A modest budget proposal

The spectre of Tony Abbott and his 2014 austerity budget continue to haunt the Liberal Party. When Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced changes to higher education funding last Monday ahead of last night’s budget, Birmingham pitched his changes – a 7.5 percent increase in student fees, a $2.8 billion cut to federal funding for higher education and a lowering of the HECS repayment threshold to $42,000 – as striking a ‘balance’.

No ‘age of entitlement’ rhetoric, no tightening of our belts. Instead, Birmingham used the word ‘modest’ four times to describe these changes in his Press Club speech and he’s been at pains to distance himself from deregulation of university fees, a famously unpopular and now defeated 2014 budget measure that would have seen the cost of some degrees soar to $100,000. This time around, Birmingham is trying to position himself in the sensible centre:

On the one side seem to sit those who pretend that the returns on investment are limitless … On the other side are some who think it can all be done, as it was done in the past, for a lot less money. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But the population sees through Birmingham’s faux modesty, with this week’s Essential poll showing that a majority of Australians oppose the funding cuts and fee increases. We know that students will feel these cuts. They’ll amount to an increase of between $2,000 and $3,600 for a four-year degree and with the lowering of the threshold to $42,000 – less than half the average male full-time wage – this could be enough to prevent prospective students from low socioeconomic backgrounds attending university.

As Greg Jericho writes in the Guardian, ‘the big losers are those earning less than $52,000.’ Those earning $125,000 will see a 2 per cent increase on their rate of tax paid as a result of these changes, while for those on $51,900, that equates to a 2.5 per cent increase. Birmingham’s modest changes mean the poor pay more of their debt back sooner.

Speaking of poverty, hardly much has changed since 2013 when a Universities Australia report revealed that two thirds of students live below the poverty line. The Youth Allowance rate at the time was set to $407.50 per fortnight, or 42.3 per cent of the poverty line. Four years later, Youth Allowance has gone up 30 dollars per fortnight. If a student happens to have a part-time job to either supplement their allowance or instead of it, and they happen to work in fast food, retail or hospitality, they can now also look forward to a cut in penalty rates for weekend work, if they ever received them in the first place.

But it’s not just students’ economic conditions continue to diminish. Our quality of education continues to degrade. At my university, I regularly had to enrol in ‘seminars’ – a combination of lecture and tutorial taught by one staff member to a room of 50 or more students. Cutbacks of staff and courses at a campus level are rife, as well as the increasing restructure of the academic year into trimesters, which reduce the number of weeks devoted to teaching the same amount of content. At UNSW, university administration has also used this restructure as an excuse to sack more than 150 staff.

So Australian student contributions to higher education are some of the highest in the OECD, while Australian public investment in higher education as a share of GDP is one of the lowest, Australia’s investment only being higher than Japan. And with Birmingham’s proposed changes, the financial burden of education will continue to weigh heavier on the student.

Margaret Gardner, the Vice Chancellor of Monash University, in an email addressed to the university’s students, lamented the lack of appreciation on the part of the Turnbull Government for the ‘contribution’ universities make towards ‘the nation’s future’. She writes:

Monash is about one quarter of Victoria’s largest export industry, education. Universities are the engine of Australia’s largest service export and its third largest export. Even if there was no concern for the future of innovation and Australia’s ability to meet and shape a response to the profound shifts in the global economy, the universities’ contribution to jobs and growth should be enough to suggest that cuts are counterproductive to the government’s goals.

While her opposition to the government’s cuts are welcome, she not only parrots the government’s own three-word slogan of ‘jobs and growth’, her opposition is framed entirely within a neoliberal framework. For Gardner, what matters is convincing the government that it is acting against its own interests. If it wants a skilled workforce, it needs to invest. Universities in the neoliberal era turn education into an industry and knowledge into a commodity. In his work ‘Universities in a neoliberal world’, Alex Callinicos quotes a former Downing Street advisor under Tony Blair: ‘Universities should not just be centres of teaching and research… universities should be the open-cast mines of the knowledge economy.’

The latest round of attacks on students can be opposed. The other facet of the legacy of 2014 is the recent resurgence of student protest against Liberal Party ministers, including Birmingham himself. The thousands who marched against deregulation no doubt contributed to the unpopularity of that measure in the wider public, meaning that when the Labor Party and crossbenchers voted to defeat deregulation three times in the Senate, they were swimming with public opinion. That’s why the National Union of Students (NUS) has called for a national protest on 17 May against these attacks.

But it’s also important to recognise that framing our opposition to these cuts in terms of the contribution universities make to the national economy cedes ground to those who would gladly see the sector stripped right back to its bare bones. We should fight not only a defensive battle to stop fee increases and funding cuts but we should also fight for more.

Universities play a contradictory role in society: they’re a place where the incoming workforce go to be trained as cheaply and as efficiently as possible for the government. But try as they might to stop it, universities are also sites of learning, a place where students’ expectations are raised. This opens up space for resistance. The government wants to expand universities to skill up the workforce en masse. We want to expand the number of students going to universities because education is a right to which everyone should have access.

So to that end, we shouldn’t just demand lower student fees: we should demand no fees. Students need to reject the idea that we fight for education so that we can better contribute to society. Who decides what’s meant by ‘contribution’? We need to stand with the 45 per cent of Australians who still think university should be free, almost thirty years after fees were introduced. We need to reject the neoliberal framework through which society views education and, to borrow the NUS slogan, we need to fight to ‘make education free again’.

Chris di Pasquale

Chris di Pasquale is a Master of Translation student at Monash University and a member of Socialist Alternative.

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