fees. This has resulted in less accessibility of post-graduate studies to disadvantaged groups.

The NTEU estimates that since 1996, more than 3000 jobs have been lost in Australian universities. More recently, Kemp has attempted to tie enterprise bargaining agreement outcomes to university funding. The federal government has stated that operating grants for an institution may be increased if it can achieve concessions from workers such as the introduction of individual agreements and junior rates of pay.

Kemp told the October 5 Australian Financial Review that the restructuring of higher education had created "flexibilities in the industrial relations areas". "We put $259 million, not a small sum of money, into bringing through those industrial relations changes. That is the major item on the agenda at the universities working though those industrial relations negotiations and trying to get the flexibilities." Another "great" achievement, according to Kemp, has been the deregulation of fees.

The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee has put forward a proposal to the federal government for funding to be increased by $1 billion by 2006. Included in their proposal is a further deregulation of fees.

Deregulation has reduced accessibility to higher education. Statistics released from the federal department of education show that enrolments of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds declined from 14.9% of total enrolments in 1995 to 13.4% in 1998. Similarly, enrolments of people from rural backgrounds declined from 17.7% in 1995 to 16.1% in 1998.

Student movement's response

Both the Liberal and Labor parties are committed to an agenda of a privatised education system. While at its July national conference the ALP concluded that education would be its major election issue, the reality is that its policy is just rhetoric and is non-committal. The August 8 Australian summarises Labor's policy as "increase national government support for public universities, encourage private sector innovation and research, review the HECS structure to ensure it does not act as a financial barrier to potential students, gradually restore the HECS repayment threshold to average weekly earnings".

The student movement needs to ideologically counter the bipartisan user-pays agenda. Winning the argument that free education is necessary for increased accessibility and that higher education should meet the community's needs not those of big business is the challenge for the student movement.

There are three major tasks for the movement in the coming year.

First, there will be continual attacks on each campus, such as course cuts and the further introduction of fees. These attacks will need to be fought as they occur. Solidarity will need to be built in support of those students involved in struggle.

Second, university staff will continue to face attacks on their rights. It is crucial that students build further links with unions and staff. Activists will need to organise student solidarity actions.

Third, there is a significant opportunity for the student movement to use the next federal election to go on the offensive in support of higher education. Left-wing activists will be putting proposals to the National Union of Students conference in December to organise a national education day of action in April. Demands should be directed at both the Coalition and the Labor Party to reverse education funding cuts, stop attacks on staff, stop privatisation and introduce free education.

The student movement will need to continue to organise campaigns as the election gets closer. There remains a sentiment throughout the population in favour of publicly funded education. The question is how can this be developed into action that can win it.
[Nikki Ulasowski is national coordinator of the socialist youth group Resistance. Visit the Resistance web site at <http://www.resistance.org.au>.]

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