The deregulation revolution in higher education

Julia Gillard recently announced the introduction of “demand driven” places at universities. Paddy Gibson spoke to Elly Howse, co-education officer of the Sydney University Student Representative Council on what the changes will mean for the quality of education and access at universities.What are the proposed reforms?
The deregulation of course places and the introduction of “demand-driven” student funding is supposed to encourage greater participation in the university sector. [But] if universities were to start deciding how many places they wanted to offer, we could see a massive increase in the number of Economics, Commerce and Law places offered to the detriment of other courses, purely because those courses like Nursing are less popular, create less money for the university and are viewed a “strain” on university resources.

What impact do you think this will have on the university sector?
In the short term, universities won’t have enough money to cope with the extra demand placed on the popular courses, so we’ll see even more ridiculous class sizes in Accounting, Business and Law.
The quality of our tertiary education is going to decrease rapidly if the government introduces deregulation without the extra funding needed to boost the number of people enrolled in universities. Universities will be pulling money out of any place they can to improve things in popular faculties. But universities like Sydney can’t cope with the extra demand. Many departments are already struggling with their budgets because the university has over-enrolled for 2009.
Long term, universities will be forced to become specialist institutions. Since the Howard government (actually I would even say since the Hawke government), universities have had to compete with each other over students, places, government money, whatever they can get, because they simply aren’t getting the funding they deserve from successive federal governments (Liberal OR Labor).
Deregulation will see smaller universities in rural and regional areas suffer the most. These universities are already struggling and many have had to downsize and specialise. These universities often cater for many students from low socio-economic backgrounds and also indigenous students—if the government is serious about improving access for these students, they have to start treating these universities with the respect they deserve.

What do you think this says about the Rudd government’s approach to higher education?
The Rudd government clearly has no real commitment to improving higher education in Australia. The ALP seems focused on pretending they’re not neo-liberals when really they seem to have completely forgotten the central tenets of socialism.
If they did care about education, they would be improving Youth Allowance, giving more money to universities for education and infrastructure, and not introducing some free-market business “solution” (sorry, “revolution”!) to the problem of skills shortages, professional shortages and inequity of access. And whatever happened to free education? It’s possible, but the government isn’t even going to give it the time of day.

How should the student movement respond to this?
Students really need to get out there. If we really care about our education, we’ve got to get out there at rallies, protests, petition signing days, creative actions, whatever it takes, to show the government that it needs to care about our education too.


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