Around Australia, proponents of neoliberalism have led attacks on tertiary education an ideological onslaught against the idea of well-funded public education.
In July, Fred Hilmer, vice-chancellor of UNSW and chair of the Group of 8 Universities, a coalition of university managements, called for total fee deregulation and “cutting red tape”.
In an address to the National Press Club, Hilmer said university managements need to “play in the public policy field a lot more aggressively” when it came to government funding. He said universities should copy the efforts of the mining industry to oppose a tax on super-profits.
He said capped funding requirements were enforcing a culture of “sameness” and stifling diversity in education, hampering the ability of Australian universities to compete for the international student market.
Hilmer’s address took for granted that “a significant increase in government funding is unlikely”. A highly publicised report released by accounting firm Ernst and Young in October, “University of the future”, also discounted the possibility of a boost in funding.
The report said big changes in the education sector were inevitable. This is because of the “contestability of markets and funding” based on declining public investment and the impact of digital technologies and the “democratisation of knowledge”.
National Tertiary Education Union national president Jeannie Rea said the government had failed to raise public investment. Now, she said, the choice before the government was between the current system of 38 public institutions or a “handful of elite research intensive universities concentrated in the capital cities.”
Greens higher education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon focused on the source of the present crisis in tertiary education: decades of “cuts to the bone”. More than $1.3 billion in funding has been slashed by the federal government since the start of last year.
Rhiannon said: “'Market contestability' and 'competition' are buzzwords designed to paint increased funding cuts to public universities as inevitable and the private sector as the saviour of universities."
For students, it's clear that public investment in tertiary education needs to be expanded, not just maintained or cut. Classroom sizes continue to balloon, and areas of study are more and more moulded to corporate priorities.
The “democratisation of knowledge” is being used by neoliberal managements to cut staff hours and face-to-face contact time.
The wave of restructuring cuts that has taken place this year has been driven by the federal government's shift to a demand-driven system that pushes universities to compete for students. The Gillard government has uncapped places to encourage universities to over-enroll.
University managements are shedding jobs and courses to adapt to the future of market-driven league table-based funding for higher education. But the recommendation of Hilmer or Ernst and Young is more of the same.
This round of cuts is far from over. The University of Western Sydney (UWS) announced more than 50 academic jobs and several subjects, including the entire economics degree, would be cut next year.
Students from across the six campuses of UWS launched a campaign and rallied in response on November 21, despite the cuts being announced during exams. This was clearly an attempt to limit student opposition, which has been well-organised and vocal at other universities this year.
But so long as student struggles to defend and expand education remain swept up in student election campaigns – disconnected and unable to link up with campaigns against neoliberalism in other areas of society – the well-organised campaign by the neoliberal ideologues will continue to hold the upper hand.
Students from across Australia gathered at the Australian National University in Canberra in September for the EduFactory conference to discuss the wave of attacks.
The second EduFactory conference will be held at the University of Sydney over the ANZAC day long weekend next year, to discuss national education policies and to organise campaigns for the year.
Anyone interested in standing up for free, well-resourced public education should attend and get involved in the struggle.