The federal Labor government has announced it intends to dramatically increase funding to primary and high school education as part of the Gonski reforms. But before you think that maybe, just maybe, the government might be making some policy that could be defended by progressives, there's a devil in the detail.
In almost unbelievable doublespeak the government has announced that these measures are to be funded by cuts in government spending — largely from the education budget. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's “education revolution” is inspired by true rob Peter to pay Paul logic — cut education at universities to pay for education at schools.
Gillard apparently wants to help young Australians get a quality and well resourced primary and secondary level education, to make it easier for the best graduates to go onto substandard, overcrowded and under-resourced universities.
One would think that if the government was serious about building the best possible education system, it might help if they didn’t take money out of the institutions that train up future generations of teachers.
Universities are already in the process of tightening belts. Across the country we see administrations crying poor and trying to force budget cuts. Last year, arts courses at La Trobe University were victims of the austerity drive, and Sydney University has forced staff to wage an intense industrial battle to protect their pay and conditions.
Gillard’s announcement will add to the pressure on university administrations to push through even more drastic cuts to courses, wages and conditions.
The direct cuts to university budgets are in the form of an “efficiency dividend” — a 2% cut to funding in 2014 and 1.25% cut in 2015. These cuts coincide with enterprise bargaining periods on several universities, including the University of Sydney, University of Western Sydney, University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and Deakin University. Massive cuts to funding at these universities will put more pressure on the union to accept below inflation wage rises.
The $900 million being directly taken from universities is a huge attack on higher education. Most of the cuts to higher education — $1.9 billion dollars — target not administrations, but students themselves.
Hardest hit will be students who are already financially disadvantaged. Full-time students who receive an allowance from the government, such as youth allowance or Abstudy, also receive a student start-up scholarship each semester.
The scholarships are worth $1025 each six months, and are used to pay for textbooks, specialised equipment and other upfront costs associated with study.
As part of the cuts, these scholarships will be turned into a loan that has to be repaid once a person is employed, adding thousands of dollars to a student’s HECS debt.
Another $230 million will be cut by abolishing the 10% discount in HECS fees for students who pay up front. And those who return to study as part of work will have their tax breaks capped $500 million dollars.
In each case, the costs are just being moved from the government onto individual students.
This will make it harder for students from rural areas or working-class backgrounds to attend university. There are already large barriers for these students to attend, with rural school leavers 50% less likely to attend university compared with city students.
These measures are unnecessary. Australia has enough resources to make sure all public schools and universities are well-funded.
For example, the Gonski plan is set to give $2.4 billion more to private schools — which are generally accessible only to those who are wealthy. Simply not giving any further government assistance to these schools would make the cuts unnecessary.
Cutting government subsidies to private education as a whole could save billions of dollars in funding to public education, or other important programs, but this is explicitly ruled out by both major parties.
Further, the Gillard government is determined to make education cuts — and has previously made cuts to single parents benefits — but will refuse to close the loopholes in the mining super profits tax. Doing so would raise billions of dollars and also make these cuts unnecessary.
The corporate tax rate is lower than it has been in decades, and is openly flaunted by the big end of town. The big banks continue to raise interest rates and to take billions in fees, and the government refuses to intervene. The government acts as the anti-Robin Hood — taking from the poor to give to the rich.
There are alternatives. These cuts need to be opposed. They can be stopped.
Unions, students and communities need to campaign against these measures. These cuts are an attempt to divide the education sector against itself. Activists, unionists, students and educators can’t let this happen.
The campaign for education is not a battle between competing sectors of the education industry. It is a campaign for adequately funded education at all levels.
We need to fight against the corrupted logic that views education as part of the economy, rather than an essential part of the fabric of society. Government cuts to the education system to prop up schools elsewhere are contemptuous of education as a whole.
Access to education for everyone was a right people have won through campaigning, it was never given. Only campaigning can protect and extend it.