After passing the lower house, the government’s higher education reforms are now set to be decided in the Senate in October.
While students will be riddled with debt, leaked modelling prepared for the Group of Eight (Go8) showed that elite universities might gain as much as half a billion dollars in one year from the changes.
It is no surprise then that Vice Chancellors from the Go8 have been lobbying for fee deregulation.
Vice Chancellors from the Regional Universities Network are now also supporting deregulation. Their position was cemented when Go8 universities said they would forfeit $20 million a year government funding for disadvantaged students to fund a regional scholarship program. This will further force poorer students out of the top universities.
Michael Spence, Vice Chancellor at Sydney University, was forced to hold a “town hall style” consultation meeting under pressure from the University Senate, students and staff. The meeting was clearly a farce as speakers were chosen in advance and the “consultation” came just days before the legislation hit parliament. Spence has never been interested in consultation. There was no consultation when he tried to cut 340 jobs in 2012, nor when he attacked staff pay and working conditions last year, or when he recently announced the redundancy of 156 library staff.
The 200-strong meeting showed the overwhelming opposition to fee deregulation. Only two speakers out of 26 spoke in favour of it, one a member of the Young Liberals.
Students, staff and community members spoke about how the reforms would disproportionately affect women, students from regional areas, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nick Riemer from the NTEU argued that the money exists to fund public education, telling him, “You should be using your influence to publicly oppose billions of dollars that could go to education being thrown instead at warplanes [and] at the persecution of refugees .”
An informal motion condemning the reforms, put to the crowd by student Ed McMahon, a director of the student union, was enthusiastically supported. Not one person had the gall to vote against it.
Yet the morning following the meeting, Spence flew to Canberra with other Go8 VCs to urge Pyne to push ahead with deregulation.
The student movement has the potential to stop the education reforms. But the Vice Chancellors are not our allies in defending quality, equitable education. We will have to fight them just as hard as we fight Abbott.
By Vivian Honan