Never waste a crisis: Tehan attacks higher education, again

June 25, 2020
Rally against education cuts in Perth in 2014. Photo Zebedee Parkes

On June 19, federal education minister Dan Tehan announced the government will allow an extra 39,000 university places by 2023 for Australian residents, to account for the number of school leavers staying on in education rather than spending a “gap” year working or travelling.

What the government didn’t announce, however, is that the government will not pay for the expansion in places, instead cutting the amount of annual public funding per student by as much as $1883, based on calculations by Griffith University Professor David Peetz.

Tehan's cover for this funding cut was the government’s “carrot and stick” changes to student fees. Students would be slapped with more than double the fees for some university degrees, such as arts, humanities and social sciences, which would rise from $6800 to $14,500 a year (up 113%). Commerce and law degrees will rise from $11,300 to $14,500.

Federal funding for these courses would fall to just $1100, just 7% of total funding: this would effectively privatise teaching in these fields of study.

And the “carrot”? Education and nursing students would save more than $3000 a year, and engineering, architecture, IT, science and allied health students will save about $2000. Tehan argued this would provide an incentive for school leavers to enrol in courses the government deems necessary to rebuilding the economy.

Sydney Morning Herald Economics Editor Ross Gittins pointed out on June 24 that Tehan’s announcement also included “an additional $400 million over four years” for regional universities and “a further $900 million” for the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, but that the government would deliver these “extras” without spending any more money on universities overall. This will leave students and universities to pick up the tab, meaning higher fees and staffing cutbacks.

Through a combination of market mechanisms, as well as smoke and mirrors to hide cuts to the sector, the federal government is continuing its neoliberal, user-pays approach to higher education.

In response, students are rallying around the country.

A broad campaign needs to be forged, to unite students, university staff and the community, to stop the government fee hikes and cuts and to win full, public funding of higher education, ending the user-pays nightmare.

The same user pays system that is disadvantaging students is also eroding collegiality, strengthening managerialism and threatening the livelihoods, working conditions and job security of university staff. The widespread casualisation of staff in universities, especially in teaching programs, is a major consequence, leaving education and a major part of the workforce in a precarious position.

Never wasting a crisis, the government is using the pandemic to further shift the economic cost onto students and workers.

NTEU president Alison Barnes pointed out that university students already pay some of the highest tuition fees in the developed world.

In a wealthy country, higher education can and should be free, such as in Germany where in 2014, 16 states abolished tuition fees for domestic and international students.

Australian students enjoyed a decade of free university education between the mid 1970s and ’80s, until the Hawke-Keating Labor government introduced an administrative fee, then the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and full fees for international students. This opened the door for further cuts to higher education funding by successive Labor and Coalition governments and creeping privatisation of universities.

Compared to other OECD countries, Australia ranks poorly in its higher education funding as a percentage of gross domestic product. That is a result of political decisions, not a shortage of funds. Successive governments have spent billions in public funds bailing out corporations and subsidising fossil fuel and mining interests.

A taxation system, which ensures the tax-evading super rich and corporations pay their share would provide more than enough funds to guarantee free education for all students — domestic and international. It would also ensure that university staff — both academic and general — enjoy job security, safe working conditions and decent pay.

[Updated June 26. Susan Price is a member of the National Tertiary Education Union.]

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