By Marina Cameron
In the work of privatising education, the seemingly neutral government proposal that teaching and student results be tested is dangerous cover for gathering evidence to argue that private education "works better", that public education providers are inefficient and that there needs to be more competition in the sector.
On July 24, federal minister for education Amanda Vanstone announced a plan to conduct a national survey of 500,000 university students about the standard of their lecturers, course content and campus services.
Vanstone argued that taxpayers have a right to expect top quality teaching for their money. Not only have ordinary people over the last decade been asked to pay more tax, and more to have their children educated, now they have to pay for a survey to tell them that the sector needs more money which the government and big business are totally unprepared to cough up.
Students "deserve to have their voices heard" Vanstone added, especially now that they are paying more for their education. Despite vocally demonstrated student and staff opposition, the government has pushed ahead with funding cuts, more HECS and the deregulation of undergraduate fees.
The Labor spokesperson for education, Mark Latham, told the Sydney Morning Herald, "If the survey is genuine, it will tell Senator Vanstone that students want the abolition of up-front undergraduate fees, the restoration of reasonable HECS charges".
The Labor Party itself introduced an up-front "administration" charge of $250 in 1987 which was converted to HECS in 1988, and deregulated overseas student and postgraduate fees. If Labor were genuine, it would call for the abolition of HECS, which paved the way for what the Liberals are doing now.
Student and staff unions attacked the plan, arguing that it could be used punitively against lecturers. The survey also encourages students to blame staff for the current malaise caused by funding cuts.
In a context where the government is seeking any excuse to rubbish what is left of public education, and where universities are cutting staff in order to keep costs down, a survey like this not a positive step.
Universities already have their own mechanisms for staff assessment and student feedback. These could be improved, but this survey is not about finding out what students think, or improving education.
The only way to really ensure quality education is to fund it properly. And what about a survey of all those people who miss out on a place in higher education each year because they went to an under-funded public school, or simply can't afford the costs?