By Marina Cameron
With four successful national days of action having been held already this year, the campaign against education cuts and the massive public sentiment behind it represent significant stumbling blocks for the government.
In an effort to confuse and weaken this opposition, education minister Senator Amanda Vanstone declared that no undergraduate places would be lost as a result of the cuts, and that in fact the number of government-funded undergraduate places was set to increase. These comments stood in stark contradiction to previous statements that she could not guarantee that places would not be lost.
The story behind this public bluff is massive cuts to postgraduate places. To make the cuts look better, the government has instructed universities to cut postgrad places (where the user-pays ideological battle was largely won by Labor through the process of deregulation). Universities will have to shed around 30,000 places, the majority of which will be government-funded postgrad places.
So even if now there will be no immediate reduction in undergraduate places, government-funded university places are being lost, while there will be big increases in the number of fee-paying students.
Universities will be allowed to charge full fees for 25% of undergraduate places above the quota of government/HECS-funded places. Postgraduate fees may increase by up to 50%, which could take the cost of some degrees up to $50,000 over three years.
Also planned is an expansion in revenue raised from overseas student fees — from $1.7 billion to $4.5 billion by the year 2000. Already in courses such as business at Curtin University in Perth, overseas students constitute 45% of student numbers. Increased overseas student charges will further decrease access to education by any but the richest of the rich overseas.
Resistance national coordinator Natasha Simons told Green Left Weekly: "The only reason that fees for undergraduates have not been introduced now is because of massive public sentiment against education cuts. Despite attempts to disguise the direction that Liberal education policy is sending us in, the basis is being laid for full undergrad fees in the future. Alongside the abolition of Austudy, which the Liberals' have already raised but been forced to back off on, this represents the full-scale implementation of user-pays.
"The implications of this for equality in education and opportunity are disastrous. This is why Resistance argues for rejection of user-pays principles, including HECS. Education should be free, paid for through a progressive taxation system. In the campaign against education cuts, we should continue to raise this as a demand, while fighting each and every specific cut to public education."