Another Labor budget: more attacks on education

August 18, 1993

By Jo Brown and Alex Bainbridge

The March federal election saw the Labor government re- elected on the promise that it would be "kinder and fairer" than John Hewson's Liberal Party. The ALP wouldn't introduce a GST, or the horror cuts and industrial reforms seen in Victoria under Jeff Kennett.

With the support of the trade union leadership and other "true believers", Labor was given another chance. But now in its August 17 budget, Labor is considering a number of changes and increases to the HECS system that are completely inequitable and attack the right to free tertiary education. The true agenda behind the "caring and sharing" rhetoric is not so different from the Liberals' "economic rationalism" after all.

The proposed changes to HECS being considered by the government include:

  • Increase in HECS charges from the current $2300 to as high as $3000 per year for a full-time course.

  • Even higher levels of HECS for some courses.

  • Increase in the speed of repayment so that students start paying off their HECS debt at a lower income level, which would be below the current limit of the average wage.

  • Higher HECS for students who take longer than usual to finish their course.

All these proposals mean that students will be forced to pay more for their education, with the burden therefore falling more heavily on students with lower incomes and those with difficulties completing their studies. Initial studies indicate that HECS has already led to decreases in enrolment levels for students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.

These changes are part and parcel of Labor's broader program of restructuring education. The direction is clear — privatisation, deregulation and increased user-pays and the ultimate goal is not hard to guess: Full fees for courses that are increasingly profit (not education) driven, with the rich able to afford the best courses at the best institutions and everyone else left to pick up what's left.

Labor's attacks on education

The ALP's attacks on education began in 1986 when the Hawke government brought in the $250 Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC). At the same time full fees for overseas students were introduced. This was really a taste of what was to come for the rest of the student population. Labor has since introduced HECS, requiring students to pay a tax for their education once they have finished studying and are earning a certain amount. The amount charged was not supposed to increase above inflation. Within a year that promise was broken.

Since then, the Hawke-Keating government has whittled away at the education system. Increasing numbers of post graduate students are now paying full up front fees, often tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time, federal government funding has decreased from 6.3% of GDP in 1975 to 4.7% in 1990. From 1983 to 1991 funding per student decreased by over 12% while overcrowding was rife.

Now, more and more people are missing out on higher education. This year over 130,000 applicants were refused entry to places in higher education.

For those lucky enough to get into a university, income support in the form of Austudy has become increasingly inadequate at more than $70 per week below the poverty line for the maximum grant for most students. Less than 40% of students receive any Austudy at all. In 1992 Labor moved towards eliminating Austudy grants by creating a loans scheme which encouraged students to trade part of their inadequate entitlement for twice as much in the form of a loan. This leaves open the option of eroding the grants scheme over time, making loans the major form of income "support".

While education funding has been eroded, along with other areas of public spending, corporate and upper-income tax rates have been cut. Labor has reduced company tax from 49% to 33% and cut the top marginal income tax rate from 60% to 47%. The wealth of the 200 richest families in Australia, according to the Business Review Weekly's Rich 200 list quadrupled over the last nine years. The Murdoch and Packer families' fortunes increased 15 times. Three others did even better (up to 24 times).

What's the alternative?

The reality is that if the government wanted to make education the social priority it deserves to be, we could have an adequate, publicly funded education system (along with health care, public transport, environmental protection and other social services). Instead, billions of dollars are wasted on military spending and business subsidies, while hospitals and schools are closed down and public transport cut.

The almost fanatical drive to reduce government spending (and boost "international competitiveness") is a result of the international capitalist economic crisis. But from Labor's "economic rationalist" point of view, it makes more sense to dramatically increase company profits at the expense of community needs.

Students cannot afford to be put off by Labor's false arguments which tell us that a decent, free education system is "unaffordable". In order to fight against the cutbacks, students need to build a broad national campaign aiming to involve masses of students. Only by building such a campaign in clear opposition to any form of fees, and demanding adequate income support, can we hope to win any real gains. We must campaign against cutbacks by whichever party is in power and not allow ourselves to be coopted into support for the ALP as the "lesser of two evils". Hence, we cannot rely on the lobbying approach of the ALP-dominated National Union of Students to fight for free education. Even though NUS is willing to run token campaigns designed to "let off steam", it hasn't been willing to mount a serious campaign against the major attacks of the ALP government. If NUS won't do this, we need to organise these campaigns ourselves.

Neither Labor nor Liberal is interested in the needs of the majority of students, as is demonstrated by their attempts to cutback education. No campaign for free education or protection of other public services will be free from attack while the two-party political game continues. We need to be part of building a political alternative to both Labor and Liberal that can help give expression to our campaigns if we are to be most effective.

We need an alternative that takes up the issues of free education as well as linking up with all other progressive campaigns like the campaigns to save the environment, the campaigns for women's liberation, and the campaigns to defend community services and workers' rights. Only with such an alternative that campaigns for all progressive issues can we hope to achieve the fundamental social change that is necessary to bring social justice to the education system and society as a whole.
[Jo Brown and Alex Bainbridge are members of the National Council of the radical youth group, Resistance.]

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