The Rudd government came to power promising an “education revolution”. And a dramatic about face in government policy is desperately needed in the university system, which faced 11 years of cuts and underfunding inflicted by the Howard government.
So far Rudd has failed to address the central problem facing universities—lack of government money. Over the ten years from 1995 to 2005 the average increase in government spending on universities across the OECD club of rich countries was 49 per cent. But the figure for Australia was zero.
The result has been steady growth in course cuts, overcrowding and overwork amongst academics, so that teaching quality suffers. Instead of leading a fight against the government for more funding, university administrations have responded by attacking students and staff.
Administrations are trying to force job cuts and wage restraint on university staff. At Victoria University management has not abandoned plans to sack 150 staff, despite having to delay the sackings due to strike action led by the National Tertiary Education Union.
Other universities like Sydney Uni are trying to deny staff a decent pay rise in enterprise bargaining negotiations, using the economic crisis as an excuse to hold down wages.
Instead of immediately dealing with the funding hole, Rudd has chosen to delay any substantial announcements about funding until later this year.
The government is expected to outline its plans when it responds to the Bradley review of higher education, which handed the government its final report at the end of last year. The review itself is a double-edge sword.
The review’s findings are difficult for the government in that they acknowledge the funding crisis in universities.
It recommends a 10 per cent immediate increase in funding, plus properly indexing funding increases so that they keep pace with rising costs.
There are recommendations for a slight easing of the restrictions on access to Youth Allowance for students, and proposals to address the decline in indigenous students’ attending university and barriers to attendance facing those with disabilities.
Free market approach
But the review argues for unleashing further market mechanisms into education, in the form of a vouchers system.
This is designed to introduce more market competition into the university system, so that universities compete to enrol as many students as they want. The more students a university was able to attract, the more funding they would receive via each student’s funding voucher.
This would benefit elite universities able to attract more students and funding and see less prestigious universities servicing working class or regional areas starved of resources.
Vouchers were first proposed in Australia in the Liberals’ failed 1993 election manifesto Fightback, and also flagged by the West review commissioned during Howard’s first term in office.
The vision of the hardline neo-liberals has always been a vouchers system where fees are deregulated, so that universities can set the fee for each course. This would mean students would need to pay whatever extra amount above their voucher entitlement the university set.
This would mean a completely free market in education and, inevitably, large fee increases.
A number of Vice-Chancellors want to see things move in this direction.
Just before the last election in mid-2007 the Group of Eight universities, the country’s elite sandstone, launched a plan calling for vouchers and full fee deregulation.
UNSW Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer responded to the Bradley review vouchers proposal by saying “Any voucher system should be phased in, and be linked to the gradual deregulation of student fees.”
The Bradley review recommends vouchers with a price cap, so that universities would be prevented from increasing fees. But accepting the principle of vouchers would pave the way for deregulation of prices down the track, since it entrenches competition between universities for student funding.
The Rudd government has not yet made clear whether it favours the introduction of vouchers, or whether it will back the review’s recommendations to improve university funding.
But students and staff can lay the basis for resisting future market based reforms and for demanding proper university funding by uniting behind the NTEU’s efforts to stop job cuts and to its campaign for decent pay and conditions for staff this year.
By James Supple