Universities face a savage wave of free market reforms following the budget. The Liberals’ aim is to force up student fees and create a two-tier system.
The elite Group of Eight universities will be able to charge over $100,000 for degrees, creating universities for the rich and a second-class education for the rest of us.
The Liberals have announced the complete deregulation of university fees, an extension of government funding to private providers and increased interest rates on students’ HECS debts.
Deregulating fees will allow universities to charge students whatever they like.
Professor Ross Milbourne, the Vice Chancellor at UTS, says this is likely to see the cost of degrees eventually rise to as much as $100,000 or $200,000. Debts this large will be a huge deterrent to students from working class backgrounds, all but excluding them from the prestigious universities.
A cut of 20 per cent in government funding for university places will see fees jump straight away as universities try to recoup the money as soon as deregulation begins in 2016.
For the first time, the average student contribution per Commonwealth Supported Place will be more than the government contribution, shifting the cost of education further onto students.
As usual, the changes are designed so that current students will not be affected until the end of 2020, in the hope of undermining student opposition.
The interest on HECS debts will also rise faster, with the introduction of market interest rates paid by the government rather than inflation. This could increase the interest rate from 2.9 per cent to as much as 6 per cent. So not only will tuition costs soar, so too will student debt.
Students already find themselves paying off tuition fees decades after they’ve graduated, an entrenched debt trap virtually unavoidable given that up to 40 per cent of jobs will require tertiary qualifications by 2020. The income threshold for beginning to repay HECS has also been lowered.
Government funding will now also be opened to TAFEs and private providers.
This means that universities will be forced to compete with other institutions for funding and students. Regional and outer suburban universities will be competing with cut-price teaching only providers, forcing a further reduction in the quality of education.
But the elite Group of Eight universities will be able to charge students a premium for studying there, especially in marketable courses like medicine and law. This means they will rake in new income to pay for sought after academics and facilities.
The result will be a more unequal university system, with the elite universities bastions of privilege only the rich can afford, and cut-price providers offering education on the cheap for the rest of us.
This is the most far-reaching attack on universities in years—but it can be fought. Abbott’s changes will not kick in until 2016, meaning there is time to organise a fight.
Even if Abbott gets his changes into law, the fee increases will still have to be implemented by Vice Chancellors at individual campuses across the country.
Student struggles have halted the introduction of fees and cutbacks in the past.
In 2012 students and staff at Sydney University fought against plans to sack 350 staff, saving almost half the jobs.
This was a campaign that organised both mass demonstrations as well as direct action such as lecture walk-outs and occupations.
Further away, tens of thousands of students in Quebec led a months long student strike that defeated a government intent on increasing student fees in 2012.
The recent protest on Q&A, where students interrupted Education minister Chris Pyne, tapped into a broader anger at education funding and the Abbott government.
And thousands of students across the country joined the national day of action held the week after the budget.
To build a movement we will need to organise a broad layer of students on an anti-cuts, anti-Abbott basis.
We need to build Education Action Groups on every campus to involve students in the campaign and take the arguments into every classroom about why we need a campaign prepared to take direct action to win.
By Danny Hardiman